Within the history of art, still life has a long line covered. Although still life, as we know it now, mostly has its origin in the 16th and 17th century, already during Roman times we see still lives used as decoration in roman villas. Due to the fact that until the 16th century oil paint was not used, hardly any painting, such as still life, survived the test of time. Only through the discovery of a paint with an oil base we can now still enjoy paintings of that period.
The display of products or attributes was rather unusual during the 16th and 17th century. Painting in general had either a decorative or a religious purpose and was, until the oil paint started to be used, done with fresco on a wall or on wood. It was an expensive and time-consuming work.

In the 16th and 17th century, still life started its introduction with paintings that where known as kitchen scenes. Rich paintings of elaborate and lively kitchens with tables filled with exotic foods and spices. However, in most of these scenes there were still people involved. The main connection with still life was the fact that all the food, which was laid out on the table, was neatly composed. These kitchen scenes were the start of a variety of newly found subjects to paint. The most known are the show or ostentation pieces, the banquets and the fruit pieces. The interest for these kind of paintings made the start for commissioned work of products that would show the viewer that the owner of that particular painting was living a rather good life. Still life was born.

In the 16th and 17th century, we see the start of a variety of subjects within the genre of still life. Next to the already existing showpieces and banquets, we now see victory pieces, vanitas, flower pieces and science pieces. The 16th and 17th century were to most productive times for this genre. Until the start of the 19th century, it became less popular. Due to the rise of romanticism, still life received a revival with mostly flower pieces. However, with the years to come, still life was in for a total make over with the influences of artists like Cezanne, Picasso and Mondrian. Through their different approach, still life entered a new age. An age in which realism, measurements and symbolism started to have a total different meaning. The attention moved from subject to experience. Mostly the experience of the artist who wanted to share this through his/her work. This reached its peak in the years between 1965 and 2000.

Today, still life reached a new prime. It became a strong and well-represented genre within the art movement. The most significant difference now is that, although the artist still is the director of its work, the subject became more realistic than ever before. In addition, the subject started to be inferior to the craft. Due to the rise of hyperrealism and photorealism, one can hardly distinguish whether it is painted of photographed.

But where does this story lead to
Nowadays, although still life is well received among a growing public, it still has a large audience that is unable to see the magic in a bunch of objects placed on an old table. Even if it is painted in a hyper realistic manner.
When I am giving the still life workshop, one of the most delightful things happening is that moment when the students starts to realize how intriguing and ingenious still life actual is. Still life isn’t just a bunch of objects on a platform. It is a well-considered, calculated and measured harmony between space and objects.
But, let’s first look at what ‘still life’ actual means. The use of the word still life derives from the Dutch word stilleven. This is because during the 16th century, when still life became a genre on its own, it where the Dutch artist who were setting the trend. The word still is in this case referring to not moving. This ‘not moving’ does not only gets its meaning from the objects that are unable to move but, and perhaps this is even more significant, refers to the fact that within a still life there is, or should not be, any suggestion of movement. What this means is that even the composition, the use of lines that occur by placing objects in a certain way or angle, should be without any suggestion of movement within the frame. With this in mind you could say that the word still is as well referring to silence. Here we see a resemblance with Zen art. The absence of an amount of information makes it able to focus on the silence, the clarity of mind. For this, a nun-moving environment is of great help. Although still life do not have the same purpose as Zen art, the principle is the same.
The word life refers to the fact that with assembling and arranging objects in a certain way an optical life is created. It does not refer in any way to whether the object should or should not be alive. The arranging, putting the objects in to place is where the real magic takes place. Let me give some examples: Objects are hardly ever just randomly placed on the table, the plate or any surface that will be the base of the still life. If you have ever seen an still life artist arrange the objects to start a still life it might appear to you as if he or she is just putting them there, looking for good matches and then goes for it. However, there is more too this than meets the eye.

