6 Ideas for Setting up a Successful Still Life

There are more possibilities for still life subject matter than there are minutes in a day. And, believe me, it can take a lot of those minutes to decide exactly how to set up your still life!

These still life painting ideas will help you set up and succeed.

still life example

All art via Dorothy Lorenze

Decide what to paint

One of the best ways to start is to find an object that really intrigues you. If you love an object, you are more likely to be patient with the process of observing, examining and painting it.

Think about the story you want to tell. Is it about color and texture? History or emotion? That story can suggest what a painting’s title might be. The contrasting textures and complimentary colors of the ginger jar and clementines above really drew me in. Ginger and citrus are reminiscent of chutney, and so this piece, painted in Putney, Vermont, is called Making Chutney in Putney. Of course.

Logistics and where to set up

Still life doesn’t depend on weather, as plein air painting does, or on hiring a model as figurative painting requires. Still life can be tackled almost anywhere there is lighting, a surface and… stuff! However, controlling light and determining your horizon, or sightline, are important from the start.


A consistent light source is needed to render form with highlights and shadows. Any secondary or ambient light will create conflicting shadows or reflections making it difficult to understand what’s really going on. If needed, set up blockers (cardboard panels) to prevent ambient light from causing confusion.


For right-handed artists it’s best to have the light coming over the left shoulder as shown above. This way your hand is less likely to cast a shadow. Reverse for left-handers, of course. It’s also wise to have the same type of light (warm or cool) illuminating your work area as your set up for accurate color mixing.


With still life the horizon is not the point where the earth meets the sky, rather it’s the sight line of the artist/viewer. When objects are placed on a table we decide how much of the surface will be visible and that can influence the “story”. Viewing from above can emphasize the space between the objects. Viewed straight on (with the table’s edge or bottom of objects at eye level) similarities or contrasts between the objects may be more significant.

sight-lineObviously, standing at your easel works well for viewing a still life from above. To view straight-on (eye-level, directly at the table edge), boxes, wood blocks or stacks of books can be used to raise the surface. A plain board can be draped to make a suitable surface. But artists-who-shall-remain-nameless have been known to amass a variety of wood boxes, wine crates, wood crates, old beams, tins, trunks and even vintage suitcases to serve as surfaces.

Planning the composition


What’s the mood you want to set? Low-key paintings are predominately dark and likely to create a somber mood or a sense of strength and richness. High-key paintings are light, which can invoke a cheerier emotional response or a feeling of innocence. Think about this impact when making choices, especially for background.

high-key vs low-key sceneDrama

Ideally, one area of your painting will be the “star,” with the rest acting as supporting players. A strong focal point draws the viewer in and starts the conversation. Your focal point can be a single object or a dramatic reflection or other interplay between objects. In choosing subjects, consider what aspect of the elements you want to draw attention to.



Finally. This is the pure fun part! Gather a bunch of objects that, more or less, relate to the story you want to tell. Play with them. Use your imagination, take your time, move things around. It’s a dance and every step gets you closer to the grand finale. Be patient and empathetic. Evolve with the process. Your first chosen object may have to be abandoned. Not every player makes the final cut. This can be a slow process, so take pictures to help remember the ground you’ve covered. Photos also provides a 2-D preview of the composition.

The images below show just a few of the options I considered for this still life of old books, hoping to convey the timelessness of reading and learning.

books options

In the end, a red marble symbolized a child’s view, with old worn books spanning a lifetime (the pocket watch seemed a bit too obvious for an allusion to time passing).

final productAfter observing what works and what doesn’t, it’s a good idea to gather more patience and critique where you are. Decide what else is needed to make the composition really sing. In the above painting, it was the marble.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Would an element of warm or cool color help balance the composition?
  • Does the pattern of lights and darks create the necessary movement to keep the viewer interested?
  • Are there subtle passive areas to balance high energy areas?
  • Do the areas that draw your eye work FOR the composition? Don’t let a bright or high-contrast element in the background fight for attention with a focal point.

And finally, here are some of the challenging subjects for beginners to avoid:

  • Stripes. Especially if they are crossed by shadow, or in reflection. Tough stuff!
  • White on white. A painting of white objects can be very beautiful but it’s difficult to render form with shadows without making mud! White linen can get dirty, especially the painted version.
  • Reflection. Reflected shapes are generally abstracted, but they still have to make sense, while following the shape of the object they are reflected on. There are subtle differences in color between the object and the reflection. That subtlety is difficult to see, but oh so important.
  • Glass. Refracted light creates many odd, abstract shapes. Need I say more?

What’s the best subject to paint?

Something you love! Whether it’s dusty old books or juicy orange slices. If you love it, trust me, you will do it better. Unless it’s a pastry. Then all bets are off. Because the most important single element of a successful still life is patience. Patience to work until it’s well and truly done!

(Who has the patience to just stare at a yummy dessert for hours… or days? Not me. Check my website. Not a doughnut or pastry to be found.)

  • (will not be published)

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