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Artist Ann Trusty reveals the secrets to staging a still life that catches and holds the eye
Painting a floral still life allows a relatively controlled opportunity to work from life while offering a welcome relief from what can seem like visual chaos when painting outdoors. They’re either opening or closing, dropping petals or wilting—all within a relatively short period of time.
The creation of an intriguing floral still life arrangement—one that will retain interest throughout the painting process, requires serious thought. An inspired composition is more than an accidental association of parts. The arrangement may tell a story, make a statement or be an entire small, self-contained world. Here’s what I strive for in a still life composition:
- a clearly defined focal point
- eye movement—shapes and colors that lead the eye to the focal point
- rhythm—repetition of similar shapes
- contrasts in shapes, colors, textures and values
- visual harmony.
Let’s consider the last item. Like a musical composition, I want my still life setups to have harmony. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most important is arranging objects so that they appear to flow into and reinforce each other, like musical notes. Take any one of the notes—or objects—away and the composition isn’t as strong.
The background of a floral still life should be carefully considered. It can subtly influence the overall mood of the painting, as in White on White (top), or it can become an important part of the subject, as in Reflections and Epiphyllum (above) in which reflections of the subject are a significant part of the setup.
Objects of Affection
Over many years of painting floral still lifes, I’ve discovered that when I include objects that evoke a strong feeling in me or that have significance in my life, the painting always comes out better. The best advice I could give is this: Paint what you love, what has meaning for you.
When I’m painting outside, everything is under the influence of either the changing sunlight or the diffused light of the sky, but in the studio, I can choose the source, direction, strength and, above all, the temperature of my light sources.
My studio has large north-facing windows and skylights, which are controlled with moveable shades. They allow consistent light and illu- minate my still life arrangements with cool daylight. I don’t necessarily always want that, though. Sometimes I want warmer light, and for that I can use light stands to supplement the light direction and temperature. A warm light usually produces cool shadows while a cool light usually produces warm shadows. The best way to discover which lighting works for a particular arrangement is to try light sources of different color temperatures (see Warm Light, Cool Light, above).
The direction of the light is another important consideration. The setup can be lit from above, below, the front, the back, either side or a combination of two or more of these directions (see Filtered Light, above).
Now let’s put all of these considerations together. The step-by-step demonstration below shows my process for developing a floral still life setup.
Staging a Floral Still Life Set-up
1. Background: Too Much Contrast
I began setting up my still life by testing background options for the primary subject, a rich bouquet of lilies and roses in a cobalt-blue pitcher. A light background and foreground seemed to create too severe a contrast against the strongly colored flowers and pitcher.
2. Background: Too Busy
Next, I tried a dark-patterned fabric behind and under the pitcher. It added a more classic and romantic feel, but the pattern was too busy. Also, the fabric reduced the translucency of the glass pitcher.
3. Background: Final Choice
I decided to use a lighter fabric with less pattern under the pitcher and to place the plain off-white fabric behind it. This allowed for differentiation between the tabletop and the background curtain without the loss of the beautiful translucent blue of the pitcher.
4. Elements: Initial Placement
Next, I started adding elements to the arrangement. Orange clementines added a bright complementary color to the dark blue pitcher. I experimented with taking one pink rose out of the pitcher to bring that color down to the table’s surface. Then I tried adding a favorite translucent pink glass (a family heirloom) to reflect the color of the roses.
5. Elements: Additions and Subtractions
I decided to elevate the orange clementines by placing them in a blue-patterned china bowl, which repeated the blue of the pitcher. I also added a cement planter to bring in a classic shape as well as a rougher texture to contrast with the smooth glass and china. At this time, I decided the pink glass wasn’t working with the new objects.
6. Elements: Final Arrangement
I played with adding and deleting other objects, letting my eye decide what worked. Finally, I settled on the additions of a partially peeled clementine with a knife—a reference to classic Dutch still-life painting—which helped to lead the viewer into the image, and a tall orange ceramic pitcher acquired on a teaching trip in Provence. This became the final setup of my still life elements—but I still had things to consider.
7. Viewpoint: From Above
I had to decide on a vantage point. I looked at it from above, …
8. Viewpoint: Straight On
… and I viewed it from eye level. In the end, I chose the vantage point seen in step 6—from the right and just slightly above eye level. Which view would you have chosen?
I also had to consider my lighting. I opted to work under the natural north light of my studio skylights, enhanced with a color-balanced fill-light angled from the same direction. I knew that as I continued to paint through the day, the sunny daylight would turn into a cloudy cooler light. The supplemental artificial fill-light would help to temper the change and keep the light a little more consistent.
Having resolved my composition, viewpoint and lighting, I could begin painting with confidence!
About the Artist
Award-winning artist Ann Trusty exhibits her work internationally and, with her husband, John Hulsey, publishes the educational website The Artists Road. Learn more at hulseytrustystudios.com and theartistsroad.net.
For more great instruction from Trusty, and her husband John, check out their articles Photograph Your Art Like a Pro and The Art of Painting Water, and be sure to get the Artist Magazine June 2019 issue where this article first appeared for more inspiring pro tips.