Accidental Still Life

Cafe Still Life with BaristaI have been painting more still lifes in the past couple years.  They provide subject matter for painting inside when the weather is not good for painting outside and I don’t have a photo that particularly inspires me.  I always set up my own still life from items that are close at hand.  I decide which items to use and I do the arranging.

But this summer while traveling in Europe I came across a wonderful still life that was already arranged by someone who probably had no idea that’s what they were doing.  I had a sketchbook with me and at noon we would often sit at a sidewalk café for lunch.  I would sketch whatever I could see from where I was sitting.  But this particular day in Poland it was raining at noon and we entered a small café and sat inside.

Looking around, I suddenly noticed on the counter the most amazing still life of fruit in glass bowls, a huge watermelon, and various containers.  I began sketching at once and also took photos, not only of the objects on the counter but also of the young woman who was working behind the counter.  Something about her expression reminded me of a impressionist painting of a bar maid behind a counter.  So I photographed her too.

Back at home I painted the still life pretty much as I had seen it and just moved the young woman a bit closer to include her too.  All those details were very challenging to paint and I spent much more time on it that I usually do on a painting.  As I was painting, I noticed something else too.  The painting reminded me of those samplers young girls use to embroider many years ago to show the kinds of stiches they could do.  This painting included so many examples of what artist learn, such as painting different shapes including cylinders and three dimensional rectangles.  There are repeats of colors and shapes. It features examples of how to paint fruit, glass, metal and china.  There is also a portrait.

Whoever arranged that counter had the soul of an artist and I am so grateful for the inspiration.




Keep Your Eyes Open

Souvenirs, Acrylic, 11″ x 14″p of artists

I’m part of a small group of artists who meet weekly when enough of us are available.  This encourages us to come up with some sort of project to work on when we get together.  In good weather I like to paint outdoor, although that can be a challenge when I am at the same place I have been many times before.  Sometimes in bad weather I paint from photos I have taken.  But on this particular Wednesday morning about a month ago I didn’t even have a photo in mind and had no partially completed canvasses to work on.  But I packed up my paints and went anyway, hoping I would see something inspiring.

We met at a home where I had not been before.  The weather was not good so we were inside.  Fortunately, there was a lot to see.  This woman loved to travel and she did not come home empty handed.  She invited me to wander around and look at her treasures.  I was first attracted to the pot because of its subtle colors, which she told me was very old and came from Guatemala.  I have seen examples of the black pottery from a New Mexico pueblo before but I liked this one with its different shape.  The plate I chose she said came from Finland.  The tomato from her kitchen counter added a bit of brighter color.

I made good progress on the painting shown above that morning, took some photos and finished it at home.  The owner of these souvenirs bought the painting because, she said, “Each piece has a story.”

I seem to be getting luckier artistically.  I recently had paintings accepted into three different art shows that I tried to get in last year and didn’t.



Painting Demonstration


Handcrafted, Acrylic, 12″ x 12″

I sometimes like to watch those artists on the public television station demonstrate how they paint.  They seem so sure of themselves, as if they know from the beginning that this will be a really good painting.  Some encourage their viewers to paint along with them, but they paint so fast that this doesn’t seem practical.  How do they do it?  I recently had reason to ask myself that question.

I am a member of the Topeka Art Guild and there is a back room at their gallery where art classes are sometimes held.  The teacher of a weekly afternoon class of primarily senior citizens asked me to demonstrate plein air painting to her class.  Since this was in February, going outside was not an option.  But she wanted her students, who usually painted from photographs, to learn more about the art of painting what is in front of you.  I said I would do it and then had to figure out how to go about it.

When I paint outdoors in a public space, such as a park, people sometimes look over my shoulder briefly to see what I am doing and maybe make comments.  But they come and go quickly and I don’t really talk much to them.  I just keep painting.  This would be different.  I needed to figure out how those artists on TV did it.  I decided on a simple still life that I would paint on a small canvas.  I chose three objects that I had in my house.  They represented simple shapes, a sphere, a cone, and a cylinder, that students in art classes learn to shade.

