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A still life painting is one of the first things you learn how to paint in art class. Learning the proper still life painting techniques will help you master the fundamentals of art, whether you decide to move on to other styles such as portrait art, landscapes, or even abstract.
Still lifes are paintings that depict objects as they would appear in real life. Many artists start with the basics, using fruits or flowers to learn how to mix the perfect color and how to see the different shades as light hits each segment differently. You will often see paintings of lemons, apples, and pears as still life paintings, because the artist can study the different shades of yellows, reds, and greens that appear as the light of the room dances across the fruit.
If you’re ready to dive into painting and want to get started with your first still life, here are some things you should consider to make it a success.
Still Life Painting Techniques
We should start with basic definitions. Although we’re saying these are still life painting techniques – these are more of visual and creative techniques than mechanical techniques. This post isn’t about holding your brushes at a certain angle, or learning how to use a palette knife to create texture. These still life painting techniques are things to pay attention to, like color and light, tone and form, texture and depth. It’s not how to do it, it’s the how-to SEE it. Once you learn how to see it, you can do it in whatever way you choose.
Still Life painters focus on inanimate objects under a controlled light source, and even more than Landscape painting, portraiture, or figurative work, still life painting is a great way to practice, particularly because your subject-matter won’t move around.
Still Life paintings aren’t always vases, a bowl of fruit, or another floral painting. And even though you might not have a work of art after a still life is completed, a painter at any level will gain something from the practice of observation over a long period of time.
There are six still life painting techniques that might be missing from your work but are incredibly easy to correct, once you’re aware of them. These 6 things aren’t ALL your still life needs, but these are key components to any image, and you should always keep these concepts in mind, whether you’re trying to solve a problem with your still life paintings, or push your paintings to even greater depth and dimension.
Still Life Painting Materials
Before we dive into the still-life painting techniques, let’s take a second to talk about mediums and materials. You can create a still life using any medium, from watercolor to acrylics. If you want, you can also just use a pencil or charcoal to draw a still life.
Your canvas will be different depending on what type of paints you chose. You shouldn’t use watercolor paper for painting with acrylics, for example. Each medium also requires special paint brushes. You should be well versed in your chosen media and the specific materials required for working in that media.
The only thing special you need in creating your still life is an object or scene to paint, and a light source. You could use a desk lamp to create a warmer scene, or just the sunlight to create a natural scene.
Give Your Still Life a Personal Touch
We’re going to divide the key points into pairs and try to talk about the inter-relation between them all. Keep in mind, these aren’t hard and fast rules, they’re tools in your creative toolbox, more opportunities to express your own vision and make something unarguably unique, and unarguably yours. Because there is really only one rule in the art world. If you can’t do something no one else has, do it in a way that only you can do. It is the broadest of artist statements meant to allow a terrifying amount of freedom.
The 6 Still Life Painting Techniques You Need for an Epic Painting
Whether we like to admit it or not, the artist craves a measure of structure, as if hidden beneath our everyday outfits were other mouths with other hungers. Their feeding schedules become our structure, and our art the product of their momentary degree of satiation. So, it’s not such a terrible idea to remind ourselves of what it is that we crave, and channel that into our paintings, still life and otherwise.
Light and Color – Techniques 1 and 2
Light and color are the most important components to a still life painting. The simplest still lifes are meant to showcase the relationship between light and color, and to portray how one object which seems to be a single shade throughout, actually looks different depending on how the light reaches it.
If your still life setup doesn’t showcase the dynamic interplay between light and colr, then your still life painting likely won’t either. However, if you check out some of Cesar Santos’ work, you might find some brilliant ways one artist found of following the rules and breaking them all at once. After all, what is are if not expressive ways of highlighting and breaking the rules of society, structure, and even physics?
Why the Relationship between Light and Color Matters
Light and color are so closely related, and yet the art instruction world likes to divide these two sides of one coin in half. It’s a smart way of looking at light, in halves, because you get to appreciate what is essentially the relationship between dark and light, and warm and cool. While you can look at the world in one or the other, value or color, they’re inseparable when it comes to reality, and thus realism, and thus in your still life painting.
How to Manage the Relationship between Light and Color in Your Painting
So, we know the difference between light and dark. And we know that when the light is warm, the shadows appear both dark and cool. Or, when the light is cool, the shadows will appear both warm and dark. We know this from some of the great impressionist pioneers, who expressed their shadows with lavender and violet on hot summer days, regardless of how dark the shadows might have appeared in reality.
By now your intuition should have kicked in, and you realize that you’ve got to manage both light and color as two inter-related binary relationships. Sounds complicated right? I’ll help you break it down into a manageable blueprint.
Designing Your Light-to-Dark, Warm-to-Cool Color Palettes
At the absolute minimum, this is what you’re trying to accomplish. You must choose two distinct colors that will only be used on one side of the light/shadow relationship. So, in a simple way, if you have warm sunlight/candlelight/reflected light, take your red, or your yellow, or your orange, and only use that color in the lightest zones. And then, find a cool color, blue, green, purple, and relegate that color only to the shadows. Now that you’ve chosen where your painting divides, establish the lights and darks with any colors you feel fit the scenario, always keeping your two original tones separated from each other.
If you need help determining which colors you should focus on, conduct some research on color theory. Reference your color wheel to find complementary and contrasting colors.
