How to Compose a Successful Still Life Painting

An elegant, well composed still life makes for a beautiful painting. Here are a few tips to getting the perfect composition! (Photo by Suffolk Open Studios)

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Still life painting has always been a popular artistic subject. However, when it comes to creating a successful still life, many artist’s compositions fall flat.

Along with painting skills, artists must have an understanding of composition, and creating an appealing and balanced still life can be difficult at first. Composition simply refers to the structure of a still life, from color and value, to the path the viewer's eye takes as they look at the painting. 

Painting a still life from direct observation is a crucial skill, and composing a proper still life can be the deciding factor between a strong or a weak painting. No matter your skills, a weak composition will hold your painting back. So whether you’re a beginner or simply wish to brush up on your still life composition, these easy tips will help set up your still life for success!

"Still Life with a Curtain" by Paul Cézanne is a beautiful example of balance and variety. (Photo by the State Hermitage Museum)

Finding Balance

Most artists can recognize a well-composed still life painting. It simply feels balanced. But what is it that makes the painting feel balanced?

One way to make your still life is visually appealing and balanced is to follow the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is quite common in photography and helps to add balance and tension to a piece of art. By dividing your focus area or canvas horizontally and vertically into three sections and then aligning areas of focus on the intersections of those lines, you can create balance in a still life.

The rule of thirds can help the viewers to find a focal point in the painting. (Photo by Debra Pero)

Avoiding unintentional repetition will also help to create a strong still life. If you are careful to choose objects of differing sizes and arrange them in a way that breaks up any excessive patterns, you will have a good start to a visually interesting and not overly repetitive painting. 

Vincent van Gogh's "Irises", 1890 Oil on canvas, is a beautiful example of analogous color. (Photo by the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Consider Color

Another important part to a well composed still life painting is color. Certain color combinations are pleasing to the eye depending on where they fall on a basic color wheel. Choosing objects with thought to their color and the way that color interacts with the rest of the composition is a crucial part of composing your still life. 

There are three main color schemes that beginner painters can consider as they compose their still lives. Complementary colors are colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green or blue and orange.

An example of ​complementary colors.

Claude Monet's "Water Lilies", provides another, beautiful example of analogous colors in a painting. 


Analogous colors are colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and green or green and blue. These color compositions often feel very balanced and natural. 


You might also consider a triad of colors, which consists of three hues equally distant from each other on the color wheel. An example might be violet, orange, and green. 

This painting utilizes a triad of colors, giving it balance in hue.

Lighting your still life properly is crucial. (Photo by Andrea Minoia)

Proper Lighting

Proper lighting in your still life painting is crucial to a successful piece, as it can improve or ruin a composition. When you are setting up the light for your studio, consider a single source of light, preferably coming at your objects from the side. 

Once your light is in place, make sure that it is strong enough to make clear distinctions between light and shadow. If you cannot tell the difference between a light and a shadow in your composition, you may need a stronger light. 

Ensure that your composition is made up of mostly light, following the 2/3s light and ⅓ shadow technique to ensure a well light composition. 

As you set up the still life, experiment with different light solutions. Light can change a composition dramatically, so play with the angle of the light to create shapes with shadows, transforming the composition of your still life. 

A beautiful still life painted by David Cheifetz.  

Conclusion

Composing a still life painting can feel daunting at first, but by considering color, balance, and ensuring your objects are well lit, you can create a beautiful painting. 

Remember to pick objects that fall within your direct observation skills, not pushing yourself too far out of your skill level as you learn. By keeping it simple at first and considering these few tips, you will be well on your way to making elegant, compositionally powerful still life paintings. 

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(1) comment

Suzanne

Thank you for sharing this information! it is interesting to learn all the different factors that an artist needs to consider when setting up a still life.

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