Artist in the 16th and 17th century, who started to specialize in still life, created certain well-studied tools to help them in arranging a still life. If you take a good look at still lifes from that time, you will see that there are several similarities in approach. So is the use of a single or plural triangle composition much used. Another composition that was often used for a fruit or banquet piece is the oval composition. The triangle composition gives an easy to access and harmonic composition that lets the viewer unconsciously browse through the picture while using a fixed focus point. The oval composition lets the viewer eyes go in circles until it reaches the middle of the painting. These guidelines for composing a still life where doing its best work when the viewer had no clue about it. You could say that the artist used these tools to force a specific way of viewing on the reluctant viewer.
Other substantiating tools for composing a still life are rhythm, repetition and the angle of the table-line or horizon-line, which is in this case in front of the objects instead of behind as it is with a landscape. Rhythm means the re-appearing of a shape within the cluster of object. For instance, the use of several rounded objects that are placed in the Still life. Repetition means the use of several of the same objects within the cluster. Both will help the unconscious eye to wonder around in the composition. In addition, the angle of viewer to the table-line is of great importance. When we look at a table with objects from above, the appearance is so much different from when we look at it from a lower, more direct point of view. From above the objects will appear more scattered around while from a lower point of view the objects will overlap each other. Although the from above angle is sometimes used with the oval composition we see that the frontal (lower) angle is far more used within this genre. The reason is with using the overlap from objects you create depth and a more harmonic view for the eyes of the beholder.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Feel free to leave your comment below.
If you interested to know more about still life or would like to experience for yourself how it is to make a still life?
I welcome you to visit one of the several opportunities of taking classes.

For more information:


En Plein Air

(Dit artikel is ook beschikbaar in het Nederlands. Klik hier)

En Plein air.

You paint, or perhaps not, and you would want to paint outside. Never done it before but somehow you feel the calling. So you gather your newly bought field easel, your paint brushes and smaller tubes of paint because you prepared yourself well and don’t want to carry extra load, and head of to a local spot of beauty to paint. The weather is awesome, the birds are singing, butterflies are playing around and you feel good. You prepare your mini pallet, have a quick drink of water and are ready to start. Then it hits you, you never done this before. How do you start? You have so many years of experience, you know your stuff, but somehow, sitting here with the warm breeze around your neck, you get stuck.
Recognize this? Trust me, you are not the first, or the only one, or the last one to discover that painting outside is quite different from painting in your studio.

In this article I hope to explain a bit of why this is happening (you will see that it is rather expected) but more on how you can get the best out of painting outside.

A bit of history.
Painting outside, or En Plein Air as the French started calling it, is not as old as you might expect. It was all thanks to two things. First of all the invention of oil paint. Although the use of oil paint was generally considered to start during the 15th century by the Dutch painters, it was much earlier that oil was used to make a paint. Several cave paintings have been found with pigments concealed in walnut oil. Also during the medieval period, monks were using linseed oil for their book paintings.
Second was the invention of a carrier for oil paint, which was done by the American painter John Goffe Rand in 1841. He used pig bladder combined with glass syringes to transport oil paint. Due to his invention, a whole new area of painting arose. It is believed that Pierre-Auguste Renoir who said, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.”
Tube display museum
Makes sense. Impressionist painters became known for their colorful, wild and, as the movement got its name, very impressionistic in approach. Many impressionist are recalled for saying that the main goal of painting this way was to set a true impression of that specific moment of the day. Using only that time that you could witness the splendor of what you were seeing and trying to catch this with paint on canvas.

Any of you, who have experienced the joy of sitting outside and feel the challenge of catching that specific light, the ever-changing colors, the temperature, and trying to put this within a given time on your canvas, will recognize this.

But what makes it so different from working in a studio? The most obvious is, of course, the fact that you’re not inside but outside working. Although expected, the influences of being outside, the wind, the sun, the noises and naturally the occasional rain, can have a major effect on how you sit there trying to paint. Being in your studio is very different. You are able to adjust pretty much everything to make your working space as pleasant and as constructive to your work, as possible. Try this with that hard to reach rocky spot behind a big tree next to a riverbank.
And yet, more and more painters, when discovering the magic of painting outside, get seriously hooked to it.
To work outside, it is best to leave any expectations you have on what to expect, what it will be or what you plan to paint, at home. Why? Because it always will be different.
Once you found a nice spot, accepted all the bugs flying around and ending up in your paint, and mastered to decide what you want to paint, you soon discover the agony of changing light. Trust me, even on a beautiful sunny day with a clear blue sky without a breeze, you will found yourself in an ever changing light-scape. The painting you start will never be the same as the scenery appears to you at the end of your capturing moment.

