How to Plan a Still Life Composition

Written by jennifer walker
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How to Plan a Still Life Composition
Plan a Still Life Composition (Jennifer Walker)

Still life paintings are generally simple juxtapositions of common objects such as fruit in a bowl. But if you've ever wondered what makes your fruit in a bowl look different from those in the art books, it's less about technique (though that helps too) and more about how you structure your scene. Before you place the first stroke of paint or pencil on your canvas--it's best to sketch out several different compositions before deciding which to choose. Read on for some tips to composing your own "art book" still life.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Flat surface
  • Boxes and bowls
  • Fabric or sheet
  • Fruits, vegetables and other objects
  • Cardboard
  • Ruler
  • Craft knife
  • Scratch paper
  • Pencil

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  1. 1

    Set your scene by using boxes, bowls or other risers to create height differences that will make your composition more interesting than one on a single, flat plane. If your risers are decorative they can become part of your scene or you can drape them with something to hide them.

    How to Plan a Still Life Composition
    Anything can be used to add height or variation to your surface.
  2. 2

    Arrange your still life objects among the surface you've created. You'll do a lot of rearranging as you make each practice sketch and consider the various elements that go into a composition. Sketch each variation with enough detail to reset it when you are ready to paint, but these are just sketches; they do not need to be overly complex.

    How to Plan a Still Life Composition
    Still lifes do not have to be complex; simple can work if you put thought and effort into it.
  3. 3

    Make a viewfinder by cutting a hole in a piece of cardboard or chipboard that is in the same proportion that your finished work will be. This helps to block out the surrounding area and really focus on the items you are looking at. Viewfinders can also be purchased at art and photography shops for a nominal fee.

    How to Plan a Still Life Composition
    As you can see, the viewfinder narrows your focus, helping you to see exactly what will be on the painting.
  4. 4

    Decide between an open or closed composition. Closed compositions have all elements completely contained by your frame, whereas open compositions have items extending outside the visual panel. Both have their merits and uses depending on the look you are going for, so try them both out in your trial sketches.

    How to Plan a Still Life Composition
    The lower apples actually touch the edge of the frame, making this an open composition.
  5. 5

    Balance your still life either symmetrically or asymmetrically. Symmetrical balance is more difficult to pull off since it must be precise or the eye will reject it. You also have the option to work off of either the horizontal or vertical axis. Asymmetrical balance can be easier to arrange but still requires work to effectively balance the shape of your elements with the negative space of the surrounding area.

    How to Plan a Still Life Composition
    This is a very symmetrical arrangement across the vertical axis, down to the directions the stems point, but with just enough variation to avoid looking fake.
  6. 6

    Create a rhythm in your still life by repeating various elements within the composition. The eye will automatically locate and move to each instance within the piece where shapes, colors and patterns are intentionally repeated.

    How to Plan a Still Life Composition
    Repeating the two colors with different objects and textures moves the eye from one portion of the composition to another.

Tips and warnings

  • Dividing your canvas into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and using the intersections to pinpoint your focal point(s) is a simple way to create asymmetrical balance in your composition.
  • Odd numbers are easier for the eye to balance than even ones. This holds true for both colors-- where you want to have light, medium and dark tones, even in a monochromatic piece-- and elements-- in which the odd number can come from the items themselves or the groupings that are present.

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