Some people think that still-life paintings are boring.
I could not disagree more. They’re luscious and entrancing, filled with all sorts of interesting objects, hidden symbols and messages. They captivate the imagination in ways that other subjects of painting can’t, and I’m challenging this very outdated notion that still-life paintings are just a ticket to Snoozefest City.
Back in 2011, my friend Megan started talking about wanting to have me paint something for her. I asked what she might be interested in having painted, but she really didn’t know. We brainstormed a few things, but there was no clear mental picture of what kind of project I should do. Then in January of 2012, her parents called and asked if they could commission me to paint something for her birthday. It was going to be a surprise, but the problem was that they also had no idea what I should actually paint.
Okay, time to put the ol’ thinking cap on.
Eventually the idea hit me like a thunderbolt, coming during an “at my wits’ end” conversation with my dad about what I should paint. I kept saying, “What does Megan like? What does Megan enjoy doing? What would Megan like to look at on the wall every day?” I could think of so many things, but to dedicate the painting to just a single theme? No.
And suddenly, inspiration struck: What if I collected all the things that Megan likes in one place? Design a still-life painting that would be a visual representation of my friend; her likes, her hobbies, maybe her job, special memories or important moments in time… a portrait, but as told through objects instead of faces.
It was my “eureka!” moment, and so, my Still-Life series of paintings was born.
I was so in love with this idea that later the same year, I started designing a Still-Life Self-Portrait for myself.
And then last year, Megan commissioned me to paint a still-life portrait of her and her husband for their one-year anniversary.
I have such a deep affection for designing these paintings. It’s a creative endeavour in not only getting to know other people, but in helping them get to know themselves a little bit better too.
All commission work is a challenge because it forces the artist to cohesively merge the vision of the client with their own. But that also makes it the ultimate exercise in creativity. Put all of these ideas together and make it work.
This spring I was commissioned to paint another still-life portrait, and I was thrilled.
When it comes to these particular paintings, the first thing I do is ask the client to make a list of things they love: That can mean objects, places, events, people, activities. I also like to ask a few basic “What’s your favourite?” type questions. What’s your favourite colour? Do you have any favourite foods, fruit or flowers? (Very typical subject matter in many classical still-life works.) Books are also something that are common in a still-life and make for great staple objects to add a feeling of fullness to the piece, so I ask if the client enjoys reading. If so, what genre of books? Favourite author, favourite subject, favourite book — maybe a book that just has special meaning to them?
Does the client have any specific hobbies, or pet projects? Do they like to travel? And of course I want them to think about more intangible things as well. If there was someone in their life that was important to them, I want to find a way to depict that in the painting. Maybe that will mean adding an object, or perhaps I can incorporate a significant colour or detail to represent them.
And I always encourage clients to write down every idea they have initially, because we can edit the list for level of importance and value to the composition later. What’s important is to get the ideas down to see what we have to work with.
As I mentioned above, the addition of symbolism is one of the best parts of a still-life painting. And I love to sneak tiny details in wherever I can, as you’ll see as I break down this recent commission’s composition for you.
This painting is “Still-Life Portrait: Christine”. Let’s continue talking about the process involved in making this piece a reality.
Once we had compiled Christine’s master list of “things”, we started talking about what was most important to incorporate into the piece, as well as what things were less important. And as we’re discussing this, I’m mentally working to bring all of these very random and superficially unrelated components together into a design that is cohesive — the common thread which pulls them all together being the person herself.
I’m happy to say that my Muse is often very attentive and efficient, and some basic ideas for the composition formed in my mind pretty quickly. Note: When I’m talking about “composition”, I’m referring specifically to the overall organization of subjects within the piece. The painting is like a puzzle, and composition is how you arrange the pieces.
I asked Christine if she had a preference for the painting’s orientation (as some people already have a particular spot in their home picked out for where they want the painting to be hung): Portrait or landscape. Portrait is a vertical hanging piece, with the shortest sides on the top and bottom. Landscape is hung horizontal with the longest sides at the top and bottom.
While I like to give clients the option, and if they do have a preference, I’ll certainly make it work, I always appreciate when they’re willing to be flexible on this. When I first started designing this piece for Christine, we were leaning towards this being a landscape painting. But as you can see, that’s not what I ended up doing. Once I knew all the components for the piece and started trying to arrange them, it quickly became apparent that this painting was better suited to the portrait orientation. That tall bouquet of flowers really set the scope for this piece. It’s the tallest object, and so all the other objects needed to be tailored around it. And in my opinion, it just didn’t work as well as a landscape. Let me show you the very basic still-life mock-up I did which really helped me decide:
This first mock-up was to illustrate how it might look with the landscape orientation. I knew that all the other components for the painting (not shown here) are shorter than the books, which means they’d all have to be crowded on the same dimensional plane in order to maintain the horizontal shape. Which would, in effect, flatten the painting because the more planes of dimension you have, the more depth you can achieve. This would also result in a lot of blank wasted space near the top of the painting.
