Still Life Painting Composition

The composition of a painting can convey a lot of meaning. Colors, patterns and textures can create rhythms when repeated and can convey emotion and mood.

Whether a composition is open or closed can determine whether a painting feels like a snapshot of a world that continues out of the frame of the canvas, or not.

(In open compositions, objects touch the frame, suggesting that reality continues beyond the frame. In closed compositions, objects are completely contained by the frame.)

When composing a still life in preparation for painting, you should be thinking about the setup and lighting of the items, as well as the mood and concept that you wish to convey. It is important to consider mood and concept from the very beginning, as it would be tricky to manipulate the painting later to get your meaning across.

Start setting up your still life by creating different levels of height and depth in your composition. Use boxes, buckets, bowls and whatever else you can get your hands on to create an interesting environment for your items. You can either include these objects in your composition (if they are pretty, interesting or meaningful) or hide them with drapery.

Once you have set up a still life, spend some time living with it, observing it and just being around it. Always take time to rearrange your items and to play with the composition as much as possible before settling down to paint. Do lots of preliminary sketches to get a feel for different compositions, angles and lighting options.

Don’t only play with the way that you’ve organized your objects, but also play with lighting (do you want long shadows, or short ones?) and colors (do the colors go well together? Do you want a calm painting, or one with conflict in color and rhythm?).

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When organizing your still life, you can create either a symmetrical, or an asymmetrical painting. Symmetrical compositions are more difficult to get right, as the balance in the painting needs to be accurate or the eye will reject it. However, it still needs to be partially asymmetrical, or the painting won’t seem “real”.

Asymmetrical paintings are much easier. Try grouping objects together on one side of the canvas, or just “zoom in” on the still life to paint a section of it. Use a viewfinder to help you to discover compositions within your still life, or to help you to decide how to rearrange the items.

If you’re having difficulty with your composition, then here are a few things to try:

Organize your items from tallest and widest, to shortest and thinnest. Now, bring some of the shorter and/or thinner items forward in the still life, placing them in front of the other objects.

Here and there, swap a taller item for a shorter one, to avoid too much rigidity in your painting (unless that’s what you’re going for!). Now look at what you’ve set up from different angles, and rely on your instincts and reactions to tell you what looks good.

Collect objects that are all of similar colors to paint in your still life. Find one or two objects whose colors are complementary to the rest, and add those to your composition - this will bring focus to these items, so choose them wisely!

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