How to build a shadow box for oil painting

Mark Carder’s professional still life set up is quite complex, but anyone can easily build their own still life box in order to paint from life.

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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 to control light and shadow even in a bright room.

Here at Evolve, students are taught to make a simple version of a still 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!

A simple example of an easy to build still life box.

What You Need to Build a Still Life Box

Materials:

- 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.

How to Build a Shadow Box for Oil Painting

Building a Shadow 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.

Ensure that you can see your still life box without leaning around your easel

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.

This desk lamp from Ikea is an excellent choice for your still life box

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.

Shadowbox set up by Julie Douglas

Conclusion

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.

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.

Ikea Work Lamp

Cardboard Box for Still life Box

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(3) comments

Lolly

Thanks very useful.

Reply
    Piper Talladay

    Hi Lolly!
    We are glad you enjoyed the post! Hopefully it helps you to build your own shadow box!
    -The Evolve Team

    Reply
      Lolly

      I built it on the weekend and have used it for a charcoal shapes drawing already. Thanks again.

      Reply
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