On the other hand, this mock-up is suggesting a more vertical portrait style composition. I’ve started bringing the objects down and forward in the piece, which is providing the illusion of more depth. And I’m going to force this depth even more in my design than what I can do with the camera. Because as I’ve said before, I’m not a hyper-realist. I paint paintings, not photographs. I want to [gently] push the boundaries of what’s correct and what looks good and is visually appealing and interesting.
Thankfully, Christine was on board with whatever I thought was necessary, and the painting ended up being portrait style.
The next step was for me to choose which elements would make it into the final design and sketch them out. In my opinion, one of the hallmarks of a good still-life is that it feels “full”, not sparse. I opt to go background-less in most of my paintings, as that’s just my personal style, but that does mean that it might take more items to achieve the rich, full feeling I’m looking for. I keep an open mind while arranging the composition, and depending on how long the client’s list of things is, I try to fit in as many as I possibly can. And in Christine’s case, I’m pretty sure I was able to incorporate everything!
Sketching out all the components is a very important part of my process. So often something will “work” in my head, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in reality.
I sketch an outline of all the pieces with the understanding that I haven’t committed to using them all. I then scan each one into my computer, make the background transparent, and then start the tedious (but fun!) process of getting my puzzle pieces in order.
I really like this analogy of paintings and puzzles. The challenge with these particular still-life portrait puzzles is that I don’t have the box to look at. I’m staring at a bunch of pieces, but I’m not sure how they all fit together because I don’t know what the finished product is destined to look like. This is both daunting and exciting. Because just like with a real puzzle, it might take you quite a few tries, but once you fit the first pieces together correctly, all the others soon fall into place.
Once the template mock-up was finished, I sent it off for client approval, then got to work.
But with this piece, I did something a little different than I normally do. It’s not uncommon for me to do some form of preliminary colour testing for a new painting (like working out what colour to make a rainbow trout or a dragonfly), but I had never done a full, to-size colour rendering before. With this piece, however, I felt it was necessary. When you don’t have a singular photo reference for your piece, it’s easy to get lost in thoughts about what colour to make things, and where to put your shadows and highlights. Again, sometimes what works in your head doesn’t work on paper. And in this case, there were just too many variables. I didn’t want to experiment on my actual painting where one little “I shouldn’t have done that” can mean hours of work to undo it. I really wanted to ensure that the colours of this piece worked in harmony, so using my Faber-Castell watercolour pencils, I basically coloured the entire template before ever even thinking about grabbing my acrylics.
This added a ton of work, but it was also a lot of fun, and in the end, looking back, I’m so glad I did it. It gave me a clear vision of what to do once I switched to paints, and allowed me to work faster and with greater purpose.
There were a number of items in the painting that had ‘set’ colours; meaning I already knew what colour I wanted them to be. This included the alliums in the bouquet, the books, the tea cup and wrapper, fruit, insects and watch. I coloured all of those first and that helped me decide on the rest of the colours in the painting.
As you can see, the gardening gloves and geraniums (we’ll talk about them later on) were the final pieces of the colour puzzle. I was pretty sure that I wanted to make the gloves lime green, but I waited to see the rest of the piece finished before trying it out. Harmony and balance are important in a painting, and I always consider those two things in both the way I arrange the items and how I arrange colour. At this stage, I could see that a pop of bright green was both necessary and visually pleasing.
With the colouring mapped out successfully, it was time to move on to the actual painting.
As per usual, I used graphite paper to transfer my design to the prepared canvas board. (Not actually ‘canvas’, mind you, but 1/4 MDF board, triple primed with white gesso and acrylic. This is nice and smooth to paint on as I personally don’t like the texture of canvas peeking through the paint.)
So let’s talk about one of the “painting problems” I encountered with this piece, because a huge part of any creative job is problem solving. As you can see from the image above, there’s a large empty space in the upper left. The client sent me the below photo of an afghan that had been made for her by a dear friend, and wanted it incorporated somewhere in the design, even if it was just a small swatch.
For a while, this afghan was the bane of my existence. I initially thought I knew exactly what to do with it, and it worked beautifully in theory…. but not so much when I actually tried to execute it.
