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Learn to Draw: Still Life

Lesson 2 of 6

Composition

 

Learn to Draw: Still Life

Lesson 2 of 6

Composition

 

Lesson Info

Composition

So when you're setting up a group of objects to draw from, you are absolutely considering their arrangement in space, which really refers to their composition. The composition of a still life has to do with, like, where you place the objects and how they relate to each other, how they relate to the edge of the picture frame, and also how your eye moves through the picture. So I've arranged some objects that I'd like to sort of talk about ideas that go through my head when I'm arranging things, because there are so many variations. And it's nice to sort of know there aren't really rights and wrongs, but there are effects that get produced by certain arrangements that you may or may not want to have happen in your pictures. So this is really meant to be sort of a survey of possibilities, and also I'm gonna speak to the tension between objects, the psychology of objects, and work with that a little bit. So as you look at these different diagrams and I speak through these different ideas, ...

sort of internalize them, so that when you go to set up your own objects in space, they'll be things that you'll consider as you go along. And I guarantee it's gonna create a much stronger composition and therefore a much stronger drawing. So one of the first things I want to show you is a scenario where you have an even number of objects. So in this image I've got four objects. I tend in my compositions to lean on an odd number of objects, which I'll show you in a minute. But in this image, you can see why an even number of objects can possibly be a little bit problematic. Because what happens is that, as you can see with this dotted line going down the center of the picture, that sometime the mind groups the objects into sets. Like, one set is on one side, the other set is on the other side, and they don't really interconnect or coalesce in any way. And so it's almost this, like, "us versus them" kind of energy that gets produced. So it can work. It actually could evoke a feeling of balance, a feeling of symmetry, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you do that all the time, you might ask yourself, like, how can I create a little more variety in my work? So asking yourself how many objects you put in the picture and how you arrange them is definitely something to keep your eye on. Here's the same image, but I've actually added a fifth object. So this fifth object, being the steak knife, to me, it connects the two groups. It allows them to connect. It allows almost, like, a spatial diagonal. And to me, it starts to break up that tension on either side of the picture, where there's this sort of abyss in between. So I prefer the five, seven, nine, or even, like, three-object setup. But as you start to develop your compositions, you'll make your own preferences over time. So this is a situation where there's an odd number of objects, and where those objects are, they're associated by a fifth object in between. Another possibility in terms of setting up your objects, and actually quite a few artists do this, is the lineup. I like to call it the lineup, because it's just, everything's lined up across a horizontal plane. It's all very sort of even, and it's almost sort of confrontational. There's no variation in placement. It's almost like a wall you can't get past. And that actually produces a fairly powerful feeling, but it's also a very sort of regular scenario where everything is in a line. And in terms of depth, there isn't a lot of depth to it. It's just sort of a flatter kind of composition, which can be beautiful, but again, play with it and see if that's something that you think that you might enjoy creating. Let's talk a little bit more about grouping objects. So in this situation, this blue line that goes all the way around these objects creates a closed shape. There's sort of a sense of unity. All the objects are touching each other. There's no real gaps in between. And there's this sort of sense of a cluster of shapes. There's a closed-ness to it. There's a unification to it. And it gives off a certain feeling, which isn't necessarily bad, but it is definitely very different than the next image, where the objects are sort of separated. There's air in between. It creates more of a dynamic, open shape, and to me, maybe a sense of variety. So there's a little bit more of a play or a dance between the relationships between the objects, versus the very closed sort of situation. So this I love, kind of talking about the psychology of objects. And when I introduce this to my students, at first they think, "you're totally nuts. "Like, what are you talking about?" But then when they start to set up their own compositions, they actually start to totally understand what I'm saying. So basically, the dynamic between objects, sometimes it starts to feel like they almost take on a human characteristic or a personality based on their arrangement. So in this arrangement, on the left we've got this, like, cluster of three objects I'm calling "the cool kids." Like, they're all hanging out on the playground. They're, like, best buds. And they're just, you know, having the greatest day. But then the little yellow pumpkin on the side is like, "hey, what about me? "Like, I'm excluded; I'm off to the side." And so you get this tension of, like, this cluster wanting to be together, and then this singular element off to the side that's excluded. And then, you know, for a little bit more punch, the knife is, like, coming right out, ouch, towards the pumpkin. So I feel like in this picture, there's a psychology involved and almost a narrative involved just by simply arranging a pumpkin, an apple, some ceramic things, and a knife. So that might seem a little far-fetched, but I guarantee once you start arranging objects, you might start to feel those sort of tensions. And in fact, you could actually, if that's interesting to you, you could play that out and consider that as you start to work with your arrangements to create more of a narrative or a story that's not super overt. So let's say you have an arrangement you like, more or less. The objects are on the table. You kind of like the way they're placed. The next step really becomes making choices about how you create the overall boundary of the composition. So in this image, I have a choice to make. The photograph is vertical, and so I'm including a fair amount of the wall space and some more of the area that kinda comes off the table. But I've also created a horizontal cropping with this upper red line and lower red line, which starts to create