Creating contrast doesn’t only apply to colors on the wheel. What it most accomplishes is, where those two mutually exclusive color pigments meet, at the division between light and shadow, the eye will there find both the highest contrast between light and dark, and between warm and cool, thereby breaking light and color into its four distinct components at the exact same points of intersection.
Create these contrasts, and no matter what else you do, you will have accomplished something that rings true to the natural behavior of light, guaranteeing that your creation exists in an image of reality recognizably like our own.
Where Light Meets Matter
Light and color don’t happen on their own. In fact, light and color don’t exist until they run into something. Think about space, full of stars, and near us, filled with light from the sun, only 8 minutes away, as light travels. And yet, space is infinitely dark, while a small secluded meadow behind your home, or in the wood across the way, seems filled with color, despite so little light reaching the place where it seems so enchanting. The point is, when light hits something, it fragments into its components. The components that lay on the visible light spectrum behave in a way that is very unlike the other wavelengths of radiation which are invisible to us.
Light’s Behavior Changes Because You’re Watching It
If a tree fell in the forest, would it make a sound, without anyone around to hear it? Or let’s be real, the question we want answered is whether or not there are things that happen for our benefit, or perhaps, as a result of our existence as witnesses. If you don’t believe this, you have only to do a simple search of the phrase “quantum theory” to discover this phenomenon is factual.
Now, before we all go starting a full-on religion based around worship of the light, we should mention that it’s been done in more than a few cultures. But it’s an interesting theme, regardless of the socio-religious ramifications you might personify in this strange behavior in the natural world.
The fact is, light makes beauty, plants, life, navigation, most science, most religion, and most existence, not only possible but probable, judging simply from the frequency of life as it has been observed to appear in this region of space.
But how to actually distinguish this compound duality with paint. The example we used before served as an oversimplification to point out that your shadows, your occluded voids of direct light tend to behave in direct contrast to both light and color dualities at once. So you want to keep this in mind while developing your palette in advance.
Coming Up with a Color/Value Strategy
One of the best techniques is to map out your color/value strategy. Assign your lowest 5 values to the shadow areas, and your lightest 5 values to the lightest. From there it’s just a matter of remembering to balance how light or dark your values are, with the color temperature you find in your environment. I guess it still sounds complex, but really, if your values are right, it barely matters what colors you use. But just keep in mind the way color and temperature work in tandem with value to tell a story about how light is behaving in the scene.
Form and Tone – Still Life Painting Techniques 3 and 4
We spent a lot of time on light and color but didn’t talk too much about the still life itself. Form and tone refer to interesting gradations of light and the balance of bright lights with plenty of dynamic contrast. Dynamic contrast is a musical term that nevertheless helps us to talk about the visual aesthetic.
Imagine a cube that sits on the table beside a sphere of equal size. While the cube may express volume, the sphere has form. The sphere has a turning quality of shape, a shape whose entirety possesses the beauty that the cone or cylinder only enact in part. To put it simply, the sphere entirely exposes itself and hides itself, and expresses its form by both coming forward and falling away at any and all points on its surface. That is what is meant by form, and can teach all you need to know about the behavior of light, and the eye’s adjustment to include, rather than exclude, the lack thereof of light, since the description of anything, must also be the description of everything it isn’t.
Interesting forms give light something to play with, and with a careful variety of objects, light can be shown off on these forms and the resulting color tones as light is reflected back at the observer.
Texture and Depth – The Final Two Still Life Painting Techniques
These last two are pretty straightforward, choosing objects that have contrasting textures, and making sure to balance the depth of your still life by having some objects pushed into the background.
Beginners may want to start with just one object, like a fruit. This will help them master the techniques with color and light. You will notice that this ties into the techniques with light and dark, as the fruit will tend to be lighter in the foreground, and darker in the background (depending on where you place your light source).
Once you get that down, then you should start experimenting with texture and depth. Texture brings things to life, while depth gives the impression that your painting is three-dimensional, which makes it more life-like.
You can start with something simple, like a bouquet of flowers. The flowers in the background will give it depth, and the various flower types and components, along with the vase itself, offer a variety of different textures for you to experiment with.
Putting It All Together
So, to summarize, you need to master the still life painting techniques surrounding light, color, form, tone, texture, and depth. Keep in mind that we’re talking about contrast and differences in each of these categories. Set up your light source so that your subjects and their shadows create an interesting contrast. Include objects with color-planning in mind, and balance those saturated color tones around your still life setup.
Choose objects that have interesting forms as well, and with every change, step back and check your still life for a balance of color tones, and try not to overwhelm your painting with too-vibrant color tones. Select some objects with plenty of varying textures, some smooth, some rough, and look for ways to mimic those textures with paint. Finally, make sure there are objects that receive less light by being pushed to the back of your still life. It’s key to keeping your still life painting from coming off 2-dimensionally.
Creating Your Still Life Masterpiece
These still life painting techniques are really the components you need to tie your still life together. Mastering these techniques will not only make you a better still life painter, but it will help you with figure painting, landscape painting, painting portraits, and any other type of artistic expression that you choose to delve into. Learning to paint still lifes is how you learn to paint everything else. So use these techniques, master them, and then get some ideas for what else you should be painting!