In researching what to write about still lifes I’ve come across many essays on the subject that are mostly boring. There’s the essay on the Dutch tradition from the 1600’s. And then there’s the Spanish and Italian tradition that date from the same period. Some still lifes were created for a market of wealthy people so they could decorate barren walls in which flowers, especially in the north, were often the chosen subject. Then there are essays that explain the various symbolism that a still life can hold from the pious painters of the 17th and 18th centuries to the 21st century surrealists. There are examples of how objects point to allegories and religious tales reminding the viewer to obey God and that life is short and that reality may be different than you think. Etc. Etc.
What I like about still life as subject is basic– its availability. There is always a collection items around the house/studio to paint. And one item multiplied can serve just as well as a collection.
I like that they allow for ready practice. Their lowly stature in the art-subject hierarchy can render them insignificant. So practicing can be sans pressure. Any scrap of paper and a pencil allows for practicing “seeing”.
I like that they allow for immediate change– move things anyway you want whenever, either physically or in the mind’s eye. Draw an object or series of objects partially one way then switch to an alternate view. So much freedom to play around. Study shadows one-minute, negative space the next. And then mix it all up. You never have to feel as if you are starting a work of art. Simply sketching and experimenting. No incredible landscape light to lose or model to get tired. No important message to expose. One of favorites is painting my paint brushes.
Because of their flexibility and potential simplicity, the best thing about working with still lifes for me is that they make room for an artist’s vision to expand. They allow you to fall in love with bits and pieces like shadows and patina and lines. And their ease and availability can offer room for dreaming and connecting. It’s easy enough to use them to stretch, to create new worlds, create a statement. If your still life isn’t inspiring add or subtract as needed. Borrow from another artist. Insert a photo. Change the story.
That’s why it was Cezanne’s subject of choice. He had “bigger fish to fry”. The apple and its company allowed Cezanne to think and paint thoughts about art and vision that had never been done before.
Picasso and Braque could expand a vase and a guitar into Cubism.
And Morandi—that simple collection of bottles and pitchers on a small format in neutral colors gave him the opportunity for poetry.
Then there’s Georgia O’Keefe. She painted flowers. BIG. And when she couldn’t find flowers she painted bones and crosses and shells. Then she edited the unnecessary. The editing—brilliant!
So as you approach this most humble of subjects look at the possibilities of pulling apart, putting together, combining the unexpected, exploiting the forms, repeating, stretching, cropping editing, etc. Let this simple subject give you lots of ideas. Referring to a broken dish in her studio O’Keefe said: “I got half-a-dozen paintings from that shattered plate.”