Nov 09 2008

Masters of The Dynamic Still Life

Early in my art career I had a resistance to the still-life genre, perhaps because my college professors created pretty boring set-ups of mangled mannequins, bicycle wheels, broken chairs and all sorts of uninspiring material. I’ve always been more inspired by working from my imagination or a symbolic narrative.  However, since I’ve started teaching art, I’m forced to acknowledge the fact that (1) it’s difficult to teach imagination; and (2) learning to “see” and paint what you see is of great value.

A still-life is also a great starting point for the imagination to interpret what it sees.  Setting up objects creates a perfect situation for studying the effects of light, shadow, and color… and the fact that you have the opportunity to arrange and rearrange the composition allows for more freedom and control than practically any other subject.

Before beginning on a still-life, I feel that it’s a good idea to look at the masters of the genre… those that were able to transcend the subject of “objects on a table” into a work of personal and subjective relevance.

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906): “Apples and Pears”

Cézanne was interested in the simplification of naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials. He is one of the first artists to be spoken of when referring to the idea of the “dynamic” still life.  If you look closely at almost any of his paintings, you will notice that he chooses a rather precarious balance to his themes.  There are a few things to notice in the example above.  First, the horizon line is only slightly tilted, so that there’s a feeling of stability, yet not quite stable.  The plate is also tilted, and the fruit look like they might easily fall off the table.  This isn’t completely obvious to the casual observer, but even these slightly unstablizing factors prevent the composition from becoming totally static.  I’ve added a detail of the painting to help the student see the texture of the paint.  It also serves as an idea of abstracting the image further.

Cézanne’s explorations of geometric simplification later inspired Picasso, Braque and others to experiment with ever more complex multiple views of the same subject, and, eventually, to the fracturing of form (cubism).

To view more works by Cézanne, visit this link.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903): “Still Life Fete Gloanec”

Paul Gauguin’s artworks are frequently characterized by an intense color palette.  His most famous artworks were interpretations of an idyllic life of peasants in Tahiti. His still-life paintings are less known, but were consistent with the rest of his work in that they tended to simplify the subject and key up the colors into somewhat unnatural hues.

A Post-Impressionist, Gauguin’s bold and colorful paintings significantly influenced Modern art, especially artists Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Derain (including the movements of Fauvism, Cubism, and Orphism among others).

To view more of Paul Gauguin’s artworks, visit

Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Sunflowers, Irises, and Lemons

Vincent Van Gogh’s artworks span the subjects of landscape, portraiture and still-life.  He worked at a feverish pace, producing almost 900 paintings between  a span of 9 years (1881-1890).  He painted quickly, deliberately, and almost always from live subjects.

“I can’t work without a model. I won’t say I turn my back on nature ruthlessly in order to turn a study into a picture, arranging the colors, enlarging and simplifying; but in the matter of form I am too afraid of departing from the possible and the true.”

Van Gogh firmly believed that to be a great painter you had to first master drawing before adding color. Over the years he clearly mastered drawing and began to use more color. His early works were shadowed by the dark color themes of Dutch realism, but after viewing the works of the French Impressionists, his color scheme shifted to the tints and tones of a brighter world.  In time, one of the most recognizable aspects of Van Gogh’s paintings became his bold use of color.  The energetic use of line and brushwork is also a trademark of Van Gogh’s work.

To view more of Van Goghs drawings and paintings, visit

Georgio Mirandi (Italian, 1890-1964): the muted still-life

Morandi was the master of monochromatic compositions of subtle power.  He tended to emphasize the shapes and profiles of his objects with gentle shifts in color, unified with an even-handed, brushy application of paint.  He preferred matte surfaces and neutral colors. Boxes and bottles were stripped of labels and sometimes painted white or gray to destroy reflections and homogenize the materials, reducing them to essential forms. In this way, his still life paintings became studies in abstract geometric archetypes.

To view more works by Giorgio Morandi, visit this site.

Georgia O’Keefe (American, 1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keefe’s studies of natural forms are generally viewed less as still-lives than powerful expressions of abstracted realities.  She did occasionally set up objects on a table, but more often there is no reference to man-made forms in these paintings.  Sometimes (especially in the case of her bone-studies) she would float the subject agains an expansive sky.