First I practiced painting the still life at home.  Some of the drawing did not look quite right.  So then I practiced just drawing the still life several times with charcoal.  Finally it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to draw the still life ahead of time on the canvas to be sure to get it right.  Finally the big day arrived and I set up my easel and the still life in the room before the class arrived.  I talked a little bit about plein air painting to the class and about the objects I had chosen to paint.

It turned out to be easier than I had imagined.  Mostly the class members concentrated on their own work, occasionally walking up to where I was painting to see what I was doing and ask questions.  I didn’t quite finish the painting during class time, but I got enough done that they could see how it would look.  I finished it at home.  I plan to enter it in the next Topeka Art Guild show, so they will be able to see the completed painting.

A Change of Pace


On the Balcony, acrylic, 16″ x 12″

It is easy to keep doing the same things over and over, especially if we’ve had some success doing it that way.  But we never know what we might learn and enjoy if we try something a little different.  For some years I have painted with a small group of women.  The two most faithful members live in the country so we usually paint on their land.  And it can be a problem finding something I haven’t painted before, maybe more than once.

Recently we had a new woman join our group.  Like the rest of us, she’s a senior citizen, but has been a more active artist both in time spent creating art and in entering shows both locally and in other communities.  I was surprised when she said she had never painted with a group before and I admired her willingness to give us a try.  When she invited us to her house in town to paint, I was glad to be going to a new location.

Her home contained an amazing amount of art, not only her own paintings but an extensive collection of pottery that she had collected in her travels, both in this country and abroad.  I can’t imagine buying pottery in some distant location and trying to get it home intact.  As I looked around for a place to paint, there was pottery everywhere.  Finally, I went out on a balcony overlooking the back yard.  The day was a bit cold for painting outside, but this balcony was enclosed in glass, which made it a perfect place to paint.  And of course there was pottery on the balcony t00.

I have been drawn more to still life recently and this pottery was an interesting challenge, as was the tile floor of the balcony.  Exactly what colors were these objects?  It was fun to figure that out.  Drawing the pots took some careful observation.  Exactly what shape are they and how does one make sure both sides are the same?  At home, I checked what I had done in this way.  I drew around one of the pots on tracing paper and then folded it in half.  I decided which half I liked best and then cut around it so that both sides were now the same.  Then I placed this on the painting of the pottery and drew around it with charcoal, which showed me where I needed to make corrections.  You can do this with elipses too, such as the one at the top of the larger pot.

I have a couple ideas of new places to paint and I can’t wait to give them a try.



Onions, acrylic, 11" x 14'

Onions, acrylic, 11″ x 14″

One never knows when the inspiration for a painting may strike.  So often I’ve chosen a subject to paint simply because I happened to be in that location and had time to paint.  But occasionally I will see something and just know that I have to paint it.  When my kids were young that was really frustrating because I didn’t have to time to respond to those inspirations.  They don’t come along very often but when they do I can now respond, happy in the knowledge that such paintings usually turn out well.

I had been painting in a friend’s studio with several others earlier this year.  When we finished painting and went upstairs to eat lunch, I saw a bowl of onions on her kitchen counter and there was that feeling.  “I’ve just got to paint this.”  Who knew a bowl of onions would beg to be painted?  Anyway, we were done painting for that day.  But she told me she liked to cook with onions and usually had a bowl of them on the counter.  So the next time we painted at her house I made sure there would be a bowl of onions for me to paint and that they would be the reddish kind that I had seen earlier.  I wondered what I would use for foreground and background but that was solved for me when she sat the bowl on a small wooden table that was just the right color.  And the floor of the studio, seen in the background, provided the needed dark accent.

