Recipe for Arranging a Good Still Life

How To Arrange a Still Life

First, a little history. Back in the Rennaissance and Romantic eras of art, still lifes were used to convey the artists talent. So, there were many objects put into the paintings. Also, objects had meaning, for instance a cut open fruit meant resurrection or rebirth. Each flower or insect or nut or whatever had a meaning either religious or social. Pretty interesting! Artists would convey their versatility and knowledge through these paintings. 

The Impressionists pretty much blew all the historic aspects away, and brought a whole new meaning to still life. Their work was immediate. The fruit was on the table, and they probably were going to eat it after they painted it. To them it was like everything else; the light, texture, and personal relationship. 

Then we have the modernists; Warhol (tomato soup can), Georgia O'Keefe (flowers), Jasper Johns (manhole cover), Picasso (many!). They've put their own spin on still lifes each seeing the mundane in our world as something unique, and worthy of discussion and viewing.


      Objects - Use varied objects that are somewhat related such as:

                        1. Wine bottles, grapes, pitchers, bowls, fall flowers

                        2. Watering can flowers, garden tools, vases, garden gloves

                        3. Teapot, cups, teabags, fruit, bread, doilies, books

                        4. Chopsticks, fish, bowls, sake, cherry blossoms, sculpture

5. Pick one object, and have an assortment of them: bowls, veggies, fruit, ornaments, easter eggs, nuts, geese sculptures... anything!!

Background – It should support the objects in color, subject, or mood:

  1. Old wooden panels, flags around nautical elements
  2. Lace behind antiques with a vintage shawl,  or brocade
  3. Bright colors, a hung sombrero behind Mexican objects
  4. Don’t forget to lean or hang things in the back.

Table – Have the objects sitting on an interesting surface with possibly more than one texture, such has wood and cloth, or various fabrics, books and paper laying down flat. Remember, you never have your eyes at the table level so the flat surface has to be addressed as well.

Arrange your objects so they don’t stand or sit tall to short.  Make an interesting visual line along the top of the objects. Try not to put the tallest objects on the ends; it will visually prevent the viewer's eyes from moving around the painting.

Put some things in back and some more forward so the shapes overlap. This will help the viewers eye move through the still life. Arrange the heights in a pleasing manner. If you have boxes or things that open, show some of them in an open position. Things can be tilted, leaning, opened, etc. Foods can be open or in pieces/slices.

View from front and sides, make sure it is visually pleasing. 

Have a good light source so you have interesting shadows, and created depth of form on the objects and background.

Unify with color. Don’t have one object that stands out because of its color. Ex.: if you are working in a palette of yellows and greens, a blue object is okay because you can work the blue into the green objects and vice versa, but a purple object would look out of place, and be difficult to work into the colors. Be thoughtful about the color, but don’t let it rule the arrangement.

Make the arrangement pleasing to you! It should inspire and get those creative juices going.  Solve your problems while you do the arrangement, and your hard work will make the end result just what you want.