Perfecting the still life composition with over 10 tips on arranging objects

Arranging objects in a painting can be difficult. You want to create a beautiful and interesting still life composition, but you don’t want it to look like a mess. It’s hard to know where to start when arranging objects in a painting. Do you put the biggest object in the middle? Or should the tallest object be in the back? 

This article will teach you how to create an interesting and beautiful still-life composition. I’ll show you through examples and easy steps how to use perspective, light, and color to your advantage, so your paintings always look great.

What is still life composition and why should you use it in your artwork?

What defines a still life?

A still life can be any arrangement of objects that doesn’t move. The subject matter is usually inanimate, as the word still suggests. But live subjects like animals or people can also be considered still life if they’re not moving.

The best way to learn about still life composition is to look at examples of still lifes and see how the artists have arranged the objects. You can find still lifes in paintings, drawings, and photographs.

What are the most common features of a still life?

There are some common features of still life that you’ll see in many examples.

  • One feature is that the objects are usually arranged on a horizontal surface, like a table.
  • The objects are often arranged symmetrically or asymmetrically depending on their shape and size.
  • The composition is often simple, with just a few objects.
  • The light source is often from the side or from above, so you see shadows cast by the objects. Rarely do you see the actual light source as part of the painting. It is typically off the page, and you can easily imagine the light source behind the viewer or painter.
  • The focal point is usually just off the middle and the perspective moves to the rear center of the painting.
  • The color palette depends on the artists’ preference and the style they use but you will see that outside of Impressionist works, most still life paintings use realistic colors and many are muted rather than vibrant.
europeana HhMt nUAIEc unsplash
Title: Vanitas still life. Date: 1646. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum. Providing Country: Netherlands. Public Domain

What defines a still life composition?

A still life composition is the arrangement of inanimate objects like flowers, fruits, vegetables, bottles, books, etc. The word “still life” comes from the Dutch word “stilleven”.

In paintings and drawings, a still life composition is usually set up on a table or other flat surface.

The purpose of still life compositions is to give artists a chance to practice their skills at representing everyday objects.

It’s also a good way to learn about color, light, and shadow. And because still-lifes are often small and easy to set up, they’re a great way to practice painting without having to go outdoors.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to still life compositions. You can use anything you have around the house

What makes a good composition in still life drawing?

The still life is all about the arrangement of objects. The objects you choose, and how you arrange them, will affect the overall look and feel of the painting.

Here are a few tips on how to arrange objects in a still life composition:

  • Choose interesting objects. The still life should be full of objects that are interesting to look at.
  • Consider the size and shape of the objects. Objects that are of different sizes and shapes add interest to a still life composition.
  • Place the objects in an interesting way. Try arranging the objects in a way that is pleasing to the eye.
  • Use negative space. Negative space is the empty space around and between the objects in a still life composition.
  • Correctly uses perspective – The objects in the still life should be arranged in a way that creates a sense of depth and perspective.
  • Create a focal point. The focal point is the most important part of the still life composition. It is the part of the painting that will draw the viewer’s attention first.
  • Add movement. Movement can be created by using diagonal lines or by placing objects in a way that leads the eye around the still life composition. You can do this by adding a fork or knife laid along the base so that it draws the eyes to another part of the still life composition.
  • Balance the still life composition. Balancing the still life means creating a sense of stability in the painting. This can be done by using both light and dark colors, as well as by placing objects of different sizes and shapes throughout the painting.
  • Keep it simple. A still life composition doesn’t have to be complicated to be beautiful. Sometimes the simplest still lifes are the most stunning. Try not to overcrowd the painting with too many objects. A few well-chosen objects will create a more impactful still life composition than a bunch of random things thrown together.

How to create a balanced and harmonious still life composition

Creating a balanced and harmonious still life composition requires you to consider both the light and dark areas of the painting, as well as the placement of objects of different sizes and shapes.

The key to a successful still life composition is to create a sense of balance. This can be done by using both light and dark colors, as well as by placing objects of different sizes and shapes throughout the painting.

The trick to a great still life composition is layering. Start with one layer (one object) and then place another and work on it until you are happy with the composition.

