Setting Up A Still Life

You would think that setting up a still life would be a relatively simple thing to do – certainly the easiest step you need to take when planning to create a painting.

This is, however, not necessarily the case for many artists – particularly beginners. This article will focus on a few basic, helpful tips to get you started with your work of art.

Positioning your still life in a way that makes it easy to paint is very important – you don’t want to be constantly looking over your shoulder to see your composition.

The angle between your easel and still life should be very slight, so that you don’t have to move your head too much when looking from the canvas to your subject. Also, do not place your still life behind your painting arm – i.e. If you are right-handed, place your still life to the left of your easel, so that your arm doesn’t get in the way of what you are looking at.

Try to set up your subject with your own comfort in mind – you may be painting for a long time. Things to consider: Will you be sitting or standing, while painting? Do you want to look down at your still life, or up at it, or do you want to be at eye-level with it? At what height do you plan on hanging your painting? (If it is above eye-level, but the painting appears to be viewed from above, it may confuse the eye of the beholder.)

Levels are important in any still life composition: they create depth, are interesting to the eye and allow you, as an artist, to have fun with perspective. To create levels while setting up a still life, you can make use of a table (if you plan on including multiple objects and/or relatively large objects in your composition) or one or more boxes to use as a “stage” for your still life.


If you feel so inclined, you can drape a length of fabric over your stage to create a textured, fascinating background. Organize your objects around and on top of your stage, creating levels both in height and in depth.

Light and shadow play a large role in creating depth, atmosphere and texture in a painting. If you’re going to rely on the sun as your source of light, then keep in mind the fact that the shadows will move with time.

Either plan on painting during the same time frame each day, or remember where the sun was when you started painting. Another alternative is to use your own source of light. You can experiment with using one or multiple lamps, for instance. The longer and more dramatic you want the shadows to be, the lower you should place your lamp.

Lamps placed high above your still life will create short shadows. You can also experiment with placing colored gels over your lamps, or placing objects in the way of your light source to add more complex shadows to your composition. (Don’t put flammable material too close to lamps!) Click here for a more detailed article on the variations of lightings in still life.

Overlapping objects while you set up a still life gives the illusion of depth in your painting, and implies interaction between the objects. Try not to place your items in such a way that they only just appear to touch each other – this can be confusing when viewing the finished painting.

Now comes the fun part, finding interesting objects to include… Choose something that you want to paint! You’ll enjoy it that much more.

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