Why Still Life?

Among many other things, I’ve been asked numerous times why I paint still life? Why not landscapes? Why not figurative or narrative works? Why not florals? My answer is always the same – “because I enjoy it!”

Still life work is not for everyone, whether it is the artist or the collector. As with any artwork, your subject matter must interest you or its not going to be successful. Lack of interest will show in your work whether you realize it or not.

Working in the still life genre has its advantages. You are in complete control of your subject matter. You don’t have to wait for a sunny day or a change in season. You don’t have to deal with finicky personalities whether it’s human or animal. You can set up your composition any way you like and you can stage the lighting however you want. No need to wait for the sunlight to shine through that one specific window that only happens between 3:00 to 4:00 for one week during summer!

Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh

So where do you start? Like everything else; with something simple. Choose one to three items that interest you. Start with simple shapes and textures and paint them to approximate life size. Starting with very small objects can be tricky with pastels if you want to create a representational depiction.

Composition is very important when setting up a compelling still life. At least some of the objects should relate to each other, everything should play its part in the story you want to tell. Remember the design principle of repetition with variation; have similar but different objects, similar but different shapes, or similar but different colors. Arrange the objects in a manner that will lead the viewer’s eye throughout the painting. Don’t line up objects like soldiers; overlap items and vary the distance between items. Be very aware of the negative space that the arrangement makes. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting halfway through a painting before you realize you have an oddly shaped negative space that draws attention no matter what you do!

How you light your set up will also have a big impact on how your painting looks. Think about you are trying to say and how you want to say it before you set up your lighting. Do you want it dark and moody, light and contemporary, or something in between? Typically still lifes are light from top left but there aren’t any rules that say you must do so. Try lighting from different directions and different intensities. One thing to avoid though is using more than one light source.


Whether you work from life or from photographs, still life can fully accommodate it. Due to my studio layout, I work from photographs as it isn’t feasible to leave them set up from a time and space perspective. I take numerous photographs of my set up as it helps me to refine the design and see areas that may be producing unwanted shapes or shadows. I continue adjusting my set up until I’m happy with it but there are still numerous times when I’m in the middle of a painting when I realize something isn’t quite right and must be changed.

Even if you don’t like the still life genre, it is still a worthwhile exercise to do them on occasion. They will strengthen your observation and drawing skills. Your ability to spot design flaws will increase. Your color sense will improve. All these skills are directly transferrable to painting other subjects and you will start to see improvements in your other work. Give still life a try – you may end up liking it!

PAC President – Kathy Hildebrandt