How to Set Up a Still Life for Painting

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Position of the Still Life and Your Easel

Setup for still life painting
When you're setting up a still life, look critically at the arrangement of the objects from the height you'll be painting at the objects from. If you paint sitting down, sit down to check. Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

The ideal is for your still life and easel to be set up so you can see the objects and your canvas or paper without turning your head too much. The still life also wants to be at the right height for the viewpoint you're going to be painting. You don't want to have to bend or move every time you're looking at the objects. You want to be able to check the angles and perspective in what you've painted and the still life from the same spot.

You ideally don't want to look over the arm you use to hold a brush either. So if you usually paint with your left hand, set up your still life to the right of your easel. And if you usually paint with your right hand, then set it up on your left. If you're fairly ambidextrous, then set it up where the light is best.

In the photo here, the still life (comprising three tins of tempera paint and a couple of brushes on a bit of fabric) is set up on a chair close to my easel. Because the objects are small, I want them nearby so I can see details clearly. The viewpoint is low so that when I'm standing at my easel, I'm seeing most of the tops of the tins. (The light from the window being behind the setup may seem daft, but what you can't see in the photo is that there's another source of strong, indirect light to the right from another window.)

If you've limited space and will need to move your still life objects between painting sessions, set it up on a piece of board and use some masking tape or a piece of chalk to mark the position of each before you move it. That way if something shifts, you can reposition it easily.

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Format of Your Painting

Setup for still life painting
Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

As you're setting up your still life, keep the format of painting you were thinking of using in mind. How you arrange the objects will be influenced by whether you're going to use a square, landscape, or portrait format. From the way the still life is set up in the photo, your instinct might be to say that a tall, thin format suits it. But as the options on the right show, other formats could work well too. It's a situation where a viewfinder can be very helpful.

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Shadows in a Still Life Painting

Shadows for still life painting
If you haven't got strong sunlight, use a lamp to cast strong shadows from your still life objects. Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Don't forget to consider the shadows when setting up a still life for painting. Strong shadows can provide interesting shapes and negative spaces.

If you're relying on sunlight to cast the shadows, watch out for the shadows shifting as the sun moves across the sky during the day. If you're using a lamp to cast a shadow, positioning it to one side and fairly low down will create lovely long shadows. The higher up you place the lamp, the shorter the shadows. Watch out for weaker shadows being thrown by other lights in your studio.

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Perspective & Kissing in a Still Life Painting

Still Life with Brushes
When taking reference photos of your still life set-up, remember to position the camera at your eye level, so the perspective in the photo is the same as when you were painting. Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Depending on where you set up your still life, and the objects you choose, the perspective can be straightforward or more complex. Mundane objects can be transformed by a setting, and mundane settings can be transformed by your choice of viewpoint.

Decide whether you're going to be painting standing up or sitting down, and then arrange the still life objects to match that. Do you want to be looking down on the objects? Will they be straight ahead, at eye level, or above you? As adults, the viewpoint we're most accustomed to seeing is downwards, down onto a table top.

Avoid Kissing Objects
Don't place still life items so they're kissing. One of the most distracting things you can do in a composition is to kiss, or have items just touching each other rather than having a definite space between them or a definite overlap. The viewer's eye doesn't know whether to move from one object to the other, and gets distracted deciding whether or not there is indeed a sliver of a gap between them or not.

Also, remember that the point of view that you set for your still life may well influence how the final painting is hung and where you hang it for exhibition. If you are looking down on the still life in terms of the composition, it may end up looking strange if it's hung up high on a wall, with the horizon line of the painting a lot higher than the eye level of the observer. Extreme variations can give a painting tension and impact, but may just put the observer off.