During the course of a long career teaching painting and drawing I have spent a lot of time persuading students that the subject of still life can be as exciting as any other, with considerable advantages over many of them. It doesn’t move, the light source is usually constant, it can be as colourful as desired – or not, and it is personal to you and can have a story to tell.
In addition, it will teach you all you need to know about drawing shapes, perspective, texture and composition– what’s not to like?
Banish the block
About 25 years ago I had a period of painter’s block. I was painting mostly in watercolour and selling well, but wanted to break out of the ‘safe’ and predictable rut I was in. An artist friend advised I change media and try working on textured surfaces, including collage. Although I had misgivings I gave it a go, with startling results.
From that time I was hooked and although I paint in many forms of mixed media, whenever I need a bit of a shake-up I turn to collage and allow it to (partially) tell me what to do. As it had worked so well for me, I wondered whether it would work for my more advanced students. Well, it did but with mixed results. However, the real result was that it persuaded them that still life is not boring and has endless possibilities.
Ways with collage
There are many different ways of working with collage. I have artist friends who will paint the whole piece with cut paper before applying paint, others who will use paint until the piece is almost finished before applying any collage. Some artists will incorporate text into a painting to give both a message and texture, and some, like me, will use decorative papers to spring surprises of colour, pattern and texture.
Many discover their own preferred way through a process of trial and error, as I did. So what materials are used? Over the years, I have built up a large collection of papers, from very beautiful handmade papers , available at good art shops and stationers, to serviettes with music, flowers, smiley faces and all manner of shapes. Coloured paper, wrapping paper and tissue have all been squirrelled away to await the moment when they are just what I’m looking for. Many old watercolour paintings have had a second lease of life. The surface that I stick onto is usually mountboard that has had a thin skimming of gesso primer first. I have also used cheap watercolour paper very successfully. Both these surfaces need to be framed under glass, which enables me to use pastels and crayons on them.
I have worked on canvas board and canvas, but because these are framed unglazed I usually confine myself to working only in paint. The glue is usually PVA in various dilutions to suit the thickness of the paper that’s being stuck (the thicker the paper the thicker the glue needs to be). The paint, of course, is acrylic, both in ink form and heavy body, which will paint on absolutely anything. Having assembled all this I start work – remember, this is the way I do it, others do it differently. With all my still-life paintings, by the time I reach the final stage the original subject has usually died, been eaten, drunk and generally dismantled, which helps me to consider the painting in its own right and not keep comparing it to what I started with.
This stops me fiddling to get things exactly right and overloading the piece with excessive detail that it doesn’t need, given the surfaces that I’m working on and the way that I paint. When finished, I hide all my work away for a period of time – days, months, and sometimes years – and then look at it with fresh eyes to see if anything further needs to be done.