Originally I had intended to make it a very faint wash of colour, kind of ghostly, which also had an added element of unintended symbolism as the afghan maker is deceased. But I was hitting a brick wall when it came to how to detail this. I didn’t think that flat squares of creamy white and blue were going to cut it, and so I expended a lot of energy figuring out a way to simplify the knit’s pattern, stylize it, and make it paintable in my own style.
Eventually I hit on something I could make work.
At this point, I still was planning to paint this as a light wash of colour. I needed a template traced onto the canvas, but I didn’t want the dark black lines that the graphite would leave and that would still be very visible through my washes of colour.
I remembered back to when I was working on my painting “Armageddon“, and how when the graphite from the transfer paper wouldn’t show up on my black background, I covered the back of my template with pencil graphite, and it transferred the lines so they were visible. Figuring I could use the same principle here, I covered the back of the afghan outline with a blue watercolour pencil that was close to the paint colour I wanted to use, and I sat at my desk and traced for what felt like HOURS, expecting that the blue from the pencil would be visible on the white of my board. Mhmm.
Now, I did test this out on a piece of paper first and it worked great. So please, it’s not like I went into this totally blind and just hoping for the best. But as I have learned (or not learned?) in the past few months, testing a technique on inconsistent surfaces is completely useless. So needless to say…
It didn’t work. It didn’t leave anything more than a few little dots of blue here and there — just enough to make a mess.
It was at this point that I decided to just trace it with the graphite and paint it normally. And to be perfectly honest, sometimes “mistakes” turn out to be better than your original idea, and now that the painting is finished, it looks so much better painted solid than it would have “ghosted”.
Regular readers know that I like to paint from back to front, so next step was the stack of books.
Unlike my other still-life paintings, which all have books in them, these books are turned pages-out instead of spines-out. Which I think was a fantastic creative solution. Christine said there had to be a book, but there were no specific ones (nor a specific genre, author or topic) that really spoke to her. My solution was to make them non-descript books: A stack of them with no spines showing, and one open on top, but again with no distinguishing features. This is a great way to indicate that someone is an avid reader, a researcher, or a knowledge seeker, without pigeon-holing them into the proverbial box of any one specific interest.
To make my life easier, here I used masking fluid to protect the edges of the surrounding objects. This way I can be sloppier when shadowing and highlighting details on the books and yet not make a mess that needs to be cleaned up. Blue is Christine’s favourite colour, so I wanted to work blues into the painting as much as possible, while not over-doing it and making it all monochromatic.
The bouquet of flowers contains snapdragons, alliums, and geraniums: Three of the flowers Christine had listed as her favourites. But first, I wanted to paint the vase. However, since the vase is clear glass and filled with water, the stems needed to be painted first so that I could highlight over top of them and give the illusion of the flowers being IN the vase and not in front of it. And since all of the flowers’ greenery was going to be the same colour, I also went ahead and painted the green bits of the snapdragons and based in the leaves while I had paint mixed.
With the stems complete, I was able to finish off the vase.
From there, I painted the pink ribbon and began basing in the allium blooms. Sometimes I will suggest to clients that we add little details that they didn’t ask for or maybe even consider themselves. I knew that Christine is a breast cancer survivor, and I thought having a ribbon tied to the vase would be a nice detail — so I painted it pink. Note: I never just add elements without asking the client first, FYI.
Aside from the afghan, without question, the most time-consuming element of this piece was the snapdragons. I was happy that Christine didn’t specify a colour for the snapdragons because I immediately knew the colour that I thought they should be. I chose a gorgeous, deep raspberry colour, with orange and yellow accents. But first, I painted the snapdragon buds, which have a lovely gradation from colour to green.
Here I’ve completed the stalk on the left and I’m developing the stalk on the right. After that initial pink colour, I deepened it with something more red, and then added dark shadows and light highlights.
At this point the bouquet is really taking shape. All that’s left are the geraniums, which was another element that required much thought and consideration. Once again, Christine was gracious enough to let me choose the flower colour, but this was another example of my initial idea just not working.
From the start, I thought the geraniums would be red. Christine had cited red and purple in her list of favourite colours, so red geraniums seemed obvious to me. But I needed to be sure. While I was still working on the colour rendering, I ran a quick test. This is one of the times when I appreciate pairing technology with traditional technique.
I found a vintage illustration of geraniums, and I used it to mock-up three different colour choices for mine.
While these colours weren’t spot-on for what I was thinking, they were certainly close enough. A few minutes with the clone tool in Photo House and it was instantly obvious that red was not the right choice.
I said ‘no way’ to the overpowering red, and instead opted for a soft pink with subtle purple accents to help tie it into the rest of the painting.
And I love how they turned out. Very feminine and pretty, which suits Christine and her personality to a tee.
Here’s an artist’s tip if you’re working on a very personal piece for someone. I’m an artist, not a photographer. I strive to capture the things that can’t be seen with a camera. Intangible qualities can be depicted in paint. You can look at any old master’s painting and learn that. You can “see” what can’t be “seen”. And those are the details that make a painting interesting. It’s what makes a boring still-life not-so-boring after all.
I had this in mind when I asked Christine if I could include a little white rose bloom to the painting. We worked together very closely on this piece, over the course of a few months, and I learned a lot about her as a person. Enough to get a good sense of her character and spirit. And while working on this painting, I kept seeing Christine, the woman, as this lovely little white rose, and was compelled to include this small piece of symbolism in her portrait. Because the whole point of these still-life portraits is to portray the sitter. To show not only the material things they like, but also reveal what kind of person they are inside. Art without a message isn’t art. The message is what brings it to life.
Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Depicting a message, not just a thing. Good advice for all artists, no matter what subject we’re painting.
Here you can see I’ve completed the bee, butterfly, gardening gloves, lungwort flowers (peeking out from behind the books and the tea cup), and the Mahjong tiles.
Anyone who has followed my work for any length of time will know that I always strive to introduce some type of dynamic element to each of my paintings. With wildlife, this often involves suggesting movement, so that the composition is less static. With a still-life, a great way to add that spark of liveliness is with objects that are living: Like the bee and the butterfly. There are actually two bees in this piece, the other is crawling along the tea cup. These living creatures, along with the fact that they’re not static but moving, really brings the painting to life.
The bees also serve a more symbolic purpose: Makeup is a great element for personal still-life paintings, so I had asked Christine if she had any favourite products. She said she loves the brand Burt’s Bees, and uses their lip balm regularly. I liked that the bees in her painting could also represent this less obvious meaning!
Christine is also — dare I use her term “addicted” — to the game Mahjong. This was one of the “less important” elements, but I think the tiles add nicely to the composition. As well as serving as vehicles for more symbolism.
Firstly, the dots on the tiles are six and five — Christine is turning 65 this year. The center standing piece is a Dragon tile, and the tile’s character is “chung”, meaning center. (Yes, I did research and learn a bit about the game so I could make a correct depiction!) There’s a small “C” in the upper left-hand corner of the tile. I thought C for Christine was appropriate. She’s also the middle child of three, making her the “center”!
Christine told me that she starts every day with a cup of Twinning’s Earl Grey tea and a homemade oatmeal raspberry muffin. Christine is a woman who possesses incredible strength, but does so without compromising her femininity. A pretty and dainty tea cup was an appropriate representation of her.
The crawling bee is one of my personal favourite elements of the piece!
Christine is an avid gardener, hence the gardening gloves and flowers. Of the four flowers she put in her list, only three of them made it into the bouquet. But I still wanted to try and fit in her fourth pick somewhere. Keeping in line with the gardening theme, I added seed packets — which are also hiding some symbolism.
Her fourth flower pick was Hydrangeas, but for the composition’s sake, I thought two seed packets would look better than one. For the second packet, I chose Chrysanthemums, which are the flower for November, which is when Christine was born. The packet is coloured a yellowy orange: Similar to November’s birthstone, topaz.
You’ll notice that the seed packets have prices printed on them: $1.65 (again, Christine turns 65 this year), and $1.54 (she was born in 1954).
The watch is another special object: Christine’s mother’s watch. If you look closely, I added “1913” to the watch face: The year her father was born.
There’s also significance in the time displayed. The hands are on 8 and 11: To represent her birthday, the 8th of November.
Next was this little keychain commemorating the 100th anniversary of a town called Kirkland Lake. Christine had asked me to somehow incorporate KL into the painting. We brainstormed a few ways to do it, but none of them really grabbed either of us. When I saw that it was the town’s Centennial in 2019, I loved how that would help to date the painting in years to come. Originally, I was going to put the 100-year logo on a pamphlet, but then one evening I had the idea to turn it into a keychain instead. Borrowing a ring from one of my Scooby Doo keychains, I printed out the logo, glued some cardboard together, and I made myself a little prop so that I could easily photograph it at the proper angle to suit the picture.
I much prefer it when I have actual props to photograph myself, as it can be extremely difficult to find reference photos online that are exactly what you want. I’m an artist who needs reference materials a great deal of the time, so anything I was able to photograph myself, I did.
There’s more symbolism hidden in this little sewing grouping. I incorporated Christine’s three favourite colours again: Blue, red and purple. And there are six straight pins and five buttons: 6+5=65 years old.
You’ll also notice a small heart-shaped charm in front of the tea cup. A simple object to represent a rekindled friendship between two people who had spent many years apart, but recently came back together. I drew the charm to resemble those popular two-piece “BFF” necklaces, where the two halves come apart and each friend wears a half. The gems in each half are the respective birthstones of the two friends.
The thread spools, thimble and bobbin completed, I left the buttons for the time being (as I still wasn’t sure what colour to make them), and started basing in the Matryoshka dolls.
Matryoshkas are more commonly referred to in North America as Russian nesting dolls. While I designed these lovely dolls specifically for this painting, I used my Grandma Niedzielski’s vintage Matryoshka for reference.
These dolls are my pride and joy. Christine had mentioned wanting something to represent her Russian heritage. Few things are more instantly recognizable as Russian than Matryoshkas! I then had the idea to, yes, you guessed it, load them up with symbolism.
Christine has an older sister and a younger brother. So I designed a three-piece nesting doll set for the painting to represent her and her siblings, and then assigned each doll to a person as per their ages. Traditional Matryoshkas usually have the same design on all the dolls, though the smallest is often more plain and is made of a solid piece. So I wanted them to look like a set, but to also give them characteristics of Christine and her siblings.
So I made the rose colours correspond to the month each was born. And I modified the smallest doll’s costume and features accordingly to represent her brother.
At this point, with nothing left unpainted except for the buttons, I could see that the painting didn’t need any more colour. So I just painted them to be “clear”.
For all intents and purposes, the painting was done. But the entire time I was working on this piece, there was an idea rattling around in my head.
As I explained, it’s those little dynamic touches that suggest life or movement to a painting which take it over the top, and I really, really wanted to have steam coming out of the tea cup. Not going to lie, it took a bit of courage to do it! It would require painting over other completed areas, and there was no turning back if I screwed it up.
It’s a subtle feature, but for me, it just brought the entire piece together.
And with that, the painting was finished!
I adore this painting. It was a labour of love in more ways than one. It’s hard not to get personally involved when you’re creating something that’s meant to be very personal, and I’m thrilled with how this turned out. Christine loved it too which is of course the ultimate goal!
While we talked through ideas for this painting for a few months prior (I was delayed in starting it because of prior commission commitments), I “started” working on it at the end of March and finished it the beginning of June. It took a bit longer than my usual commissions (6-8 weeks) but that’s because I basically painted this twice, and Christine wasn’t in a hurry. But I still am very glad I did the mock-up in watercolour pencils first. It took most of the guesswork out of the painting process, and allowed me to focus on technique and execution rather than debating what to do.
There’s a Henry Ward Beecher quote that I just love: “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” And that is so true, sometimes quite literally. I think a good artist SHOULD put something of themselves into every picture they paint, and I want to share one last thing about how I did that with this piece.
These are the gardening gloves that I used as a prop to photograph for the design. I had to search high and low for them, as I’d put them away years ago for safe-keeping, but it was important to me to use them for this painting. These were the last gift that my best friend’s mom gave to me. In fact, I was given this little gift bag and letter at her funeral — she passed away before she could even deliver it to me herself. I’ve never used the gloves… never will. They sit with her letter in the decorated gift bag that my friend’s mom so thoughtfully put together. The gloves mean something to me. They’re special. And now they, and my memories of my friend’s mom, will live on in some small way. Maybe in 100 years no one will know the significance of the green gardening gloves in Christine’s painting, but that won’t change the fact that meaning exists there.
Da Vinci said: “How many paintings have preserved the image of a divine beauty which in its natural manifestation has been rapidly overtaken by time or death. Thus, the work of the painter is nobler than that of nature, its mistress.” I guess in a way we, as artists, are caretakers. We preserve those things which fade away with time and use. Objects or memories, we save in paint what is lost in words.
People come and people go. But that doesn’t mean that knowledge of those people needs to disappear. In a time before photography, many people commissioned portraits of themselves and loved ones, to preserve some small piece of their memory — maybe not forever, but at least past their own lifetime, and in many cases, it spans centuries.
I’ve often studied the faces of musty old portraits, wondering who the person was, and what kind of a person they were. Were they kind or cruel? Did they love, and were they loved in return? What did they like to do? And while a traditional portrait preserves what a person looked like, they don’t always capture that person’s soul.
That’s what I want to do with my still-life portraits.
I want my portraits to preserve what a person is and was on the inside. Because in the end, physical beauty is fleeting. It’s how we lived our lives and how we treated other people that matters. Portraits should be about more than just a pretty face. I want to share with the world pretty souls too. ~