Steps

  1. Start by placing one object and work out the direction of your lighting source and anything you need in the background.
  2. Add another object and consider the negative space around it.
  3. Repeat step 2 for any other objects that you wish to add.
  4. Place your objects in a way that creates a sense of balance and harmony.
  5. Look at your still life composition from various angles and then look at it from a mirror. The mirror will help you see if your still life composition is balanced.
  6. Remember to keep your still life simple and uncluttered. Too many objects will make the painting look busy and chaotic.
  7. Use light and dark colors to create contrast and visual interest.
  8. Have fun with your still life composition and experiment with different arrangements until you find one that you are happy with!
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Photo by Ryan on Unsplash

Tips for adding interest and depth to your compositions

There are some additional things to consider when putting together a still life composition and these are interest and depth, which I have touched on earlier. To add further interest and depth consider the following:

  • Try using a variety of textures in your still life. This could include things like fur, velvet, glass, metal, wood, etc.
  • Use a range of shapes and sizes for your objects.
  • Consider the negative space in your composition. This is the area around and between the objects in your painting. Negative space can be just as important as the objects themselves!
  • Add a pop of color to your still life by including a brightly colored object or background.
  • Use light and shadow to create interest and depth in your still life composition. Think of the great still life paintings by Renaissance artists who used dark shadows and strong lighting and compare them with still life paintings of Georges De La Tour who used very low lighting and color.
976px Georges de La Tour 010
Georges De La Tour – close up of a still life within a painting the “Penitent Magdalene”

Now compare the above to an (post) Impressionist still life composition such as the Van Gogh below and we see that the latter is also simple but full of light and color.

impressionist still life
Paris – Musée d’Orsay – Vincent Van Gogh’s Two Cut Sunflowers” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Examples of beautiful and inspiring still life with a great composition

I have provided some still life composition paintings below that have inspired me or that I found to be interesting in their composition.

Paul Cezanne was a master at the still life composition, he created a focal point with the fruit at the center of the painting using bright colors outlined in darker borders and then to enforce the focal point a little more he draped the bowl and fruit in a table cloth, a vase and milk jug. Completing the still life composition he has pushed the entire still life forward by placing the light colors against a dark brown backdrop which is a set of drawers and a table.

He also uses the cloth to direct your eyes from the right side of the image to the middle and then across the painting.

cezanne
Cezanne was one of my favorite still life artists

‘Four Apricots on a stone plinth’ show how the use of negative and positive space as part of the still life composition. Here the artists has masterfully painted four apricots on a stone base that is slightly illuminated from a light source outside of the paintings immediate view.

The artist has use the length of the rectangle to carefully drag your eyes down to the lower third of the painting to see the four pieces of fruit just visible behind the dark background. While the still life composition is simple, you can see when using lighting, shapes and space you can create quite a powerful piece of art with minimal detail and without the need to clutter the painting with other shapes.

europeana KKqrdZnGhE8 unsplash 1
Title: Four Apricots on a Stone Plinth. Date: 1698. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum. Providing Country: Netherlands. Public Domain

Remember still lifes don’t always have to be traditional either, you can get really creative with your compositions, have a look at Andy Warhol’s still life paintings below.

The still life below is quite unique, there are no traditional fruits or flowers i.e. dead nature items but a hammer and sickle, composed to look like a traditional still life with upright thin objects that could pass off as vases or bottles and the organic curve of the sickle could pass as fruit or vegetables. While the bright red is used to associate the hammer and sickle with communism, the same reds can apply to the many variety of fruits and vegetables that usually see in a still life painting.

andy warhol still life

I actually like to think Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup paintings are a still life.

warhol campbells soup

Still life composition – wrap up!

A still life composition can be a difficult thing to master, and I know I struggled and sometimes still struggle with it. Hopefully, with these tips, you will be on your way to creating beautiful still lifes. Keep practicing and don’t be afraid to experiment!

Sources

Still Life Series: Sketch” by rbaez is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Andy Warhol’s Still Life 1976 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/484559

Title: Four Apricots on a Stone Plinth. Date: 1698. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum. Providing Country: Netherlands. Public Domain via Unsplash

Still life painting – Photo by Ryan on Unsplash

The Penitent Magdalene – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georges_de_La_Tour_010.jpg

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