3.5.1 On the study of the still-life and its use as an indirect associative narrative.
A still-life oil painting is a work of art depicting inanimate subject-matter. Primarily it has developed into a decorative work of art with an implied yet obvious narrative. The student of oil painting’s study of the still life involves the compositional arrangement of everyday objects as the subject-matter in a manner to study composition, perspective, and mostly light source for the decisions of a future work of art. My attempt here is to address the still-life as such where the student of oil painting will learn how to work through a still-life from setup to finished work of art. During this study the oil painter will see how the common objects we own, how we use and present them during our day to day activities, and how speak profoundly about ourselves and our world, is defining a portion of our lives. The still-life is a philosophical work of art, even if it is not obviously so. The aesthetic composition of these belongings, both the choice of what to use, and their placement within the still-life, reveals a part of the artist’s mind. In this I say these decisions tell us the secrets behind the artist’s motivation. From casual observation, these subtleties will be missed entirely and will only be revealed through a deeper, quiet investigation of a work of art.
It is important to discuss the still-life’s being as a compositional study and decorative item while addressing the still-life’s ability to communicate on many levels at one time. Let us first focuses on the rudimentary fundamentals of the still-life as a purely pictorial study of compositional elements toward abstraction, and not an end to itself. The fundamental lessons of the still-life are compositional balance, the use of light-source, the three dimensional content of form, and with that conceptual foresight, a sculptural understanding of oil painting itself. In the beginning of this study the student of oil painting works in monotone color toward rendering a work of art that looks realistic, as a pictorial representation of objects within the still life. Although inanimate objects play a role in our lives, they have their own narrative. One that not only tells us their function, but recites the dialogue of the human drama within their purpose. With an understanding of that silent narrative, the oil painter is obliged to present the still-life as animated, alive, and full of purposeful action, born from the vivacity of the human drama and our shared relationship to the inanimate. While communicating that there is life to that which we define as not alive, the oil painter exposes the recurring history of the human situation.
The act of designing a still-life teaches the oil painter the elements of spatial arrangement involved in composition, while focusing on balance and the three dimensional context of the objects within the still-life. When designing a still-life, set up the composition just as you would a stage for a theater. For the stage itself, use a wood or cardboard box with three sides, left, right, back, and a base. Start with a simple forward view, so the oil painter can easily see the entire composition. Keep in mind that the vantage point you chose is what the oil painting will mimic. Traditionally the still-life has been painted in settings where the objects within it might belong together, such as a cloth covered table top with a bowl of fruit. This being a study, we remove all aspects of setting and focus on its fundamentals of process in preparation to reintegrate setting later.
For the purpose of this study we want the background to be simple and uniformed in its texture and colored appearance, so as to not distract from the objects of the still-life. Paint the interior walls and floor of the stage with a basic middle grey, which is the standard in photography for calibrating light and adjusting exposer to capture true color. This grey will be our reference point and our constant as it exhibits definable separations between the background, shadow and subject. Middle grays’ stark neutral quality accents the objects individual characteristics of color and shape, while allowing those color-forms to be as true as possible. Middle grey defines all the forms within the still-life itself, easily separating the positive and negative spaces for the artist’s eye. The use of middle grey as a background color for this study is essential. After the oil painter has completed no less then five works with the simple grey painted walls, he may move on to the background as a form itself. Use a sheet of fabric to lay over the stage so it covers all three walls and the base evenly. Choose a fabric color that will not overpower and dilute the presence of the objects within the still-life. Using a fabric color that is a complementary color to the objects will define the positive and negative spaces in the same manner as neutral grey does. The fabric, how it lays in the stage, it’s wrinkles and texture, becomes a part of the design elements and are as compositionally important as the objects themselves. Hence, it becomes an object and its installation should be considered when choosing the items for the still-life.
At first select no more than three to five items, keeping them simple but different in their surface texture, color, and shape. The oil painter must consider these objects as three dimensional color-forms or geometric shapes, and not as what they are, thereby removing the identity of an object so as to see it without a preconceived idea as to its true form. Because of our experiences, our minds have preconceived ideas about the shape, texture, and purpose of objects. Subsequently we will represent them pictorially as our mind sees them rather than what our eyes tell us. Arrange the items so they feel balanced among the stage by following your instincts and placing the items together in as natural an arrangement as possible; maintaining the guidelines of composition. To avoid your works looking contrived, just place the objects where they feel like they belong and do not put too much thought into it. If you cannot feel balance instinctually, you are not an artist and should stop now, lest you poison contemporary art with your desire to do something. A deeper understanding of compositional balance will come with time, albeit, for the artist, composition is as natural and instinctual as breathing. The oil painter need only learn to discipline his inherent talents so he may forget control, and let go to his mind’s voice.
