Exploring Still Life Painting

It has been a busy week and the posts have suffered a little but things should be picking up soon. In the mean time I’ve been thinking about still life painting.

My own personal attitude about still life has changed quite dramatically. At one point I think I had the same view as a lot of people that still life was just some stuff on a table. Now I’ve come to look at it as more than just a recording of what was in front of you but as a way to explore themes, styles, and meanings of life.

Still Life with Salmon and Lemons by Luis Melendez
Still Life with Salmon and Lemons by Luis Melendez

This still life is from the golden age of Spanish still life painting and is done in the Bodegon style. It comes from the Spanish word bodega, meaning tavern, because the subjects are usually objects that could be found in a kitchen or tavern such as fruit and vegetables, board games and dressed animals. Melendez actually didn’t want to explore great themes but concentrated on using ordinary things to make beautiful compositions. He was also a forerunner to Realism a painting movement that was controversial since it painted things and people as they were, and didn’t cover up or hide the faults of the world.

Vanitas by Pieter Claesz 1630
Vanitas by Pieter Claesz

About a hundred years before Melendez the Dutch artists had a thriving still life market. Still lifes were painted for several reasons, one of which was as a kind of advertisement of skill so that people would know that they could paint different textures and lighting conditions well. They also were glorying in the success of the newly wealthy middle class who had become the main art buyers of the time since it was a largely Protestant area and the Catholic church was no longer the chief patron of art. But most also had a moral comment on life to remember that even with all of life’s pleasures, downfall was always present and death came for everyone. The theme was called Vanitas, coming from the word vanity as a reminder against becoming or being conceited, and was often represented by a skull, broken glass, or a peeled lemon since even something that looks sweet can be bitter.

Still Life with Drinking Horn by Willem Kalf
Still Life with Drinking Horn by Willem Kalf

Still lifes were also done simply to show off interesting objects, or to show exotic objects that only the wealthy could afford. But often by painting the objects the artist created another object more valuable than the original objects themselves.

Four Cans by Christopher Thornock
Four Cans by Christopher Thornock

Current still life painting seems to run the gamut from paintings with meaning to simply liking the way the object looks. This painting by Christopher Thornock seems to combine the ideas of painting an object he finds interesting but also as a means to explore lighting, composition, and paint handling.

Olives by Sarah Lamb
Olives by Sarah Lamb

As a whole, I think that still life painting is a good measuring stick of the art of its time. Right now I believe that the state of painting is approaching a period where all styles and themes will coexist and people will champion different camps, but that there will never again be a universal or semi-universal standard. And I believe that still life painting will still be there quietly acting as a reflection and anchor of our many paths.

Christopher Thornock Art

Sarah Lamb Paintings

Basics: Painting – Understanding Value

The best most accurate painting in the world is merely an interpretation. This is because paint has limitations.

White paint is the brightest that any artist can get, and yet when you look at white paint we are not blinded as we would be if we looked at the sun or a welding arc. Similarly, black paint is as dark as paint can go and yet when we look at it we do not mistake it for the depth of blackness found in a cave.

If we say that real sight has a value range of 1 to 100, (with 1 being the absolute absence of light and 100 being pure white light) then the value range available for paint would be something like 10 to 40.

So, what can the artist do when he needs to represent the world and limitations beyond his control prevent him from doing that?

The artist must translate what he sees or imagines into the value range that is available to him. A good way to begin a painting then, would be to establish the lightest and darkest spots on the canvas first. After your lightest and darkest spots are found you can then make comparisons with all of your other values and build up the range between.

A trick used by almost every artist wishing to get accurate values is the squint method. With natural vision your eyes will dilate to see as much information as they can. When you look at a dark area your eyes will let in more light so you can see better, but since the dilation of your eyes has changed you no longer see the same value difference as you did while looking into the light areas. By squinting your eyes you prevent your eyes from focusing on one specific area and instead see an overall view of the scene before you. This means that your eyes choose an average dilation for both the darks and lights and so you can see more accurate value relationships.

