W. Currie, 2017. Pears and Pythagoras. Oil on canvas sheet, 13 5/8 x 17 5/8
The still life is such a classic form. My sense has always been that it's something every painter should try to do. Some of the general art instruction books that I am working my way through emphasize the still life as a way to practice drawing with paint and learning about composition. But as a topic for a painting, the still life never much appealed to me. Then I had a conversation with artist Ali Hasmut at the Ann Arbor Art Fair last summer. Hasmut paints wonderful figures -- you can see his website here. He convinced me that painting still lifes is an important way to practice and develop your skills. To build the skills for figure painting, you study the way that light and shadow describe the form on fruit and other objects and you learn to express that with oil paint. You also practice using and controlling value ranges (light to dark) and using temperature changes (warm to cool). (For example, the red pepper in the right part of this painting has four alternating temperatures: cool in the white highlights, warm in the intense red-orange color, cool in the shadows on the pepper itself on its top and right side, then warm in the shadow cast by the pepper). You might like to have access to a live figure every time you paint, but you can't. A still life can be set up and left for days or weeks. Hasmut explained that once you get started doing still lifes you begin to enjoy it, and as a bonus you will produce some nice paintings that people like.
So I set up several still lifes, one after another, and practiced with charcoal, grisaille in oil (just light and dark shades of a single color), and finally some full-color oil, as in the painting shown here. Hasmut was right -- I am starting to like this form of painting. I looked through my collection of art books and did some online searches to see how other artists approach this form. Cezanne, a late 19th century artist, has long been recognized as a master of the still life -- he is famous for saying "I shall astonish Paris with an apple" -- and his approach appeals to me. You can see a Cezanne influence -- perhaps too much -- in my painting here. He often used strong dark outlines around his objects, as I've done here, which he said a painting needed for structure. The slightly asymmetrical bottle is a nod to Cezanne, as is the handle on the brown jug, slightly mis-drawn in perspective. The knife at an angle, pointing into the center of the painting, I also borrowed from Cezanne.
I titled this one 'Pears and Pythagoras' because the small dark object at the left is a little bronze bust of Pythagoras. Richard Schmid, one of my favorite present-day artists, often inserts interesting and non-traditional objects like this into his still lifes. I found this bronze bust of Pythagoras at the Boy Scout rummage fair for about a dollar. Now I've started collecting interesting things to paint in still lifes. Allison and I have started going to yard sales and antique malls to look for interesting objects. So far I've collected an iron Japanese yard lantern, a horse figure made from leather, a bronze elephant, a carved wooden Buddha head, a die-cast model of a classic roadster, an African mask, and so on. I also started borrowing objects from friends -- please let me know if you have any such interesting things I could borrow to put in a painting. And check back to see how I try to incorporate some of these things into future still life paintings.