Some practical advices.
Now a day the art supply business seem to know exactly what you need to reach your goal as an artist. If it was only that simple. Absolutely, some wonderful gadgets out there can make your painting-outside-experience much more do-able and pleasant. But don’t make the mistake, and I’m sure you will or already did, to think that expensive, state of the art equipment will ensure great painting. Sorry. It will be much more likely to know that it will be your experience, your persistence and endurance that will ensure some beautiful results.
Nevertheless, some equipment are inevitable to work outside.
To start you will need an easel. And even the need for it is debatable. These days you can buy a lightweight aluminum easel that is easy to carry. Also small easels from wood are nice and you have the famous box-easels that combines an easel with your paint box. Handy but a bit heavier.
Then the decision is whether you want to stand or sit. For me, standing is great but sitting is greater. I get easy tired in my legs, which makes it uncomfortable to paint. Therefore, a foldable chair is handy.
Take enough rags or pieces of cloth. I noticed, considering you will have to clean your brushes at home, that it’s so handy to have lots or rags to clean, cover and clean some more while you out in the fields.
Another thing to take in consideration is where you going to paint on and how you’re planning to transport it. Near my hometown, there is a group plein air painters (they go every week no matter the weather) whom ingeniously use a system with which they slide several panels in a box. How nifty is that. However, I really advice you to make a system that will work for you to transport you work. I myself came up with a sort of cover for the painting. I always work on linen. I tape the canvas on a fixed size board and have another board, from which the sides are made higher, that is than used as a cover on the painting. That immediately brings us to another practical tip: the size of your painting.
If you’re planning to go by car and know that you’re going to stay close to your car, the size of your painting is pretty much the size your car can handle. However, if you consider to have a nice stroll before finding a good spot that will embrace every fiber of your being to yell at you that you have to paint this, you might want to think twice before taking up a 1 by 1 meter canvas. So, in general, small sized panels or canvas are easy to carry, easy to work with and easier to handle. Because, let’s not forget, the idea of ‘en plein air’ is to make and finish a painting on the spot.
So much for practical tips.

Now some technical tips and suggestions.
If you ever took the time to examine the impressionist works, you soon will notice that there is a specific use of colors. In fact, certain colors are in a lot of cases not used.
If you walk through the countryside and glans over the trees, the nearby bushes, the hills in the distance and the far away village skyline, as an experienced plein air painter, you will immediately distinguish the different pallet of colors. However, as a typical studio painter you might find yourself wondering how those impressionists came to those, sometimes extreme, choice of colors. To understand this, you have to understand the following. Before the 19th century, during the classical approach in painting, it was general knowledge to paint the exact, or so we thought, color of the object as to emphasize a most convincing resemblance to reality as possible. Due to the fact that till than almost every artist was working in a studio, and natural outdoor daylight was not much available, it is not surprising to see, indeed, almost only colors that we can recognize within our marge of acknowledgeable colors. However, and this was very well understood by the impressionists, when outside, colors seem to change in any given circumstances. Not only by the change of light but also by the influences of atmosphere, distances and humidity. In addition, you will see if you take some time to sit outdoor looking at a fast landscape, that colors are, indeed, vibrating, and, more important, not as conform as one might think. The impressionist understood this by dividing colors again in warm and cold colors. By using this knowledge in a practical use you immediately understand why they used so much blue and green for shadows (cold) and bright yellow, orange and red for the more sunny and bright parts (warm) in the painting.

If you take this knowledge with you the next time you embark yourself on an adventure to go out and paint outside, and I encourage you to do so and I encourage you even more to, before you start your painting process, to take some time to just sit and absorb what you see. Go beyond the expected colors, beyond what you know you see and beyond what you think, you see. Just observe and take it in.

Painting outside, ‘en plein air’ is indeed an adventure. A meeting between you and what you observe, you and what you think is outside you. However, if you let go of these pre-programmed believes and just observe as a child, you will see that colors are indeed more than meets the eye.

Feeling inspired? I hope you go out there and start painting what you see. Let me know.
Also, if in the neighborhood, you can join with one of the plein air workshops I will be given this summer.
More information (in Dutch though) can be found here: