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Friday, January 6, 2012

Bring Life Into A Still Life

I've always thought the term "still life" a bit antithetical:  what life has ever been still?  But somewhere back in history, powers-that-be deemed still life a genre and left it up to future generations to define.  Still life painting has a long history, going back as far as the tombs of ancient Egypt, proliferated in the Middle Ages and holds strong today as a genre.  These days, any painting of a human-made arrangement of objects is called still life.

Left, Henri Masisse, 1912     Top right, Qiang Huang, 2010,
Bottom right, Roman wall painting, 70 a.d.

The question Judy Warner asked is how to add life into a still life composition. More specifically, Judy added "...how to add life so they don't look dead."   It is true that some still life paintings carry with them a ho-hum feeling, but so do some landscapes and even some figure paintings.  Is there something about the still life genre that puts it in danger of becoming a lifeless work?

I'm not convinced that any genre is more vulnerable than any other to resulting in a lifeless painting.  But sometimes while setting up a still life, the artist can get a bit fussy during the process of arranging objects and that disposition gets transferred into the work itself, defeating the success of the painting before picking up the first brush.

I think Charles Reid is a prime example of an artist who brings life into his still life paintings.

Photo by Sandi Hester                      Still life demo by Charles Reid
Click on the image for a larger view.

Those of us who have watched Charles set up a still life know how nonchalant he goes about putting an arrangement together. Often the objects he chooses are randomly selected.  But in the end, we see that he has placed a number of actors on a stage, an advantage given still life painting unique to its genre. No other genre offers the artist total control over the subject matter.

Charles then approaches the painting from a viewpoint of discovering and responding:  rather than trying to copy the setup, he begins with a contour drawing to discover what he is looking at.  Sometimes he will change the setup midstream--take something out, move something to a different place or add another piece.  

Here's where begins something important to bringing life into a still life painting:  the artist's attitude toward our process. When the intention is to discover what the eyes are looking at rather than that of trying to copy stuff, the artist stays alert during the process because we don't know what's going to happen.  If, on the other hand, our attitude is one of trying to get it right or trying to force some preconceived notion, we run the risk of suffocating the work.

Charles Reid preliminary drawing for a painting different from examples above.
Photo by Mick Carney
Click on image for a larger view

Once his drawing is done, Reid approaches the painting like a kid in a candy store.  He simply responds and keeps moving forward with confidence.   He doesn't labor the piece.  When asked whether he has a game plan, he always answers "No."  He says he likes to approach the painting as if he's never done it before.

(During one of Charles' workshops, Mick Carney recorded the progress of his demo.  Go HERE then cursor down a bit to see this progression.)

I think the difference between a tired-looking still life painting and one that's vibrant and full of life is a matter of the artist's attitude and confidence.  Any painting that is labored over will most likely look tired and lack vibrancy.  But when the artists moves forward, confident with a child-like approach of discovering what's there and responding with whatever degree of available skill, the end results has a better chance of having a life of its own. 

I take issue with those who approach painting from a formulaic attitude. Keeping a painting fresh and alive is not a matter of following a set of rules--including intentionally trying to loosen up--nor is it slinging paint willy-nilly.  Rather, bringing life into a painting comes from an inner attitude of wondering what one will discover next and allowing the painting to move forward within that intention.  It is in the laboring over a painting that we steal from ourselves and consequently, the painting itself,  freshness, spontaneity and wholeness that yield life.

Check out Dianne's new book,  In Praise of Mountain Waters:  Paintings of Rivers, Waterfalls and Streams in Northeast Georgia.   Available at Amazon.com


Ann Buckner said...

Dianne, love this post and a light bulb went off when you said, "When the intention is to discover what the eyes are looking at rather than that of trying to copy stuff, the artist stays alert during the process because we don't know what's going to happen."

Thanks so much for continuing to share your knowledge and skills with us. :)

paul said...

great post

it perfectly describes the same creative process i experience when composing music

Ann said...

Hi Dianne, I think this post feeds wonderfully into last week's discussion of mastery. Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers" comes to mind in both cases. He hypothesizes that mastery can only be accomplished after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice in any field, including art, music, and sports.

Makes me think that an artist can only relax and allow the painting to be discovered after that artist has spent many hours learning the underlying techniques of art. Until an artist feels comfortable in his or her understanding, that relaxation is elusive! Do you agree? I'd love to know what you think!

Nora MacPhail said...

Thank you for all the advice and information. That line about "wondering what one will discover next" really helped pinpoint an attitude about painting.
and Happy Painting,

Dianne Mize said...

Thanks to all of you for your responses.

Ann, once again you have stimulated a discussion. I thought about responding to your Comment here, but that turned into this week's tutorial. Thanks for keeping those wheels turning.