Tips to Improve Still Life Painting

Make sure that you set up and light your still life to accurately convey the mood and concept that you’re aiming for.

When you’re satisfied with your composition, use a viewfinder to help with framing and accuracy (drawing a grid or marks for reference on the edges of the canvas that correlate with marks on your viewfinder can be very useful when it comes to scale, angles and more).

If you’re going to be painting from a photograph, then try turning it upside down and painting the still life that way.

Doing this shatters the preconceptions that you have about the items you are painting, and forces you to look at the shapes of the objects, as well as the shadows. (This is also a great exercise to try when painting portraits from photographs.) Remember to paint what you see, not what you think you see.

If you don’t want pencil lines to show through the paint, then don’t do your initial sketch with a pencil, but use a brush instead. Simply use a very thin wash of paint to “draw” with your paintbrush. Paint the brush strokes (or draw the pencil lines) using your mind before even touching the canvas.

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Squint your eyes to make light and dark areas more obvious and eliminate some unnecessary details, but don’t forget that shadows have textures too! If you leave them too plain, it may be difficult to identify objects, or to realize that the shadows are part of them. Also, make sure that the shadows don’t have lighter tones than non-shadow areas, although there are always exceptions, such as reflections.

Thin lines can be difficult to paint, so take the time to “reveal” them, using a technique called “sgraffito”, instead. Paint the background color using the color that you want the lines to be. Allow the paint to dry completely before painting the overall color of the item. While the paint is still wet, use a toothpick or pencil to scratch through the paint to the color underneath.

Finding intriguing items to paint is not always easy. Use photos as reference material and to add objects that you may not own to your still life. Search for images on the internet, in magazines and books; and take photos at shops, friends’ houses and museums. You’ll have to get creative with shadows (on the object and where it casts shadows on other objects), but if you’re up for the challenge, this can be a great way to add something different to your artwork.

When painting, artists often can sense when something is wrong. If you think you’ve made a mistake somewhere but can’t figure out what it is, turn your painting upside down, or look at it in a mirror. Viewing it from such a radically different perspective can bring your attention to inaccuracies that you wouldn’t have spotted otherwise.

Sometimes you’ll notice that the items in your painting don’t seem to tie together well. To fix this, paint a glaze over the painting using a single color. This will help to create unity, and you can always touch up on highlights later where it’s necessary.

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