Ask the Expert…Elizabeth Robbins

Question: What are the key elements in making a strong still life painting?

1: Concept.

It’s important to have a strong concept of what you want to paint before you lay the first brush stroke down. Many people feel that this means that there has to be some inner, deep, meaning to a painting that only a docent can explain to the viewer.

Although this is one concept, it’s not the only one. Many times a painting can be just about a memory that you cherish, a favorite vase, or it can be as simple as your favorite rose is blooming and you want to capture it. Having a strong concept also means planning a strategy for your painting. Do you want to have a very dramatic painting with a dark background and a lot of color or do you want to paint something ethereal and high key. Is this painting going to be a horizontal or a vertical? Do you want a lot of negative space so that the few elements in the painting take on a strong importance or do you want to fill up the space with positive shapes?

Example: painting that has little negative space.  The elements
take up most of the canvas.
Lilacs and Apricots 16_20
Title: Lilacs and Apricots
Example: painting that has more negative area than positive.  This makes the main element have great importance. This painting has a “Z” shape composition.
A Lyrical Line
Title: A Lyrical Line

2. Value

Value is King. Being able to recognize the correct value is a process that is learned by squinting. When I teach, many students judge the shadow value way too light. It’s because we are drawn to the light and when we look at the shadow value with our eyes wide open the light area affects our perception of how dark the shadow is. Squinting diminishes the amount of light that enters our eyes and is transferred to our brain. This enables us to more accurately judge the values.

Example: painting with values connected. Notice how the cast shadows of the apples connect to the value of the vase. Notice how the majority of the lights are connected in the upper half of the painting.
Ruby 3 values
Title: Ruby Red, 3 Values
Example: color version of that painting
Ruby Red opa
Title: Ruby Red

3. Temperature

If value is king then temperature is queen and in my opinion just as important as value. Students learn to paint something with a value range but seldom in my experience do teachers explain the important of temperature change. Where there is light, there is temperature change. This is what separates an average painting from an incredible painting. Nature follows laws of light that say when there is a warm light, there will be cool shadows and where there is cool light there will be warm shadows. It is often mistaken that you change planes with a value change when it can be more effective to change plans with a temperature change. I set up most of my still life’s with a 5500K light. This is a cool light, which is considered to approximate the temperature of a North Light window where the blue sky influences the light. When painting outdoors at sunrise or sunset, you will have a very warm light and cool shadows. As students we learn that Yellow, Orange and Red are warm and Blue, Green and Violet are cool. What you need to learn is that a greenish yellow will be warm next to a green but it is cool next to an orange. All colors/value are relative to what they are next too.

Example: warm and cool tones in a painting.

Love at first sight
Title: Love at First Sight

4. Composition and Connectivity

A powerful painting will have a strong connectivity through out the composition.What this means is that there will be a lyrical line that draws you from one element to the next instead of hop skipping and jumping all over the canvas randomly. Just as a music conductor stands before the orchestra telling the musicians where to increase their volume creating a crescendo and when to soften the tone so we listen harder, you are the conductor of this painting. You need to strongly say where an area will be exciting and where an area will be quite. A strong composition will follow shapes such as a “L” “S” “T” “V” and “C”. These shapes can either be drawn backwards, sideways etc to create the line that you want the viewer to follow.

Example: painting with good harmony and “S” shape composition.
Home Grown
Title: Home Grown

5. Shape

We are so accustomed to painting an element by thinking about that element as what it is. Often students paint an eye by thinking of what we think an eye looks like instead of just seeing that eye as shapes of light and dark, warm and cool, organic or abstract. Seeing things in the abstract puts you in the right side of your brain and you’ll be better able to draw the shape more accurately. When setting up my still life I am looking at shapes. I want a variety of shapes from large masses, medium masses and smaller masses. I look at my negative shapes to see that they are interesting and not repetitive. Also look at the positive shapes and determine the same thing. The key to shapes is having variety. Too much repetition is boring and static.

6. Texture and edges

A good still life will have a variety of textures and edges in the paint application. If everything is painted with similar strokes and blended all the same and all your edges are hard then you’ve created monotony. Have areas that are thin and areas that are thicker to create excitement. Great paintings will have a variety of edges. Some will be lost and some will be found. Some will be hard and some will be soft. If you want to draw someone’s attention to a certain area, which will be the focal point, then have more exciting, thicker brushwork and harder edges to that area. If you want an area to be quiet, then have quiet, thin brushwork with softer edges. Again, the key word here is variety.

Example: painting with a variety of edges and an “L” shape composition.
Silver and Cantaloupe
Title: Silver and Cantaloupe

7. Harmony

There should be a harmony throughout your painting, A similarity of color relationships. When you sing a song or play one on a piano, you establish the key in which you will sing or play. We all can hear in a song when someone is off key or a wrong note is played. The same is true for a painting. If you paint most of the painting with all soft high key colors then paint one element that is screaming in intensity, you’ve just painted a sour note. Make a decision in the concept stage what your harmony or key that you will be painting in is going to be.

 Example: painting that has a harmony with intense color.
Sunflowers and Jade
Title: Sunflowers and Jade
Example: harmony with softer colors.
Peonies and Roses 20x24
Title: Peonies and Roses

8. Color

The most often question asked by students is also the most irrelevant. “What color are you using?” Don’t ask yourself what color is it. Ask yourself what value is it? What temperature is it? How bright or dull is it? These are the three questions that constantly go through my mind as I paint. Am I too light or too dark, am I too warm or too cool, and am I too bright or too dull? Whether you paint an orange with a pure orange or with a yellow orange isn’t as important as that you have your value/temperature/intensity relationships correct.

9. Paint what you love.

I can’t over emphasize the important of painting what you know and what you love. I love my flowers. I grow all the flowers I paint. I have a connection to them. I have cared for them and they bloom for me. When I go out to my garden its as if they all shout “Paint me, Paint me!” I can paint a pig if I want to but I’m not really into pigs so when I paint one you can feel the lack of emotional attachment to it. There are many technically perfect paintings out there but they lack emotion. I would rather look at a 100 imperfect paintings where an artist put their heart and soul into the painting than look at 1 perfect unemotional painting. Good art comes from the head; great art comes for the heart.

Liz Headshot cropped

To see more of Elizabeth’s work, please visit her website. We are grateful to have generous artists sharing their experience and knowledge with us. Please visit their websites, facebook, etc. and thank them.


6 thoughts on “Ask the Expert…Elizabeth Robbins

  1. Barbara

    Your article has information a beginning painter like me needs to know or have reinforced. Thank you for taking the time to write such an organized, well-though-out educational piece with photos that show what you are describing.


  2. Peg muenzel

    Thanks Elizabeth. I took your class I think it was two years ago in Appleton. We had A family wedding so I had to miss Saturday morning. This article filled in some spots for me. Yay


  3. Pingback: Ask the Expert… – Experts Answer Your Questions

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