what is still life? and some old work

What constitutes a still life? I've been discussing this with Katherine and others and there are several opinions from a very narrow view to more inclusive ones :)


Still life is a relatively new genre - it was a humble subject, reserved for items in backgrounds for most of art history, designed to show the possessions of the sitter for a portrait for instance. I won't go into the development of it because I think Katherine at http://makingamark.blogspot.com/ will discuss that and provide some very good definitions from various authorities - each a little different :) and links.


It tends to be one of the first subjects new painters tackle and is frequently used in beginners classes and there it tends to be done in a very traditional way, with formal set ups, worked on over several lessons. It can be imagined that this is all there is to still life - it isn't - Still life is incredibly difficult to define - it covers such a wide variety of styles, media, subjects and concepts from photorealism, through impressionism to cubism and beyond.

They don't have to be pretty - the trophies of a hunt - pheasants/dead rabbits or hares - are certainly not appealing to me but many paintings of such subjects have been made. An Expressionist painter, Soutine, painted dead meat hanging, beautifully painted but - ! Van Gogh's chair and boots - powerful images. Cezanne, tipping tables, playing with perspective, Morandi using simple shapes and incredibly subtle colours - so many aspects to the genre.

An old painting, a view of my studio at university, oil on board painted exactly as it was, some drooping flowers, a tin holding my brushes, paintings and painting shirts lying around and my locker behind, under the window. Nothing arranged, totally 'found' a bit over 2ft tall on board



On my degree 'Painting from the Object' a sort of contemporary look at still life, included such things as opening a cupboard/wardrobe and making a composition from what we saw, throwing a heap of shoes into the middle of the studio floor and again making a composition from it (this turned up some really fantastic work but I can't find a photo of it), shopping bags spilling shopping, kitchen windowsills of objects and pot plants (growing) - the best work came from the more unusual subjects and I did a series on the contents of garden sheds, which again included plants in pots, growing - so not nature morte! dead nature. All the pieces shown here were done for that module.


Guidelines are fine but do restrict imagination if too definitive. I only occasionally do still life subjects these days as a finished painting, they are more usually studies of items done as sketches for practice/fun (like the paintbrushes on the front page of my website or the mug on a recent post). I do think it's important not to confine possibilites but leave a great deal of room for imaginative and contemporary ideas. It's a genre that I have recently started considering again as topics for paintings - but not traditional set ups.


this is a painting in progress at uni - we were provided with a heap of disparate objects and had to take one at a time and paint them, adding a new object when we'd finished. They didn't have to be to scale, they could be in any position so the perspective and scale could be different - tiny shoe/giant matchstick. It was up to us to make a cohesive composition of it. I later did a better one which I may post another day when I can photograph it. These are old photos scanned so the quality isn't great, sorry. A1 size I was rather pleased with the paintbrush at the bottom of this one - it's better IRL



In the discussion someone thought only cut flowers permissible - not pot plants as they are growing and alive not 'morte' ! Cats or living things weren't allowed - I think someone will have to break the news to Elizabeth Blackadder that she's being doing it wrong all these years! as were Cezanne, Gwen John and a host of others.


For me still life is about looking at interesting 'things' and those things can be inanimate or growing - the distinction between cut and still growing flowers seems ridiculous! they could include a dozing cat, they can be formally set up or found, they can be pretty objects or unconventional, even ugly, but made interesting by the quality of the painting. The work shown here is early stuff so I'm certainly not saying this achieves it - but it's striving towards that. And at that point in my degree I'd hit the artistic equivalent of writers block so oh boy was I striving!

the contents of a shed - plants waiting to be planted out, bundles of string, plant pots, terracotta path edging slabs piled up, a hoe, a rusted supermarket basket, an overwintering geranium, a garden fork etc they are on the wall in my studio space ..... for marking ... oh the panic and rush of those assessments! the square painting is 36in square


Macro flowers were also ruled out by one person - yet they are merely closing in on a very traditional subject in still lifes! Distance from the subject matter is a choice for the artist.



With my students we don't do still life set ups - they bring in objects that interest them and they've done some amazing work. Helen painted her keys one week and made a fantastic painting that is now framed - she followed it up with a beautiful study of one of her necklaces, then a study of 2 lovely little tiny coloured glass birds - all imaginative and different. Another student made a sensitive series of studies of pebbles. Several have done amazing paintings of their children's teddy bears - all quite independently and unaware that a similar thing had happened in another class. The subject needs to interest the painter - and then something special comes through :) My favourite painting shown here is of the bundles of string :) shown below, the others are just stacked in a cupboard or swapped with friends.



For me Still Life needs to be inclusive. Contemporary Art isn't about rules and regulations. Narrow rules restrict creativity and are meaningless in the context of art - I have this rebellious feeling of 'says who?' when pointless rules are dictated to me!



more work done at uni part of a series on allotments, this series looked at the objects, vegetables, flowers, plants, plant pots, string, tools and all the clutter in sheds and greenhouses. The lower painting is 36ins square
The last one uses the orange netting used by builders - and recycled by allotment holders to keep the pigeons off their crops - as a grid to frame parts of items.


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