William Michael Harnett was an Irish-American artist whose realistic style is a form of trompe l’oeil painting.
Ideas are everywhere, if you are looking for them, and still life paintings and illustrations may be more versatile than you expect. A traditional still life often includes a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit, but, in recent history, many artists have stretched the limits of what a still life can be, sometimes adding “trompe l’oeil” (trick the eye) effects, abstraction and symbolism both subtle and powerful.
Whereas the subject of a portrait is a person or pet, still life images often include objects from ordinary life. Look around your house for things that might look interesting when combined within a scene. Bowls, fruit and vases are common subjects. You may wish to add unexpected items, such as coins, books or jewelry to the frame. William Harnett’s painting from 1886, “The Old Violin,” depicts a violin against a dark backdrop with a letter in the lower left corner of the painting.
When gathering ideas for your next painting or illustration, visit a museum, in person or online (see Resources). Look at the objects used, their arrangement and the background in the works you view. Look in art, design or home and garden magazines for inspiration. Often, simply the arrangement of furniture or other subject matter in photos and ads can spark new ideas, as can the objects themselves.
You may wish to select objects based on symbolism. For example, a caged bird placed next to a window may convey a level of meaning beyond a simple arrangement of ordinary objects. According to the National Gallery of Art website, still life arrangements come with a tradition of iconographical connotations. In an example of the presence of still life in portraiture, such objects as writing materials, maps and books can convey knowledge and intellectual curiosity; the presence of spotted fruit and an extinguished flame on a candle are intended as reminders of impermanence and mortality.
Keep colors balanced and use complementary or contrasting colors, depending on the overall effect you intend to create. For a more traditional still life work, keep colors neutral and muted, with the occasional splash of unexpected color in, say, a bird or floral arrangement. For an abstract piece, contrasting colors may be an appropriate choice.
Making the Arrangement
Before setting out the arrangement of selected objects, consider the background and supporting elements. Keeping any intended symbolism or allegorical considerations in mind, choose the setting for the arrangement. The background for “The Old Violin” appears to be a door on which the instrument hangs from a nail; a still life from Van Gogh, the 1888 “Sunflowers,” depicts bright colors in the yellow color spectrum, and the arrangement is traditional–within a vase on a table. The viewer gets a different sense when viewing these two works. “Sunflowers” conveys cheerfulness, whereas “The Old Violin” may convey an impression of knowledge, antiquity or musicality.
Juan Sánchez Cotán’s 1602 still life arrangement, “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber,” exhibits the versatility that is possible with even an arrangement of fruit and vegetables. A quince and cabbage dangle within a window frame from strengths of varying lengths; a melon is sliced open, with one slice resting next to a cucumber. The eye is moved in a swooping arc from the top left quadrant of the canvas to the lower right.