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How to make a still life interesting?

I can’t remember how exactly I stumbled into still life work, but I’ve been doing it for almost 2 years now and it’s not a direction I ever anticipated taking with my work. They started as studies, just something to get me used to painting with gouache, but now it’s something I put a lot of time and effort into and is something I really enjoy.

Lately I’ve really been struggling, mentally, with this, and my problem is -and I have no idea where I got this notion- that still life paintings are not “gallery art”; that they’re not “real art”; that they’re something to do while you’re waiting for your gigantic, elaborate figure paintings to dry. And it’s just not true, I know it’s not, but it doesn’t help stifle the doubt in my mind or the little voice telling me that it’s a waste of time.

So what I want to hear from you guys is:

To you, what makes a still life worth looking at? Is it subject matter? Technique? Color?

How do you pick what to put in your still life paintings?

How do you make a still life interesting and unique?


What are YOUR struggles with still life painting?

This is a good set of questions and I’d also be interested in the replies, since I’ve only recently been trying out still life subjects myself.
When looking at other people’s work I often like the unusual viewpoints; a view from above, or very close-up. I have personal favourites, like jugs and anything glass; also fruit and veg. Technique doesn’t matter so much to me, I rather like some of the graphic styles as well as traditional detailed.
What to pick for painting a still life…I’m still learning that part, it can be difficult, although I sometimes feel that using fewer objects is better than lots…especially on a 6x6 board. Shadows are important, I think, if they can be made to play a role in the painting; and linking the objects together somehow, via colour, or reflections. Also, the space between objects plays a part in creating balance.

I struggle with the initial sketch-out, trying to fit things in…regularly have to change the size of my panel before starting to paint. Even then, things can go wrong. Backgrounds too I battle with, trying to make them look acceptable without dominating the picture. And ellipses! All those cups, plates and jam-jars! :grinning:

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Composition composition composition - I think composition is key to still life painting - I can take ages setting one up and I’ve even given up and taken it apart after struggling with it for a long time. You should get excited when you get the composition right…a little buzz. Maybe this is because the composition looks unique to you, or the balance between the objects is perfect. And of course colour, and how you use it, is massively important too.

Lighting plays a massive part in a good composition too - flat lighting is ultimately uninteresting.
At the end of the day, as mentioned, the still life you are about to paint should excite you, rather than being a collection of objects.
Good examples of still life painting can be seen here - I think they’re well executed:

There are many different ways to set up still lifes, and I agree, that it should excite you. My taste is small, simpler comps with limited items. One person I admire greatly is Carol Marine, she has composition down! Just love them. She has an artbyte tutorial here about composition.

I also love Brian Burt, many of his are just one item and I am attracted to that as well.

I’ve heard said that beginners usually zoom too close to objects without giving them room to breathe. Idk about that, I still zoom in a bit and like it that way.

I have learned (but haven’t got down yet!) to vary edges, colors, brushstrokes, item size, but still keep the piece harmonious. Haha. Not well said, but you know what I mean right?

I imagine I will always be learning and changing up the way I set them up.

Ugh, yes, ellipses! They look so simple but are somehow so hard to get right.

What sizes do you typically use for still life, other than 6x6? 5x7 is my go-to, but I would like to start going a little larger.

Yes! I totally get the “buzz” when I find a good composition. I do a lot of the same lighting…maybe it’s time to go lamp shopping!

Sarah Sedwick’s work is beautiful! Elena Katsyura and Neil Carroll are two of my other favorite still-life painters here.

Carol Marine is the bomb.com! I even have one of her books. Thanks for pointing me to Brian Burt - I really like his work!

I also like to zoom in on my compositions - I always start with the most interesting part and work outwards from there. I definitely know what you mean about keeping the harmony.

Well I haven’t done that many still lifes in oils at the moment (or indeed in anything else); there are some 8x8’s in my gallery and also a 10x10 pastel; I tend to work fairly small anyway so I wouldnt generally choose to go much over, say, 12x10. It’s more to do with my time availability than anything else; I might be lucky and get 3 hours’ working on a painting, after that I feel clapped out.:sweat::sweat: