How to Create a Still Life Set Up That’s Unforgettable

how to create a still life set up

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Do you struggle to craft a still life that doesn’t look dull or uninspired? As it stands, a compelling still-life composition is just a matter of planning out your foundation more thoughtfully.

Still lifes have a reputation as being the ‘homework’ of the art world. However, some of the most famous works of all time are still life paintings, such as Van Gogh’s Sunflower series or Still Life With Game by Willem Van Aelst.

Make your still lives go from ‘eh’ to ‘WOW’ with my step-by-step tutorial below.

What You’ll Need to Set Up Your Still Life

what you'll need to set up your still life

A still-life arrangement can be simple or complex – neither is better or worse, simply different. I’ll share some industry tips later in the article so you can use this difference wisely!

For this tutorial, I recommend a life setup with just a few items so you don’t get overwhelmed.

  • One object (or a few)
  • A base
  • A surface
  • Your paints of choice
  • A light source
  • A pencil or charcoal stick (for sketching)
  • Mediums or solvents (optional)

Step #1: Choose the Subject You Want to Study

choose the object you want to study

One of the most enjoyable, yet challenging aspects of making still-life paintings is choosing what to paint. With so many objects – and object combinations – available, it’s easy to get choice fatigue.

Below are popular still-life setup subjects to get you started. These are just suggestions, though – if you have something you’d enjoy working on more, go for it!

Fruit Bowl

The fruit bowl is the go-to still life. Not only are these materials easy to come by, but they’re also beginner-friendly with their simple shapes and bright colors.

fruit bowl
(Image Source)

Basket Of Fruit by Caravaggio is iconic with his brilliantly subtle fruit textures, carefully detailed basket, and pleasing composition. It’s the kind of work that immediately draws your attention, and then makes you want to stare for hours.

Flowers

The only still-life subject more popular than a bowl of fruit? A bundle of fluffy, charming flowers – these subjects challenge you to play with textures and fool the eye into thinking the painting could start swaying in the breeze at any moment.

flowers
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Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers by Van Gogh is part of a long series he dedicated to the beauty of sunflowers. This approach to still-life painting is not only a great way to hone your technical skills, it can be a wonderful way to explore all the different stories an object can tell.

Folded Cloth

A challenging still-life composition you’ll frequently see is anything with folded or wrinkled cloth. This subject matter pushes artists to convey complex forms and incredibly subtle textures.

folded cloth
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Still Life with Gilt Goblet by Willem Claesz Heda is a spectacular still-life painting for both its complex composition and mastery of texture. The cloth, in particular, has an incredibly lifelike wrinkle and curl that feels real enough to touch.

Skull

A still-life setup is not just an opportunity to get better at painting your environments, but painting people. The skull is a popular choice because it helps artists become better acquainted with another beloved genre – portraits.

skull
(Image Source)

Still Life With Skull by Paul Cézanne combines several popular still life choices in one – not only do you have a skull, you have fruit, and a folded cloth. This is the kind of painting that tests an artist’s ability to tackle smooth, bumpy, and wrinkled textures.

Step #2: Choose a Comfortable Location to Set Everything Up

choose a comfortable location to set everything up

A strong still-life composition is easier to achieve when you’re not distracted by a messy desk or a noisy environment. When you choose a comfortable, quiet place to set up your still-life composition, you’re already halfway to a fantastic painting.

Do you have a home office or studio where you can tune the world out? Set up your still-life composition there so you can easily return to it in between painting sessions.

If you don’t have an office or studio, you can also make a successful still life on your porch or patio. The benefits of this setting are plenty of warm sun (and a little fresh air to clear your mind). The downside is windy or rainy weather, so check your weather forecast first.

You can also do your still life painting on specific days if you live in a household with multiple people. For example, if you have children, consider working on your still-life paintings once they’re at school or extracurriculars. If you have a roommate who’s active throughout the apartment, consider asking them for a dedicated space to focus on your life painting.

You can also set up your still life on a board or a tray, then move it out of a room when you’re not painting.

Step #3: Determine the Composition of Your Still Life

determine the composition of your still life

Once you’ve narrowed down your subject and where you want to paint, it’s time to dive into the creative meat of your painting – composition. This step is how you craft visual balance and direct the viewer’s eye to what exactly makes your work stand out most.

A High Composition to Suggest a Sense of Space

a high composition

Do you want your still-life composition to make the viewer feel like they’ve stepped into the scene? A high composition creates a sense of space, suspending the viewer’s eye to encourage the illusion of ‘looking down’.

a still life with apples
(Image Source)

Still Life with Apples, Pears, Lemons and Grapes by Van Gogh is a fantastic example of a high composition (as well as breathtaking use of the color wheel). The viewer’s eye is fooled into thinking there is shallow depth in a two-dimensional image.

A successful still life anticipates how the artist – and other viewers – will interact with a piece. This composition draws upon the most basic human psychology of peering closer at something beneath us, trying to get a better vantage point.

If you’ve ever glimpsed something unfamiliar on the ground and immediately tried to get a better look, you already understand this composition.

A Low Composition to Craft a Peaceful Atmosphere

a low composition

On the other end of the spectrum, you can set up some visual interest with a low and peaceful composition. This approach is easygoing, setting everything on an even plane to present objects as plainly as possible.

Does that mean this type of still-life painting is boring? Far from it – it can actually be one of the most approachable. ‘Less is more’, as the saying goes.

a still life with fruits
(Image Source)

Still Life With Fruit by Caravaggio is filled with intrigue. Not only do you have lush and beautifully detailed fruits and vegetables, but you also have a bold splash of light to center the viewer’s eye.

Caravaggio was very fond of low compositions to simply – and elegantly – display his subjects. When you think about it, this type of composition is similar to holding up an object for someone to see better. Would you hold up the object at a dynamic angle or would you keep it at eye level?

When you get into the logic of composition, you’ll understand how to implement it more easily.

A Triangular Composition to Hint at Stability

a triangular composition

While a high composition is intriguing and a low composition is peaceful, a triangular composition is stable. You can use this stability to great effect, crafting a still-life composition that already feels ‘complete’.

a still life with game
(Image Source)

Still Life With Game by Willem van Aelst is a striking example of how the triangular composition can wrap a piece together. The viewer’s eye naturally travels from the middle to the top, inviting curiosity and telling a story all at once.

Step #4: Set Up Your Still Life With Your Object(s) and Lighting

still life with your objects and lighting

You’ve chosen your subject and picked a peaceful setting. Now that you’ve narrowed down your composition, it’s time to set up your still life with proper lighting – this detail will make or break your piece.

While the sun is the most subtle and rich source, you won’t always have access to it. What if you can only paint in the middle of the night or your workweek is rainier than usual? A lamp and a little creativity with placement will be more than enough to light up your still-life composition.

Directly placing your light source overhead is a reliable way to spread light evenly across the subject. You can also place your light source – such as a desk lamp – on either side of the still life to cast dramatic shadows. Don’t be afraid to get playful here: lighting is an entire field of its own and can completely change the mood of a scene.

A few more tips for creating a reliable light source that carves out your subject nicely are:

  • Make sure vital details aren’t obscured. If you’re painting a pattern or a texture, you want to make sure you can see everything properly.
  • Try to choose lighting that brings out your painting’s color. Fluorescent lighting often washes out your subjects, while warm light bulbs or natural light make everything richer.
  • Observe your still life from different angles before choosing. If you like to sit and paint, but your still life isn’t well-lit from a sitting angle, switch up your setup.

Step #5: Do a Few Quick Thumbnails to Pinpoint Your Composition

thumbnails to pinpoint your composition

Is it time to start painting? Not quite – you need to determine if your overall composition is solid with a few quick thumbnails.

This step will determine your setup’s effectiveness: it’s a reliable way to work out any issues early before committing to a longer painting session. These thumbnails shouldn’t take more than a few minutes each and should center on the most basic shapes, placement, and negative space.

Don’t worry about fleshing out complex details or rendering complex shadows – you can save that for your actual painting. However, blocking in simple light and shadow is a dependable way to determine if your lighting placement is working out.

This short timelapse from Prof. Chipana demonstrates the efficiency of sketching out a quick thumbnail to work out details like object placement or basic perspective.

3 Important Elements to Consider When Choosing a Set-Up

elements to consider when choosing a set up

A still life is far from dull – it’s taking everyday life and approaching it with a fresh perspective. Alongside choosing objects and crafting a composition, you need to consider the emotional and mental impact of your piece.

Below are three elements that will add focus to your composition and tell an interesting story.

Theme

A theme, simply put, is a message. It’s the central focus of your piece and why you’re making it in the first place.

theme
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Oleanders by Vincent Van Gogh explores flower symbolism – more specifically, the joyful oleander and its uplifting appearance. Oleanders are also very poisonous, which could allude to Van Gogh’s growing depression.

This theme is further enriched by the placement of a novel he read. It’s the kind of still life that brims with meaning the longer you look at it and connect the dots.

still life with a flower garland
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Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain by Adriaen van der Spelt is an incredibly intriguing still-life composition. It goes against the grain by actively obscuring the main subject, almost daring the reader to reach out and push the curtain away.

Not only does the pop of blue contrast with the darker background nicely, it also provides a cheery contrast to a subdued and mysterious set-up. What are these flowers hanging up for? Why do they need to be obscured at all?

A still-life composition that makes the viewer ask questions is a still-life done well.

Purpose

Why would an artist choose a still-life illustration over so many other subjects and genres? The still-life is one of the best ways of improving both your technical skill and your creative ability.

Let’s start with the technical focus of a still-life composition – learning how to translate the world around you into a visually pleasing painting. The straightforward nature of a still-life, lacking movement or fantasy elements, makes it a reliable teacher for painters of any skill level.

Beginner artists will appreciate the relative simplicity of painting still objects, while experienced artists will enjoy the challenge of making static items intriguing to the viewer. Choosing a still life to improve your ability to navigate a color wheel or convey texture is an ancient purpose.

A still life also encourages you to think outside of the box when navigating daily life. A hairbrush sitting crooked on a windowsill can become a fascinating story when interpreted with lush color and vivid brushstrokes. A jacket hanging on a wall can ignite the reader’s curiosity and invite them to speculate on who wore the jacket or why it’s hung a certain way.

In other words, some artists choose still lives with the purpose of adding a little magic to their everyday lives.

purpose
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The story behind this still life painting – A Sprig Of Asparagus by Édouard Manet – is a funny one. The artist was commissioned to paint a bundle of asparagus for 800 francs but was accidentally paid 1,000 francs instead.

After painting the bundle, he sent an additional still life of a single asparagus with a note stating there was a piece missing.

Complexity

It’s best to start off with simple still lives with a few objects – even just one! – before moving up in complexity. Once you start feeling more confident in your ability, the more complex still lifes will truly put your skills to the test.

Let’s take a look at a simple painting, then a complex painting to get a feel for what this important detail serves.

complexity
(Image Source)

Mound of Butter by Antoine Vollon is as simple an example as you can get. With bold shapes and just a few objects, this still life is an elegant snapshot of an old kitchen.

The arrangement of this painting also uses the compositional fundamentals to great effect. There’s a vaguely triangular shape to this piece, creating a stable and calm illustration that almost feels familiar. Looking at this painting can give you the same sensation of glimpsing raw ingredients on your way to making a snack.

vase of flowers
(Image Source)

Still Life with a Vase of Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder is an example of the completely opposite approach. While the composition is still very simple, the execution is one of the most detailed objects you’ll ever lay eyes on.

This painting boasts a complex flower arrangement overflowing with unique shapes, ranging from drooping petals to curling leaves. It’s an image that’s as extravagant as it is balanced. Despite so much detail and color, the simple backdrop ensures the image isn’t too ‘busy’.

3 Tips to Craft Striking Still Life Compositions

crafting still life compositions

I’ve done several still-life paintings, from quick home studies to homework for fundamental drawing classes. As such, I’ll share some tips I’ve learned that make these paintings more memorable and enjoyable to paint.

Put an Odd Number of Objects to Make Viewers Curious

Did you know odd numbers are psychologically more ‘thought-provoking’? You can use this little detail to magnificent effect in your still-live composition to craft a more engaging illustration.

While even numbered objects make people feel more relaxed, odd numbers tend to grab their attention. When placing down objects for your still life, actively ask yourself how you can use odd numbers to capture the viewer’s eye.

For example, let’s say you want to do a still life of your cell phone on a desk. You could add two more objects alongside it to inject extra intrigue, such as your keys or an old envelope. Not only does this approach dig into people’s natural curiosity for odd-numbered items, you can hint at a neat story with your everyday objects.

Don’t Overlook the Power of Blank Space

It’s not just the objects that determine the end result of a still-life painting. Negative space gives your viewers visual breathing room, preventing the rest of your work from feeling cluttered or unpleasant.

power of blank space
(Image Source)

Let’s take a look at another floral still life from Ambrosius Bosschaert. This still life – A Vase of Flowers – takes a very complex subject and pairs it with a smooth, dark background.

The result is a painting that’s immediately easy to understand at a glance. The complex objects of fluffy, curling flowers and ornate butterflies are the focal point, so they shouldn’t have to compete with anything else.

Base Your Composition on the Shape of a Letter

A really fun way to create balance in your composition is to base your still life in the shape of a letter. This tip comes from famed illustrator Andrew Loomis and his book Creative Illustration, a staple for art teachers and students.

Below is a page to give you an idea of how to transform a single object or a cluster of objects into a balanced illustration.

base your composition on the shape of a letter
(Image Source)

5 Ideas You Can Try For a Still Life

Now that you’ve got some inspiration on essentials like themes and lighting, let’s wrap things up with some ideas. Consider giving one of these a try if you’re stuck on a drawing or just want to warm up with something fun.

A Cluster of Kitchen Objects

From forks to cups, the kitchen is a great source of inspiration for smooth, shiny objects to hone your technique with. Depending on your placement, you can also suggest themes of serenity or familiarity.

Three Objects You Use on a Regular Basis

What are three objects you rarely go through the day without using at least once? Consider placing all of these together to explore the viewer’s tendency to gravitate to odd-numbered pictures.

The point of this still life could also be to celebrate the objects that make your life a little easier.

Pair of Shoes

pair of shoes

Painting a pair of shoes will kill two birds with one stone. Not only will you get comfortable with the subtle curves and little details of a common object, but you’ll become more comfortable drawing feet – a tricky subject for many artists.

Graphic T-Shirt

If you want an image that can challenge both your ability to render cloth and more complex imagery, try painting a graphic t-shirt. You’ll learn how to paint folds and wrinkles as well as recreate the graphic – a rewarding challenge across the board.

Cluttered Cardboard Box

Do you have a cardboard box filled with random objects? This subject will result in an interesting drawing and painting because it’ll force you to get clever with your details.

Instead of trying to paint all the different objects in great detail, you can hint at detail with looser painting techniques such as Impressionism.

Setting Up a Readable and Interesting Still Life is Half the Work

readable and interesting still life

A single object can tell an unforgettable story. Getting to the point where you can translate everyday life into majestic paintings takes time, but you’ll make more visible progress with these fundamental tips.

It’s also easier to learn by example. If you want to improve vital skills like lighting or texture with professional help, check out Evolve Artist’s online mini-course.

Featured Image: Source

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