Still life painting in the west appeared as early as 3,500 years ago in Egypt. Images of mundane objects useful in a good afterlife adorn murals of daily life in Egyptian frescoes and tomb paintings. They were commonly interwoven with images of workers, kings and gods, rather than being individual paintings. Compositionally, these arrangements, and their often symbolic and narrative qualities, were a subset of larger images that also had symbolic and narrative qualities.
In the classical periods of ancient Greece and Rome, still life paintings achieved a vibrant level of naturalism and enjoyment for their own sake. Woven into household frescoes in wealthy Pompeian homes, still life paintings provided visual delight to the residents as they included food, books, flowers, gardens and animals. Symbolic objects were also part of figurative images of the gods and goddesses, read as part of the visual story unfolding on fresco walls.
Medieval painting and book illumination traditions in Europe elevated the role of still-life objects to new heights of symbolic narrative, not unlike that of ancient Egypt. Chalices, swords, objects of torture, flowers and more identified everything from stories of individual saints to spiritual and theological concepts.
The parallel traditions of still life compositions as sources of beauty as well as symbolic narrative have continued to the 21st century. In fact, they have been a vehicle for visual narrative and expression in almost every historical and artistic movement in western art. Everything from Impressionism to early modern Abstraction utilised still life subjects as a vehicle for exploration.
The French painter Edouard Manet thought of still life as the touchstone of painting, or as a kind of basis of painting experience. Many of the greatest painters of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Henri Matisse, Euan Uglow and Georgia O’Keeffe, have focused on still life.
Art education today often begins with the drawing of humble objects to teach form, proportion and composition, as still life has emerged as a central genre of artistic expression.
Compositional strategies in still life painting vary according to the purpose of the image and the intent of the artist. The focus might be a symmetrically placed object or a set of asymmetrically balanced objects. Lighting is also an important factor. A directional light might reveal form strongly, while ambient indirect light might emphasise flat shapes in the composition. Colour is an important factor in designing a composition, whether the objects are threedimensional and realistic, or flat and semi-abstract. Over the next four pages are six areas to consider when thinking through and executing a strong still life composition.
It is important to become familiar with the objects you have chosen for your still life composition. What is the character of the objects in terms of their forms, underlying structures, textures, proportions and colours?
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