So keep your eyes open and who knows what you will see.  It isn’t only dramatic sunsets, majestic mountains, or an especially beautiful face or body that can inspire an artist.  It could be something as simply as a bowl of onions.


Still Life Doesn’t Move

August Bounty, acrylic, 12" x 16"

August Bounty, acrylic, 12″ x 16″

I don’t paint many still lifes.  Somehow they just haven’t seemed as interesting as a beautiful landscape or a person with an interesting face or pose.  But there are advantages to this kind of art as I realized recently when I painted those vegetables.  I had driven out in the country to paint with friends, which I do almost every week.  It was a hot day and shade can so quickly turn to sun as the light changes.  So I decided I didn’t want to paint on the surrounding grounds.  My friend and her husband have a large garden and at this time of year it is yielding abundantly.  In fact, she had vegetables piled up in the kitchen for us artists to take home.  I took a closer look at them and decided that I would arrange some in one of her bowls to paint.

To me vegetables are for cooking and eating.  But I enjoyed looking at these.  Eggplant has a wonderful, deep color.  Some of vegetables were unfamiliar to me, such as the heirloom tomato that contained various shades of green along with the red and the pale yellow sweet pepper, different in color and shape than the ones I had seen in the supermarket.  The orange and red sweet peppers were a also a different shape.

A good thing about painting a still life is that you can control the light.  Outdoors it is changing constantly.  And still life stays still.  It doesn’t move around like people or animals.  That makes it easier to come back to a painting the next day and still see the same thing in front of you.  Of course this isn’t true if the still life contains flowers in a vase.  Some of them could easily have wilted.  With this arrangement, there was an additional advantage.   When I took the still life home to continue painting the next day, my friend let me keep the vegetables, which were delicious.


Technique vs Inspiration

November 17, 2013

Recently my 11-year-old grandson asked if he could come over and paint so we arranged a time on a day when he didn’t have school.  I haven’t had much experience teaching art and wasn’t quite sure what he had in mind.  I showed him some pastels and watercolor paint as kids are often familiar with those but that was not what he wanted.  He wanted to use the same paints I do, which are acrylics.  We looked at my stash of canvases and he chose a 14″ x 18″ one.

Next came deciding what to paint.  It was too cold to paint outside.  Since I like to look at what I am painting I suggested he might like to paint a still life.  I don’t think he had ever heard of that but I opened the refrigerator and he picked out some grapes, oranges and apples plus two bananas off the counter.  I found a white bowl and we were ready to begin.  I explained that he should paint the background first.  He was surprised at that but was willing to go along with that idea.  I asked him to draw a line where the table would be and then choose colors for the table and background and paint those before drawing the fruit.  Soon he had painted a pale blue background and a dark brown table.

Fortunately acrylics dry fast and I helped it along with a hairdryer.  He had put the fruit in the bowl.  I gave him a piece of charcoal to draw what he wanted to paint.  I explained about the top of the bowl being an oval rather than a straight line and he was willing to accept that.  The grapes proved too hard to draw so he eliminated them and added a second banana.  He listened when I suggested that perhaps he had drawn to bananas too thin.  Charcoal is easy to remove and he had soon drawn two very good looking banana shapes.

I asked him to look at the apples and notice that they were not totally red but had some yellow streaks in them.  He tried that, didn’t like the result and from then on concentrated on inspiration.  The two red apples became flat shapes, one red and one green.  The oranges and bananas became flat shapes too sitting in a white bowl.   Then inspiration really took over.  The bowl developed black spots.  The bowl and each piece of fruit was outlined in black.  The result was rather striking actually.  But then came the final touch.  Above the bowl he painted a pink pig with wings.  Now where did that come from?  There is a commercial where the phrase, “When pigs fly,” is used but in that commercial the pig sits in an airplane seat.

He was pleased with his painting and wanted to frame it.  So I took a frame off one of my paintings and we framed his creation.  Then I drove him and his painting home to show his mom.  I wonder where she hung it.