The Truth about ‘Still Life’ Painting


“Don’t only practice your art,
But force your way into its secrets,
For it and knowledge can
Raise human to the Divine”

-Ludwig van Beethoven

In a world of Instagram filters, Photoshop and DSLRs, one might question, what is the point of Still Life painting anymore. The genre that, in definition, tries to create on paper a replica of a few objects placed together as seen in their natural state. The genre that, in intent, tries to emulate real life as closely as possible.

Modern tools (compared to traditional tools of brushes, palettes and colors) also call upon our aesthetic sense and are an opportunity to make rich use of our creativity, to choose and define what appeals to us at any given point in time. I love this new revolution because it has suddenly made the concept of aesthetics accessible to everyone. It is also interesting to see the amazing and different ways in which some artists combine new tools with older ones to create more interesting works of art.

Why go through the pains of creating a still life painting then? What could one possibly gain from something that increasingly seems futile?

When I was a little kid, cameras were not as common as they are today. Nonetheless, I had the same questions. Art period in my crowded classroom reduced to this task of reproducing as exactly as possible some objects, a landscape or people. If art is freedom of expression, then this class felt the exact opposite.

Fortunately, I was saved from this narrow perspective of art and introduced to the way people have used it through the ages in an art class outside of school. Here every week we explored a different art form from across the globe. This was a huge contrast to the art period in school because I increasingly came to find that general art forms which are adopted by communities are actually very simple (think Warli, Mithila, Aboriginal Art or Rangolis) and yet intricately aesthetic. They must be simple if they are to enjoy wide adoption. The weird, almost idiosyncratic shapes and different colors or techniques opened up a pandora’s box of expression. I have talked in an earlier blog post about how this exploration inspired some of my own early work.

Of course, none of this passed for ‘art’ in school.

This tug of war plays out on a larger stage in history and society. Those who followed the classical school of thought imported/derived from Europe would scoff at the what had been community art for centuries in other cultures.

In Europe, the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci etc. were pioneers in the art of perfection. This culture continued during Renaissance. Impressionists suffered and struggled to shift the primary focus of a piece of art from the object to the self. The impressionist’s philosophy was to express the object the way one felt about it.

So then why is it important to strive for re-creating objects exactly as you see them on paper? For the longest time I thought that this was just an archaic vestige of an old training system. And that it was being continued simply because it had existed for so many centuries.

Again though, I was saved from this narrow perspective. The real reason why still life painting would be important for any artist was a long process of realization that I was very privileged to have during my training at the Art Centre in Sahyadri School. It was only possible thanks to Salim Sir and Poorna Aka who nurtured and enriched the wonderful environment of the Art Centre, almost like a zen enclave. I don’t remember Salim Sir ever saying more than a sentence or two in any art class. He always moved around us, added a brush stroke or two and moved on. But in his brevity he taught us things several lessons worth, many times over.

Fruit Basket

When one practices still life painting over a relatively long period of time using different media and tools, the most important learning is not painting but it is the art of observation.  The art of still life painting is actually just that. The more intently you observe an object’s form, proportion, shadows and highlights, the better you connect with the object.

The 2 years in which I intensely practiced art, we experimented with painting many challenging surfaces. And one of the most important things I learnt was not missing out on the small details that make a huge difference. For instance, I observed this wooden chair. Getting those few strokes right that emulate the way a wooden surface and its polish reflects light was key to making this chair come alive.

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Each surface has its own way of interacting with light and this interplay is what makes it unique and challenging.

Clay

book

 

For instance, above is a simple and common enough still life study. There were however two major challenges in this work. One was depicting the depth of the glass. The other was achieving the cumulative surface that is formed by the pages of a book.

Creating an illusion of 3D depth on a 2D canvas is one of the most challenging tasks of a painter. Most people imagine that depth can be achieved by adding a dark shade in the relevant area but how do you show depth in a white bowl where the light was falling right into that depth? That was the challenge of this study.

bowl

Depth in a white bowl

Another important point that I realized with this training was that white and black are possibly the most useless colors in a watercolor palette. If you are imitating real life, both are too strong and too artificial (just as in the real world of ideas and opinions).

Surfaces that consist of several smaller parts are again more challenging than a usual flat surface. A tree with all its leaves, a thread roll with all its thin threads, a bamboo net with all its strands…

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The surface and light combination that was the most challenging and the one that I also enjoyed the most was metal. Metal is really challenging because it reflects everything like an obfuscated mirror. I love painting metal because the more challenging it gets, the more interesting it is to paint it.

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Towards the end of our time, we tried our hands at one of the toughest assignments yet: glass, steel, brass, copper all rolled into one. This was one of the most challenging pieces I have done. This task revealed how difficult the same surface can be in the same setting. While I captured the steel base and the glass surrounding the burner well, the convex glass just above that was too daunting. The reflection of the green cloth and the glass in the brass plate gave rise to shades that I found difficult to emulate on my palette. Even then, I thoroughly enjoyed working on this one.

metalglass

Many people think that art is a form of implicit expression but maybe it isn’t. A painting or a piece of work is a bridge between the artist and the viewer. An artist must observe deeply and intently to better connect with the object. The more you connect, the more the object becomes a part of you. The more successfully you develop and express your own unique, authentic perspective. Your painting forever carries your idea with it and a viewer who can connect with that unique perspective is someone who has truly understood what you were trying to express. After all, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

There is a certain flexibility and ease of the hand that becomes your natural way after much of this kind of work. The ultimate dream of any artist is to find the act of creation so natural, to find one’s art so effortless that it originates from you in a natural flow. That if somebody watches you, they successfully fall for the illusion that what you did was effortless and simple. Yet what you produced was beautiful.

This dream inspires much  of my philosophy in my research in artificial intelligence and machine learning today.

On a different note, this is also where the two seemingly divergent paths of the perfectionists and the impressionists meet. There is a reason why Van Gogh’s Starry Night evokes such a powerful response from people or Michelangelo’s sculptures touch people’s hearts. Irving Stone’s biographies ‘Lust for Life’ (Van Gogh) and ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy’ (Michelangelo) beautifully describe the passions and arduousness that led to the timeless works of these two artists. These two biographies have deeply influenced my relationship with art and my views on life.

Personally I think one’s best creation is where one does not have a very clear memory of creating something. I have experienced two such moments, one in poetry and one in painting, something that Salim Sir asked me to call my ‘Masterpiece’.

But more on the two masters and my masterpiece in another blog post. For now, I have said enough.

 

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