In order to work from direct observation, every artist will need to create something called a shadow box. Also called a “still life box”, this easy to build box will help control light and shadow even in a bright room.
Here at Evolve, students are taught to make a simple version of a still life box so that they can paint from direct observation in the comfort of their own homes.
Easy and affordable to build and use, shadow boxes can create a fantastic environment to place objects for still life paintings. Keep reading to find out how to build your own!
What You Need to Build a Still Life Box
- Cardboard Box to create Shadow Box: 24" Length x 18" Width x 18" Depth (Approximately: 61cm Length x 46cm Width x 46cm Depth)
The box can be purchased from Lowe's, but any box will do - it's just a cardboard box.
- Duct Tape
- X-Acto / Utility / Boxcutter Knife
Can't find these materials in your country?
The box is simply a cardboard box, so do your best to find a box of approximately the same dimensions. It does not need to be exact, but try to get one that roughly fits the same cube shape so the box can remain study to hold the lamp on top and give you enough room to easily place objects inside.
** Please be careful when cutting with box cutters**
If you are not comfortable with using a knife like this, always cut away from yourself so if the knife slips it will travel away from your body.
Building a Still Life Box
Once you have all of your materials, you can begin to build your shadow box. First, tape along the edges of the box with duct tape. This will help to support the edges, making the box stronger so a small lamp can sit on top of the box without causing it to collapse. The box should be completely closed at this point, a cube.
Once that has been finished, find any openings or holes for handles and make sure that they are on the top or upper side of the box. They will act as openings to insert your light into later on. Find what side will become the front of your still life box, ensuring that the backside does not have any openings or holes that light can shine through.
Next, use the box cutters to carefully cut a large, square opening on the front of your box, leaving the cardboard connected at the bottom. Make your cut at least 2-3 inches to the inside of the edges of the box. This will help to control the light that comes into your still life box. Fold the cardboard into the still life box, acting as a floor. The bottom of the box can be painted a darker color, to provide some diversity.
Where to Place a Still Life Box
Once your box is assembled, you can set it on a table or stool. You want the objects inside the box to be roughly at eye height when you sit at your easel. Place the shadow box no closer than four feet to your easel. This will allow you to clearly measure and see what is in your box.
When you sit at your easel and chair, you should be looking into the box over your non-dominate shoulder. So if you paint with your right hand, you should look to the left to see your shadow box. Ensure that it sits in clear view of your seat, not blocked by the easel in any way. You should easily view the contents of the still life box without leaning around your easel.
Once this is in place, you can begin to light your still life.
How to Light a Still Life
Once your still life box is set up, you can place a small lamp on top of the box, shining in and onto your objects. Because of the reinforced corners, the box will easily support the weight of a small lamp.
The light does not have to sit too near to the object. Look for even lighting of all of the objects in the box. Aim to place 2/3s of your objects in the light and ⅓ of your objects in the shadow. This will ensure an even and balanced still life.
This set up will give you control over shadows and lights. If you find light bouncing off the back of the box filling the shadows, you can adjust that simply by tipping the light down so that there's no light bouncing off of the background. The goal is total control of the light. If you place your objects on a table without controlled lighting, every light in the room would affect it.
Here at Evolve, we recommend a small LED desk lamp to light your still life. Ikea makes a lovely, affordable desk lamp that can easily be adjusted.
To learn more about light and shadows, make sure to visit our post on the fundamentals of painting.
Final Thoughts on Building a Still Life Box
Building a working still life box is quite simple, and it will enable you to paint from life. Here at Evolve our students paint from both life and photographs. They alternate from direct observation paintings and painting from a photograph each assignment, so having a shadow box is an important addition to their toolbox. For more information on still life compositions, make sure to check out our post on how to compose a beautiful still life painting.
Additionally, the ability to control their lights and shadows makes their direct observation compositions much stronger.
Proper lighting is crucial to a successful still life. Without the ability to control the light, it is difficult to gauge proper colors or values. Search for a lamp with a very tight cone of light like the Ikea LED Work Lamp. If you use a light with a standard bulb it will not give you the crisp sharp shadows like the Ikea lamp and will make seeing the shadows more difficult.
As your skills develop you will be able to work with any lighting situation, without a still life box, but in the beginning it's better to keep things simple so you can focus on applying the technique.
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Thanks very useful.
We are glad you enjoyed the post! Hopefully it helps you to build your own shadow box!
-The Evolve Team
I built it on the weekend and have used it for a charcoal shapes drawing already. Thanks again.
Regarding the Ikea light, wouldn’t there be an issue because it uses a “warm” 3000K light, especially if you are using a 5000K light in your studio?
The Ikea light, meant for our still life box, makes little difference. We will paint what we see, so a slightly warm or cool bulb will just force those colorations.
The light that really matters is what is above our painting. The painting itself needs color correct lighting. However, the way you light your still life box can vary depending on preference!
I don't get where the lamp goes. what about the inside of the box? paint it? leave it cardboard?
Great question! The lamp can sit on top of the box, but you’ll cut a hole on the top or side for the neck of the lamp to come through. And you can either leave the inside of the box unpainted or you can spray paint it black or another neutral color!
-Piper & the Evolve Team
I am currently rebuilding my studio space and would love to know the measurements of the "sidekick" table with built-in bin. Is there a description somewhere to be found?
Unfortunately, these tables are custom-built by Kevin! But I believe they are about 18″x24″ on top and roughly 2ft tall. Hopefully that helps you find something in the same size range =)
This is helpful thank you, I can finally practice still life’s and apply them for my oil paintings. Can this still apply with any medium too?
We’re glad this article was helpful! Yes, you can use a shadow box to paint from life with oils, acrylic, water color, or any other medium!
The Evolve Team
I'm confused. What does 24 inches deep mean? Is the top of the box 24 inches above the bottom of the box as it sits on the table? And thus are the dimensions of the box on the table 16 by 16 inches? Or is the 24 inch dimension from the opening to the back?
The 24-inch depth is the front opening of the box to the back! But keep in mind that any box with similar dimensions will work just fine =)
Piper & the Evolve Team