Monday, 15 November 2010

The Objects in My Still Life Painting Look Flat

The still life artist may encounter problems with making objects look three dimensional. Vessels look flat, shadows look like holes and the fruit do not appear to inhabit three dimensional space. How can the artist paint a still life that suggests weight and mass within the painting?

Common Problems with Painting a Still Life

Tips on Still Life Art
Rachel Shirley
A still life often contains a diversity of objects, with different forms, textures and hues. In such cases, any manner of things could go wrong with a still life, but here is a list of the most common issues with still life painting.

Objects with ellipses such as vases, cups, urns, saucers, eggcups, teapots and wine glasses can be a real headache for novice artists, as the ellipses follow obscure rules. Ellipses are such a common problem I have dedicated a separate article to it.

  • Reflections on shiny objects and distortions through transparent items such as glass may end up looking muddled due to confusion regarding reflections, shadows and refractions.
  • Expressing shadows as black with defined edges, making the still life painting appear to contain “holes.”
  • Allowing the light source to fall directly onto the objects, making them appear flat.
Still Life Objects in 3D Space

The beginner will benefit from keeping the still life setting simple, consisting of three objects or so. Glass, fruit and china presents different challenges for the artist when it comes to reflections and distortions. In such cases, forget what the objects are and break the setting down into an abstract jigsaw of shapes and colors. More about how to paint glass and reflections can be found on a link at the foot of this article.

How to Make a Still Life Look 3D

Placing the objects near a window and orientating the setting at ninety degrees from the light source will create an interesting interplay of light and shadow over the objects. Look out for odd-shaped shadows that pool over the table or over nearby objects.

How to Paint Shadows on Objects

One of the secrets to recreating form in still life objects is reflected light. Reflected light is light bouncing from a reflective surface into areas of shadow. Reflected light may illuminate shadow with many colors, including violets, blues or creams.

Bizarrely, the darkest part of an object is not always the part that points directly away from the light source, but an area that avoids that light and the reflected light. If this sounds complicated, take a look at my painting of the pestle and mortar. Streaks of light can be found within the shadowed area. This is due to light bouncing back from the illuminated table. Looking out for reflected light will create an effective still life study of objects.

Oil Painting Techniques for Shadows

Shadows are not just black, but contain different colors, as in the case of reflected light. Rather than darken the color of terracotta with black for example, darken it with the opposing color. Terracotta being red can be darkened with a bluish pigment. Look out for other unlikely colors in shadows. Sensitive observation will also reveal that the outlines of shadows are not always definite, but can be blurred. The same rules apply to highlights, which are not always white and can take on different forms.

Guide to Still Life Painting

Sitting too close to the still life painting for long periods will often lull the artist into a sense of complacency. Standing back will provide a rude awakening to hidden issues. For this reason, it is always wise to stand ten feet away and to compare the composition with the artwork. Turning the painting upside down or viewing it through a mirror will reveal hidden errors.

Techniques for Oil Painting a Still Life

Classic Still Life Painting: A Contemporary Master Shows How to Achieve Old Master Effects Using Today's Art Materials
Still Life Painting Techniques
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A combination of glazing oil paint and detail can be used to illustrate delicate shadows within a still life oil painting. Begin by simplifying the areas of light and shadow into basic blocks of color and tone. Half closing the eyes will cut out irrelevant detail. Don’t forget to look out for reflected light.

Apply the paint as though it will be the final layer and let it dry. Don’t worry about imperfections; a subsequent glaze of oil paint can be used to smooth these out. A soft sable or rag is ideal for creating smooth gradations in paint. A further glaze can be applied, and if necessary, neat paint for illustrating highlights and for neatening selected areas.

Links to Further Advice on Still Life Painting

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