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Painting still lifes and “painter’s block”

Still lifes are easier to paint than landscapes, because – for one – they are still. Landscapes have ever-moving light and shade, and trees that blow about, and water that flows. That is the difficulty, even when you use a photo. Still lifes, on the other hand, are like a selfie of someone’s life – or rather, a “shelfie”, since it contains objects with which the person identifies. It’s not just about geometric shapes, perspective and lighting. Shelfies and still lifes tell stories about your life in one picture – what you value, what you like, and what you are thinking about. While still lifes they are an old genre in art, dating from the 16th century in Europe – they are still painted today, because of what they represent to people. Early still lifes, particularly the Vanitas style, were meant to show abundance, or depict a moral lesson or religious allegory (Life is short, repent! You will wilt and die like a lily in a vase!). Others were a kind of “keeping up with the Joneses” statement: Look at me and my stuff. I’ve got class and I’ve got luxury and I’ve got the money to get it recorded for posterity. 

My favourite types of still lifes are the late 17th and 18th century ones in which the religious and allegorical connotations were dropped and the “kitchen table”, with depictions of food, luxurious fabrics and household items, took over. These were often commissioned by the French aristocracy to show their wealth in what would be called these days, almost photo-realist, trompe-l’œil (French for “trick the eye”) style. They featured blown glass, silver, porcelain, exotic flowers and fruit, and meat in abundance. (Look, says the painting, my owner could afford this silver platter, these horrendously expensive tulips and that luscious dressed pheasant. That’s pheasant, not peasant, ha-ha.)

So, what was in the pictures, had meaning. Still lifes were more directly representative than a portrait, in which artists could also include symbolic objects, from mirrors, to animals and allegorical references, but hidden, since the figures were more important. Artists would paint still lifes simply to showcase their expertise but, apart from painting for an informed audience who knew, for instance, the meaning of the flowers in the picture, the artist could also build in visual double entendres by painting reflections in the glass or metal, by the state of decay of the food or flowers depicted, or by the choice of colours.

Framed 36 Still life II Framed 35 Still life I

The discipline of daily work, or how to beat Painter’s Block

Just thought I’d mention, these two little things took me well over a month to complete. The problem was not only the objects but the composition that had to fit into the small square canvases.  Seth Godin pointed out in a recent post that Abbey Ryan has painted a new painting every day for 8 years. True. Go and see. Some of them are pretty much the same as the ones before (flat table edge with wood grain, flat background, apple, grapes, mug), while others stand out. Most are quite small. But they are good, and they sell. And she paints every day, putting them out real fast. I can’t do that. Mostly because I do not have the technique and expertise. Also, because I have a job. I am a weekend painter and blogger. Lastly because I get “painter’s block” – thinking that I could only get it right once, and that was by accident, so I don’t want to try again.

The reverse is true, says prolific daily blogger and very sensible marketing guru Seth Godin:

“Abbey Ryan has painted a new painting every day for 8 years. Isaac Asimov published 400 books, by typing every day. This is post #6000 on this blog. Writer’s block is a myth, a recent invention, a cultural malady. More important than the output, though, is the act itself. The act of doing it every day. When you commit to a practice, you will certainly have days when you don’t feel like it, when you believe it’s not your best work, when the muse deserts you. But, when you keep your commitment, the muse returns. When you keep your commitment, the work happens. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads it, buys it, sponsors it or shares it. It matters that you show up. Show up, sit down and type. (Or paint).

So, I’ll be doing just that.