Thursday, March 6, 2014

Watercolor Demonstration Class: Still Life with Pears and Strawberries -- Part 1

I have been away from my blog for a while and am happy to return!  I just taught a class on Still Life in my studio, ARThouse, in Sandy Spring, Maryland.  As part of my teaching, I usually publish an article on this blog after the demonstrations are over, so that I can further explain the process to the students.  This is going to be a three-part article.  The first part will focus on arranging and photographing Still Life, the second on the class demonstrations, and the third on finishing the painting in the studio.

Still Life is a huge subject area for artists.  Here we are focusing on a modernized version of a traditional still life with objects arranged in a semi-formal fashion. I chose objects that had a universal appeal and were readily understood.  Here is the reference photo I used for the demonstration, and below I will explain how I created this arrangement.

What are the objects sitting on and where are they?  The whole still life is sitting on a small round end table that happens to be on wheels.  This proved very useful because it could be moved around the room until I found a good lighting situation.  They were in a room with a very large window so there was a lot of unavoidable light on the front of the objects.  I set up a bright light off to the right to give them some side lighting.  For a more dramatic effect I could have wheeled the table into a darker room, but I wanted a bright and cheerful look.  The cloth is a dishtowel.

Why these objects?  We were having a snowstorm and the only fruits in the house were pears and strawberries!  But I like the archetypal appeal of these classical fruits.  Since this was a class demonstration, I chose objects that would demonstrate different surfaces, such as clear glass, a shiny ceramic pitcher, some flowers, and a draped cloth with a pattern on it.  Also they were chosen because they varied in height and shape.  I purposely chose a simple color scheme of greens and reds so that the painting would be more unified.  I felt the colors were soft and harmonious.

Why this background?  I experimented with different backgrounds, first starting by setting the table in front of a white cloth couch.  When I moved it in front of a black leather chair, the value contrasts seemed much more effective.  So the black background is simply the back of a large chair!  Below are some of the other photos I took of the still life:

light too bland

no small objects

better, but light still too bland with no strong shadows

placed a black blanket over the couch; light still too bland

better, but pear on left too prominent

best, with stronger lighting and whole pear partially obscured 

Here are some tips for setting up still life:
  • Choose objects that you like but are not too obscure.  Weird little possessions that might mean a lot to you don't necessarily work well in a still life.  Choose objects that are different heights and volumes.  Choose a papa shape, mama shape, and several baby shapes.
  • Find a good light source, such as a window, or use a strong lamp.  Photography lamps can actually mimic a strong light source such as sunlight, and you can get some excellent effects.  Use side lighting to create simple shadow shapes.  Be wary of too many light sources casting shadows and reflections all over the place.
  • Place the objects on a white or light surface, so that you will have interesting cast shadows.  White is excellent because the shadows can be infused with reflected light from colored objects.
  • Avoid strong diagonal lines, such as the edge of a table.  The table I used was round, which created a nice curved shape at the bottom of the picture.  It is usually better to have the table edge go horizontally across rather than be at a diagonal.  Also it is best if the table edge is interrupted by a cloth or object going over the edge.
  • Plan your background when you are doing the photography.  Making up a background after the fact is one of the hardest things in watercolor.  It is best to be sure your reference photo already contains a good background.  When the background appears behind glass objects, it can be used to really illuminate the glassiness of the object, as you can see with the green glass vase in my reference photo above.
  • To make your cast shadows look really light and airy, have an object pass from the light into the shadow (such as a spoon, napkin, pencil, etc.).  This makes the cast shadow very convincing!
  • What tips can you think of?  Would you be willing to leave a comment to add some additional tips?  I would really appreciate this!
Your Watercolor Challenge:  Arrange a still life using the tips and ideas in this article and paint it in watercolor!  When you are finished, send me photo of the painting by email and I will post it on this blog!

Happy painting!  --Susan Murphy, on a cold day in March, 2014
Next time in Part 2:  How to get your drawing onto your paper, and how to paint your still life in watercolor!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the great explanation of how to set up a still life. I am sure you explained this in class before, but sitting and reading it at home without distractions, makes it easy to understand. Thank you for taking the time for these helpful suggestions. Thank you for being such a good teacher. From one of your grateful students.