Wikipedia says, “O’Keeffe has been a major figure in American art since the 1920s. She is chiefly known for paintings in which she synthesized abstraction and representation in paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, animal bones and landscapes. Her paintings present crisply contoured forms that are replete with subtle tonal transitions of varying colors.”

Patrick Chi Ming Leung (born in Hong Kong 1953; resides in Canada)

I actually know very little about this artist.  I discovered him by wandering the web, researching artists of the still life.  I immediately recognized something very powerful in the way that he abstracts natural forms into circles, lines, textures, and shapes.  It makes me realize that it’s possible to push the possibilities of each, simultaneously !   I’ve enlarged a section of the above painting in order to focus on what is happening, at a spatial level.

I’ll soon write to the artist and see if I can gain any insight into his process and thoughts (and to obtain permission to use his image).

For more images by Patrick Chi Ming Leung, visit gallery site.

Joseph Plasket (Canadian, 1918- ):

Another discovery from browsing the web, Joseph Plasket actually has quite a renowned reputation and I’m surprised I hadn’t come across him before.  Joseph Plasket comes to us from Canada.   He’s a gem (and I want to meet him!)

What I appreciate most about these compositions is that the still-life subjects are rendered in a lively attention to detail, seeming fairly realistic, yet slammed against the plane of rectangles, squares and octagons.  It’s as if two planes of dimensional space have intersected or collided with each other.  Brilliant!  In some ways it goes further than the discovery of Cubism by Picasso.  Picasso smashes space up into a bucket of glass and puts it back together into a less recognizable form.  Joseph Plaskett has performed a trick on our perceptions also, but it seems a friendlier place to me.  It’s the kind of world that I would like to step into, with all of its pure hue, elegant shapes, and colored light.

I love how he can take the same basic forms and, combining each with a different light and temperature, creates completely different atmospheres!

Reflections on Turning 90, by Joseph Plasket:

“The ecstasy I feel as I survey  work I have done I want to share with the world – not the whole world  which couldn’t care less, but my private world, which is my country, Canada. An aged painter cannot help but accept the fact that his work belongs in the past. Younger painters have leaped into the phenomenon called contemporary, where it would be foolish of me to try to enter. But I can claim my own phenomenon, the existence of a public that loves and is moved by what I do, and this public even includes my peers some of whom are young and contemporary. I now paint works that I would previously have not been capable of painting, works that take me by surprise and leave me in a state of wonder and amazement. When I see older work that has stood the test of time (not everything I do does) I cannot recall how I have done it. At a certain point the painting seems to have painted itself without my help – what I have called the “eureka” moment when a sudden daring intervention has worked a miracle.”

In my personal opinion, the worlds that Joseph Plasket has created is just as contemporary as anything else I’ve seen.  I see that he has fractured the world into 2 planes: the receding objects on the table, and the flat plane of the table, which has a shifted perspective.

To view more paintings by Joseph Plasket, view his gallery webpages.  Here’s another, with more :


Note: Most of my posts related art instruction, art history, and classes are being posted on private pages, instead of within the main frame of this blog.  Here’s an index of the class-related pages I’ve created so far. You can also view them on the sidebar, under “Pages” (between categories and blogroll), arranged in alphabetical order:

Painting Subjects

Staging a Simple Still-Life

Masters of the Dynamic Still-Life

Contemporary Botanicals, Mixed Media

The Interpretive Landscape

The Interpretive Portrait

Mixed Media/Painting Techniques:

Textured Backgrounds

Acrylic Image Transfers

Combining Pattern and Realism

Color, Space, Repetition

Golden Inspirations: Gold Leaf Painting

Stencils, Stencils, Stencils

Color Theory:

Mandala Color Wheel

Color Wheel Masking

Creating Harmony in Color

Color Shift from a Photographic Source

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Masters of The Dynamic Still Life”

  1. […] South of France, he became more expressive with color and more imaginative depicting subjects. A recent post from Eyeconart’s blog discusses several different masters’ takes on still life including Van […]

  2. Nathaniel says:

    Wow, I’m truly impressed with your art interpretations it truly shows that you’re a professional artist yourself. Excellent blog!

    • Robin says:

      Thanks so much Nathaniel. I haven’t been adding many blog posts or editorials lately. I hope to revive this once I get some time.

    • Robin says:

      Thanks so much Nathaniel. I haven’t been adding many blog posts or editorials lately. I hope to revive this once I get some time.

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