Bringing still life to life

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Richard Vernon Goetz (1915-1991) was born in Tennessee but lived most of his life in Oklahoma, becoming an important artist and influential teacher for more than 50 years. He worked in several genre but his main interest and best work was focused on still life. Living during the worldwide artistic revolution of abstract expressionism, Goetz firmly held to the belief that painting is one of the highest forms of aesthetic self-expression, and therefore can be a meaningful mode of communication. He was saddened that a lack of solid technical training, among young artists, was producing “bizarre and unorthodox materials and forms.” (Click images to enlarge)

Richard Vernon Goetz


“Without solid training, a painter will lack the ability to communicate to his audience in an understandable way.” That lack, Goetz believes, has tended to “rob the art world of its standards and prompted the viewer to mistake works that are merely different for authentic examples of creativity.”

Goetz was a figurative, landscape, and still life painter but believed in appropriating the abstract forms found in nature to create shapes and patterns of color that conveyed an understandable message. He did that particularly well when painting still life, so I want to share with you some of his thoughts concerning still life painting, as excerpted from the March 1969, American Artist magazine that featured his work.


“When arranging the still life, one should always concentrate on shapes, colors, lines, rhythms and undulations the objects make, without thinking in terms of storytelling. However, when possible, it is better to use related objects, studying many paintable items to find the near exact element needed for the composition as a whole. I usually spend more time on arrangement and composition than on painting, trying to create as much as possible in the grouping itself, without hesitating to change colors or forms in getting a better composition or a desired effect while painting.”


“Lighting has a particularly important effect on composition, especially in establishing a mood. The big elements of the composition can be controlled by light, as much as the objects selected for the composition. Areas may be placed in shadow by erecting a screen to obstruct the light, evoking emphasis and drama. The angle and direction of light can also control the amount of form you wish to give objects, a light coming from the side will give more form than a light coming from the front.

“Light coming from a large window will give a soft effect. When the source is a smaller area, such as a single light bulb, the edges will be more clearly defined and the contrasts greater. The combination of artificial and natural light gives a still different effect.”


“As I am arranging a still life setup, I begin to sketch the big patterns of lights and darks on a piece of charcoal paper, using the flat side of a large stick of charcoal and white chalk. In this manner I am able to work out the large abstract patterns of lights and darks, lines, movements, space relations, undulations, and all the other elements of composition. I usually work out the general idea of the composition in the setup before working with the charcoal and chalk and, as something is added or changed, I work it into the composition on the charcoal paper.”

Goetz experimented often with various brushes, painting techniques, mediums, and painting supports. He believed this should be done until one finds that which responds best to their temperament, ideas, and gives the desired effect. “Over and over one sees articles or books dealing with the secret formulas of the old masters. The secret was probably in the rigid training and hard work they went through, because we certainly have a greater variety of materials to work with now than they had.”


Surprisingly, Goetz had a minimum of 25 oil colors on his palette. He believed a limited palette complicated color mixing, because, for example, it is simpler to pick up green than to mix blue and yellow together. The more colors you use, the greater variety you can attain, while reducing the mixing time. He did believe however that the beginner should use fewer colors at the start; then, as he becomes familiar with the various colors, continue adding a greater variety to his palette.


‘I believe that the French impressionists made the only great contribution to art since the time of the Dutch masters, but they were also responsible for the loss of craftsmanship in painting. If craftsmanship could be regained and added to the great lessons of color and light of the impressionists, together with the new ideas and inventiveness of contemporary painters, art would take a significant step forward.’


Once the composition was thoroughly worked out and transferred to the canvas, Goetz added a tone to canvas or panel and wiped out the light areas with a rag. That served as the first lay-in of paint, and required only a few minutes. “This method should not be confused with some of the elaborate underpainting methods of the past, but should be regarded as a simple and effective way to make a final check on composition, obtaining a clear image of what the finished painting will be like, and controlling the accuracy of the first colors applied.” By using this method, he was able to reduce the amount of time needed for painting a picture.

“The tone can be any color, but raw umber is usually best. If you want a low-keyed painting, more tone can be left on, while a thinner coat is left for a high-keyed painting. Warmth and coolness of the painting may be controlled by using burnt sienna for a warmer effect, or Terre Verte for a cooler one.”


“In the preliminary steps of drawing and toning you may include too much detail and finish; so, to restrain this tendency, paint-in the largest masses, eliminating all detail and minor color changes. The painting should always start with the largest masses of color. If possible, simplify an object by dividing it into two masses – light and shadow. The masses of color must always be related to each other and seen in terms of the light conditions under which you are painting. This is the lesson learned from the French impressionists, especially Monet.

“Our natural tendency is to see things in terms of local color, not in terms of light. Overcoming this inclination is one of the most challenging aspects of painting. It requires study of how light affects mass, exaggerating the color of light and lessening the local color, until we begin to see color as it actually is under certain light conditions. Our job as artists is not to see things as the layman does, but to develop a visual perception so that we can sensitively interpret the true color of light.

“Indoor painting will require only three basic kinds of light: artificial, sunny, and overcast. Out-of-doors you get many more light changes, but they are easier to see. It is therefore much better to study color by painting out-of-doors, where the effect of light on objects is more obvious, before trying the more difficult and subtle indoor effects. A simple still life set up in full sunlight is best to start with, followed by the less obvious gray day study, and finally, an indoor arrangement.

“After the lay-in of the painting in its basic masses, I proceed to the next step – breaking down the masses into secondary changes, with two or three divisions in each general mass. From there on I subdivide each color into smaller changes, until the painting is carried to the degree of finish I wish to present.”


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