Beating the Background Blues (continued)
The Artist's Magazine - November, 1988
THE POWER OF LIGHTING (continued)
Finally, there's arbitrary lighting. This disregards light and shadow effects in favor of using the subject's pattern and color to give substance to the composition. Wine Bottle and Vegetables (below) shows this type of lighting. Notice the intentional "flat" look of the picture plane, and how it complements the abstract shapes and colors of the objects and background.
AREA OF VISION
Many still life paintings are focused on a relatively small area, employing a few objects on a ledge-like stage. To freshen this approach, try widening your vision to encompass more of the environment you're working in. Or, narrow your scope to show the viewer a more limited scene. Both wide and narrow vision can get you out of a compositional rut, as well as giving you a whole new vocabulary of background material to work with.
With a wider approach the material that you see beyond the still life becomes background for the composition. For example, in Daisies and Windows (previous page), the flowers and the white tablecloth draw attention to the center of interest. And the elaborate background gives the picture a believable sense of place.
In contrast to the wide scene, try zooming in on only a few subjects in a closely cropped format. In Red Coffee Pot and Flowers (at left) I replaced the simple white daisies used in the previous wide version with a colorful array of mixed flowers. The variety gives the close up simplicity of the composition some added interest.
A COMFORTABLE RELATIONSHIP
When you've chosen the perfect background, it's important to be sure that the subject relates to it at all times Other than color and tone, a way to marry still life objects to their backgrounds is through interlocking shapes. That is, shapes that draw the eye from subject to background. A good example is in Still Life with Bowl, Jar and Vegetables (above). Like the hinges on a door, the dark shapes of the upper background, bowl and pepper integrate the background with the other objects on the white, draped base. The dark, diagonal shape at the bottom right was used not only to break up the strong movement of the white cloth, but also to keep the eye from going out the bottom of the composition.
Exploring interlocking shapes in your paintings is a good lead in solving the background dilemma many compositions present. A few preliminary sketches prior to painting will usually clarify the best shape arrangements for a specific setup. Remember to think simply. Express these shapes in three or four values, present them provocatively, and you won't need much more.
Although still life painting is one of the oldest painting genres, it has yet to be fully exploited. By reassessing your ideas about backgrounds and giving them equal rights along with your objects, new ideas will surface, not only expanding your point of view, but also helping you get rid of the "background blues" forever.