more of a horizontal composition. So I'm faced with the decision of how do I crop this? Like, do I crop it so it's vertical or horizontal? And then I'm asking myself, if you look at the shapes on the lower part of the image, do I want to put it in a square? Do I want to put it in a horizontal rectangle, a vertical rectangle, or something more panoramic? So using a viewfinder, using a compositional device, even zooming in and out on your camera to your setup, you can start to feel what feels most interesting to you in that way. And those are really important decisions, because some people don't think about that, and they start with their paper vertical. And then they start their drawing, and an hour later they realize that they really should have put their paper horizontal, because they can't even fit the image on the page. So this is something that you really, really want to think about before you start drawing. So zooming in, zooming out, asking yourself if you want horizontal or vertical. In this case, I decided I wanted horizontal. The objects are in the same place, but I've zoomed in just to see if that might make a more interesting composition. Zooming in and cropping more intensely than the previous image, I'm on the fence whether or not I really want it this cropped. But I cropped it closely to show that if you look in the upper right-hand corner, what I've written there is, "negative shapes intensify energy." When we start to think about the background shape, the negative shapes that are created between the objects and the edge of our composition, there's sort of an energetic relationship that starts to develop when you cropped it down. If you don't crop at all, and you leave a ton of room around it, sometimes the objects feel like they're sort of floating in space, and they don't really have any connection to the edge. So this is something to absolutely think about. And these blue arrows really denote, like, what kind of conversation are these objects having with the edge of my picture? So by cropping in, expanding out, you can also feel really where you want your composition to arrange itself. Let's talk a little bit about emphasis or telling a story with a picture, maybe communicating. If drawing is communicating, which I definitely think it is, visual communication, how do you communicate maybe, like, why you set up your objects this way or what your favorite object is or what your favorite part of the drawing is. Not all parts of the drawing have to be rendered in an equal sort of precision. And sometimes the way we arrange our lighting will really help us make the viewer look at a particular area more than another or go to a particular object first. So there's something called the rule of thirds, which is basically saying that if you drop two horizontal and two vertical lines across a composition, where those lines meet, the junctures of those lines, I like to call them hot spots. They're neither right in the middle of the picture or too far to the edge. And you can see that my yellow pumpkin falls right on one of those hot spots. The yellow pumpkin is really illuminated. You remember the Gauguin mango we looked at? It's super illuminated. It's super bright, even without high-contrast lighting on this. And it's falling in one of these hot spots created by the rule of thirds. If it was further to the right and was almost touching the edge, there'd be sort of an awkward magnetic attraction to the edge, which can be distracting. If it was more central, like right in the middle of the picture, it's not such a bad thing. It could be kind of monumental, but also that can be a, hmm, a habit you might get into, everything being in the middle, that actually doesn't let us experience the whole picture. So using the rule of thirds to help you maybe place your favorite object or place something that's highly illuminated can be something really useful to play with. And when you look at different people's work, you can also see how they're using that. They may or may not be, but that's something you should definitely try. So the last image I want to take a look at, we sort of built towards this, is kinda zany. It's got a lot of action going on. And actually, this is what I really hope from my drawings, that I'm actually exciting the viewer. Like, if I go into a gallery, and I see 20 still life drawings on the wall, like, why am I walking up to one versus another one, right? It's because the artist has captured me. The artist has drawn me in in some way. And I think one of the, hmm, strongest ways to do that is through the arrangement of objects, manipulating the eye around the picture. So if you look in the lower left corner of this picture, you'll see it says "knife entry point." And there's a space arrow that comes in from the lower left, which is often an entry point in still-life painting, lower left or lower right corner, the eye travels in through the knife, comes across to the blue arrow. The blue arrow wraps around the pumpkin, goes around the back of the blue little cup, down the handle of the teapot, up the spout of the teapot, down and out through the exit. So this is where my eye goes when I look at this picture. This is sort of the movement of my eye. And this is what can really activate a drawing, when you realize that you've actually arranged things in such a way that there's a path for the eye. There's excitement; you want your drawings to be exciting. You want them to create a relationship with your viewer. And you yourself want to be inspired for them. So these different scenarios in terms of compositional choices, if you consider them and over time practice them, you'll absolutely strengthen your compositions.

Class Description

Join instructor and professional painter, Amy Wynne, as she teaches this introduction to still life. She’ll share how to create symbolism and meaning in a still life. Amy will also  share the different genres in still life, such as fertility/decay, vanitas, self portrait with objects, and nature.

In this class, Amy will cover:

  • Still life Composition: working with the Rule of 3rds and strengthening negative space
  • Depth: varying scale
  • Value: transitioning color to monochrome and creating tonal gradient
  • Lighting: Mapping lights and darks and creating tonal rhythm

Amy will end the course with a series of drawing challenges to get you drawing more every day! She’ll challenge you to draw of a motif, developing a creative habit.

Amy has been teaching painting and drawing for over 20 years at colleges across New England including the Rhode Island School of Design.

Reviews

Gina Nieto
 

Great class. Thank you Amy for your insight. The section on value was one of the best I've come upon. Now to start my challenge.