There are two simple rules to guide the oil painter in the installation of the objects. First, divide the painting surface into thirds. Second, proper placement of the triangular color-form subject-matter. Designing the overall composition with these guidelines, regardless of artistic individuality, will result in a work of art that is evenly balanced and pleasing to the eye both within content and composition. The act of setting up a still-life involves all the fundamentals of design. As a result of those design lessons, setting up the stage of a still-life teaches the oil painter to experience his work outside of the canvas. With this insight, designing a still-life subconsciously instills a greater understanding of the three dimensional form and content of an object’s complete being into the oil painter’s mind, simply by arranging the items. As the artist handles each item, he unconsciously catalogues their texture and shape, and with that inner sight paints the still-life silently remembering each object’s total content. In this way for the process of painting itself, the oil painter conceptually becomes a sculptor. For oil painting is sculpting, in that the oil painter molds the oil and pigment by working the medium to develop a surface that represents form.
The use of light-source in the still-life should be considered as a detailed compartmentalized element to the overall composition. Its use in this study is primarily to develop the three dimensional content of each object. In the beginning of this study, the oil painter will use a single direct light-source, for it is more definable and dramatic than the soft quality of indirect light. Use a small light fixed to the stage so as to make sure that it won’t move or change its position. Once the artist has set up the light-source, it must remain in the same position until the painting is finished for the painting to be completed properly. Light alters color as it reveals the depth and form of an object, as so, where the oil painter directs his light source determines the demeanor of an oil painting. Albeit, the artist treats the effects of light without discrimination, and as a compositional element of the subject-matter itself. Although restricted in part by the fundamental guidelines of composition, the oil painter will find that he has more freedom to play with the compositional arrangement of light than the other elements of the still-life. The wide spectrum of human emotion can all be represented by the subtle use of light. It is light’s most powerful effect, dramatizing even the most mundane setting with its physical effect on man’s belief structure.
It is important that all the elements of the still-life are not disturbed so that when the oil painter returns to his work day by day, he sees the stage exactly the same every time until the painting is complete. Changing any of the elements of the stage after the actual work of art has begun will cause the finished oil painting to end without resolution and have a poorly balanced and distorted composition, and as a result, appear contrived. Along with altering the stage, the student of oil painting must not change the vantage point from which the still-life is observed; for it will also result in a contrived and disproportionate oil painting. There must be a defined spot during this study of where to stand, look, and measure the subject-matter in the stage. Mark a spot on the floor with tape for the desired vantage point of where to stand while looking at the still-life. It is important that the oil painter only observe the stage from that marked position, separate from where he will view and work on the work of art on the easel. Mark off a spot where to look and measure the work of art on the easel approximately the same distance as the mark to the stage. Do not look at the stage while in front of the canvas and vice versa. Doing so will distort the image in the oil painter’s mind and upset his actual and inner view of its total composition. This criteria of observation teaches the student of oil painting how to see, which we all believe we need no instructions on. Observing the stage and work of art separately allow the oil painting to evolve on its own, distinctly separate from the still-life. Although it will be a pictorial representation of your still-life, the work of art will become an image with a life-force all its own.
A part of the arrangement of the still-life is the selection of its overall composition. Most of this is decided by the boundaries of the stage itself, but if the student of oil painting wishes to use a different frame for his composition, he can bracket off the dimensions of the desired composition where ever he sees fit with a plumb-line. A plumb-line is a weighted string that is suspended in front of the subject-matter for reference and to accurately measurement and compositionally segregate. Use the plumb-line to mark the center of your stage, hanging it in front of the entire structure. This method of study, cupeled with a defined vantage point takes the use of a plumb-line, a traditional way of observing the subject-matter, and introduces the sight size method of artistic study back to a dogmatic formula. Dogma can kill an artist’s potential, but for the student of oil painting, he is required to work through these ideas used before him so that he may come to understand his own ideas. This formula fast looses its right of passage and evolves into an unconscious instinctual way to see, thus becoming unnecessary to adhere to.
Now that the stage is set, the oil painter may begin his study of the still-life pictorially. At this point the oil painter starts with a medium tailored for study such as charcoal, pencil, or pen on paper. After completing several studies of the still-life and familiarizing himself with its visual content, the student of oil painting can then move on to his work in oil paints. The oil painter should complete one oil painting for each study. A minimum of five different studies of the still-life are necessary as a preparatory step for the artist to understand the lessons involved, and to grasp the conceptual work involved in the study of the still-life.
Every few years I take on the study of the still-life to its fullest. It helps reground my mind so that I may continue my work in compositional abstraction. Because I wish to not be associated with them; I do not sign my completed still-life works and give them away as presents to family and friends.