Unfortunately when it comes to paint this means we will have to make hard choices. Sometimes we will not be able to get the exact color we see with our eyes since to make it dark or light enough we will have to sacrifice some of the color’s hue or intensity. This is also why holding up a color in front of a scene to match the color should be used more as a guide than as something to match colors as we will run out of value range long before we can match everything exactly.

Get Expert Advice on Figure Painting and Landscapes

What sounds like an awesome workshop to teach the academic approach to figure painting and the methods of landscape painting is coming up in August. It will feature some of the best teachers and artists from the top three academies in the world. The workshop is being hosted by The Center for Academic Study and Naturalist Painting, an atelier founded by Ryan S. Brown in Springville, Utah.

It will run for four weeks and the prices sound reasonable for such concentrated learning.

Ryan’s painting A Painters Inspiration is also down at the Spring Salon at the Springville Museum right now. You can see a preview of it on his website but you really should see it in person. It is monumental and worth taking the drive!

Workshop details

Ryan S Brown Art

Painting Outside (Finally!)

plein air gear

This spring has started me cursing Mother Nature, weather guessers, and anything else that I can possible blame the extremely wet and gray weeks on. It seems that every day I’ve tried to go out and paint it’s either snowed, hailed, rained, or all three.

So, I was really happy to see a little bit of sun today, even if the temperatures never got into the 50’s, and I spent most of the day hanging out on the side of a mountain.

I went to Dry Canyon near Lindon, Utah, a spot I’ve never been to before. I found it by looking at pictures people posted on Panaramio. (This is my new favorite way to scout a location without knowing anything about it.) When I arrived I was the only person there for about an hour and I explored a little by bushwacking down to the supposed-to-be-dry creek bed which had a torrent of running water. (I hope that lets you know how wet it’s been, it is named Dry Canyon after all.) I also walked up the trail about a half mile and saw some cool spots with overhanging cliffs called The Blue Gates, but on coming back down to gather my gear I stepped over to the side of the foot of the mountain and saw this composition which I thought was better.

Mouth of dry canyon
Mouth of Dry Canyon

I was thinking of showing a little demo but I got caught up in painting and I forgot to take more pictures, so I only got the lay in, the halfway mark, and where I called it a day.

For the lay in I tried Stapleton Kearns’s trick of using cobalt violet. It makes a lot of sense since cobalt violet is not a strong color and can be easily painted over or mixed in without affecting later colors, and as the one-of-a-kind Mr. Kearns pointed out in one of his posts, it’s great for underpainting shadows.

dry canyon painting lay in

I took a different approach than I usually do this time. Usually I like to tint the whole board to get rid of the white but this time I built down from the top with color leaving unpainted areas white. I can’t say I recommend this approach as judging colors becomes harder.

After the wind knocked over my umbrella and tripod four times, even with my paints hanging from it to lower the center of gravity, I gave up on the umbrella and just squinted a lot as the sun reflected up at me.

This is a little farther along than half way but it was about halfway time wise. At this point I’m trying to just get the right colors in the general shape and place they belong. I’ll have to come back later to refine them a bit more. I stopped for a quick lunch, (sharp white cheddar sandwich yum!) and that’s when I remembered I hadn’t taken a photo in a while.

dry canyon painting halfway finished

In the middle of all of this random cars started driving up to the dead end dirt parking lot a couple hundred yards below me and driving through mud puddles and doing donuts in the dirt and then driving off. When the first car started doing this I though some crazy guy had stolen a car and was out for a joy ride, but then more and more cars came one at a time and I didn’t know what to think. My best guess is that it must be some sort of local spot to go off road, or maybe the best car wash in town is run by a dirt Nazi and he won’t wash your car unless it’s really dirty.

By this time my feet started hurting and my Achilles tendon was tired of being stretched from standing on a slope, and worst of all the clouds had moved in, so I called it finished.

dry canyon painting final

I’m not sure if I will work on it a little at home, or if I will make a larger one using this as a reference, or maybe do nothing at all.

Stapleton Kearns