Setting Up A Still Life and 25 Ideas for A Still Life

Still life paintings have been a go-to painting subject for artists over hundreds of years, after all, all the items are there right in your home! And when it comes to creating a successful still life there are 4 primary components that are key.

Still Life Composition Setup

The word composition means “the way in which someone or something composed.” In painting, composition refers more specifically to visual structure, including the arrangement of colors and values in an image and the path followed by the movement of the viewer’s eye.

What I look for in A Still Life Composition

still life for drawing

Here are a few that I like that I know I can look as I take pictures and put the still life together:

  • Triangle Composition or various shapes in the composition
  • Lean towards the rule of 3rds (I address this more in the photo editing process, which is covered in Day 4 of the course "Complete Lifecycle of Setting Up A Still Life")
  • Object stacking (where objects are in front of each other, on top of each other)
  • Strong light source
  • And an idea of where the objects present a natural flow of focus.

But the composition comes more into play when actually putting the objects together to paint or to photography. What about How to Select the Objects for a still life? That is what we'll cover next.

4 Things To Consider When Collecting And Compiling a Still Life

So you know you want to create a still life, but aren't sure what you'd like to do....Great! OK, so you ready?

The are four there are four things to consider:

  1. Object Theme
  2. Composition Complexity
  3. Lighting
  4. Color Scheme

Let's break each of these down.

#1 Object Theme

An object theme is a collection of items that would work with one another or are in similar in function/use. For example, a table scape would be a still life (a complex still life), a jewelry box would be another. These examples have a common function or purpose and can be compiled together to make an appealing composition.

still life to draw

The above image is a compilation of Christmas Candy. Christmas Candy is the object theme. I put together this little composition in the course "Complete Lifecycle of Setting Up A Still Life". If you take the course, you'll notice that I made a lot of changes to all of these little items to get a decent composition. The end result is this 8x10" Oil painting called "Sweet Christmas".

You can watch the painting of this still life on a my Youtube Channel; Part I and Part II.

still life oil painting

Here is an interesting point: You might guess that I really made hot chocolate....Well, it's not really hot chocolate. :) I actually filled it up with water and then put some whipped cream on top, and then we sprinkled some candy bits on top! It doesn't have to be the real thing/beverage -all you really need to achieve is an idea of the overall picture.

glass still life

Here is a still life that I did once where I had a little wine glass of white wine. What's in it? Water with yellow food coloring.

The point is, use what you have that's around you, that inspires you for these still lives.

#2 Composition Complexity

still life fruit

Do you want to be simple? Do you want it to be complex?

So when we think about simple, we think about one subject/object. Maybe just an orange, just a pair, just a see where we go that maybe it's a piece of jewelry... just one thing.

And you can put maybe two or three things. The more things that you and the greater the complexity.

You get to decide how complex and how simple you like this be. You can even take multiple pictures of multiple still lives and combine them into one painting. It can be as simple or as complex as you would like.

still life oranges

And how you can control that composition is by using the lighting. Lighting is your number three thing.

#3. Lighting

Where do you want the light source to come from? And that's where the lightbox really comes in handy (check out this The Complete Lifecycle of Setting Up A Still Life! available on Youtube). So depending on whether you choose an open stage or a closed stage box or a tabletop box, that's going to help determine a lot about your lighting. You decide how intense and how dramatic you would like for the lighting to be.

Here is a link to the selfie light (affiliate link) that I use for still life and so many other studio purposes.

#4 Color Scheme

Break out that color wheel! Really think about where you want to direct the viewer's eye in the composition. Focus on what you want to paint is it going to be an analogous painting (where all of the colors are going to be from one section of the color wheel), or is it going to be a complementary painting (where it's choosing one color on one side, the color wheel and the another color on the other side)? And that's up to you.

So for example, in the fruit still life, we have the little Santa that we wanted to draw the viewer's attention to. Once we had him at the spot that we liked, we then moved the green apple next to him and the green grapes; Green is Complimentary to Red! And then what really struck us is when we placed the purple grapes next to the yellow banana.

25 Ideas for A Still Life

Sometimes we get artist's block (like writer's block), we know we want to paint but can't figure out what! So here is a list of 25 ideas that you can gather the items for a simple or complex composition and begin painting! Believe me, once you start painting the artist's block goes away. Painting a still life is a fabulous way to get inspired!

  1. Drinking Glasses (add a candle and wow! - what a fabulous exercise in glass, reflections and light!)
  2. Eyeglasses on a book
  3. Nail supplies
  4. Pasta supplies (noodles, tomatoes, onions, spoon, silver strainer, etc...)
  5. Desserts (even make your favorite dessert and paint it - two sweet treats in one!)
  6. A drink (check out these drink still life courses: Tequila Sunrise, Rainbow Cocktail, Detox Drink, Pina Colada)
  7. Candy (check out this painting of Hershey Kisses)
  8. Jewelry
  9. Fruit or Veggies (paint this still life of apples)
  10. Shoes (here is an example of a Shoe Still Life)
  11. Christmas Ornament or Ornaments (here is an example of a Christmas Tree Ornament)
  12. Sandwich/Lunch/Breakfast
  13. Cute Toys/Dog Toys/Children's Toys
  14. Mail
  15. Books
  16. Soap
  17. Flowers
  18. Tea Time/Coffee Time (check out this course on painting a Coffee Cup Still Life)
  19. Sewing Kit/Supplies
  20. Birds nest
  21. Favorite Coffee Mug
  22. Lawn Ornaments
  23. Paint Supplies
  24. Hairbrush and Comb
  25. Desk times like pens, paperclips, stapler etc,.

The possibilities are endless!

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Stephanie Weaver Fine Art Artist

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