How Accurate Should Still Life Paintings Be?

2015 Artwork How Accurate Should Still Life Paintings Be Sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been working on some still life paintings recently (I started posting them here about a week or so ago and, at the time of writing, I don’t know how long this painting series will be).

These are gothic paintings that usually also feature cute stuffed animals. In case you haven’t had a chance to see any of them, here are a couple of my favourites:

"Starfish And Nail Varnish" By C. A. Brown

“Starfish And Nail Varnish” By C. A. Brown

"Plush Rat And DVDs" By C. A. Brown

“Plush Rat And DVDs” By C. A. Brown

Anyway, whilst I was working on these paintings, I started to think about how accurate still life paintings should be. This was because many of the still life paintings I made were sometimes wildly “inaccurate”, when compared to the original scenes I’d arranged in front of me.

For example, I used dark backgrounds for all of the pictures (to emphasise the foreground) and I’d occasionally add or change other things too. As long as the “core” parts of the picture were accurate, I didn’t mind changing everything else if it improved the painting as a whole.

It’s perfectly ok to do things like this in your still life paintings. Seriously, it isn’t “cheating” or anything like that – as long as it improves the painting and as long as the central part of your painting looks reasonably accurate.

The important thing to remember here is that still life paintings aren’t photographs, they’re paintings. Whilst a photo is a totally accurate depiction of whatever is in front of the camera, a painting is – first and foremost – a creative (in the literal sense of the word) work of art.

Yes, photographs can often be art too – but the art in photography comes primarily from things like the lighting, composition etc.. rather than from re-creating whatever is in front of you.

So, you should think of your still life painting as a painting first and as a still life second.

What this means is that it’s ok to use a lot of artistic licence in your still life paintings, as long as there’s a good artistic reason for doing it.

Going back to my example earlier, if I’d actually painted whatever was actually in the background, then the items in the foreground wouldn’t have stood out as much. They’d obviously still be visible, but they wouldn’t be the main focus of the picture in quite the same way they would be if I used a plain black background.

However, it’s important to have a good understanding of things like lighting and shading if you’re going to make major creative alterations to your still life paintings. If, for example, you add something from your imagination to your still life and it doesn’t cast the right shadows, then it is going to look odd.

So, if you’re unsure of your artistic abilities, then either make your changes slightly smaller or look very carefully at references (either from life or in photos).

To give you an example of how to do this, here’s a painting of a cute tortoise and some random objects:

"Tortoise And LED Light" By C. A. Brown

“Tortoise And LED Light” By C. A. Brown

The green wooden surface in the foreground and the two pencils weren’t actually part of the original scene that I’d arranged. But, since the real foreground of this picture would have looked too similar to my previous still life painting, I decided that some changes were needed.

So, I started by placing a brown pencil in front of the original scene and sketching it (making sure to note where the shadows fell).

After this, I looked down at the keyboard shelf of my computer desk (which has a green wooden texture) and copied this, before finding a smaller pencil and drawing a copy of it, with virtually identical shadows to the other pencil I’d drawn.

If I’d tried to make these changes from my imagination alone, then they’d have probably looked wildly unrealistic. I’d have probably got the shadows and perspective completely wrong and it would have ruined the painting slightly. But, since I used reference items, it fitted into the rest of the painting seamlessly.

So, in conclusion, don’t be afraid to be creative with your still life paintings… as long as you do it well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Does Accuracy Or Self- Expression Matter More In Drawings?

2015 Artwork Self expression or accuracy article sketch

Although this article will start with what will probably sound like pretentious art criticism, there’s a reason for this – which I hope will become obvious later in the article – and I’m not just doing it to be snobbish, critical or pretentious just for the sake of it. Honest.

Anyway, I was randomly looking at stuff on the internet a few weeks ago, when I happened to stumble across this fascinating (and slightly NSFW) article by Tracey Emin about drawing.

Although I’ve often been kind of cynical about Tracey Emin’s conceptual art – because it’s conceptual art – I still absolutely love how she was able to make art “cool” again back in the 1990s.

So, to see examples of one of the coolest artists in British history working in one of the art forms that I do sounded like an interesting idea.

I’d seen a few Tracey Emin drawings on the internet before, but I was still kind of curious about her drawing style- so I read the article and looked at the drawings in it. And I have to admit that I only really liked half of them.

In the last three drawings in the article I linked to earlier, Emin draws in a fairly similar style to Egon Schiele (a really cool artist from the 1910s, who would have probably made a drawing like Emin’s “Suffer Love II” himself if he could have got away with it back then) and these are technically accurate – but economical – drawings of the human body.

Emin is obviously a hell of a lot better at figure drawing than I am. Plus, she’s able to convey a lot of meaning using a relatively small amount of lines – again, a skill that I deeply respect and am trying to develop myself.

But I really didn’t like the first three drawings in the article (“More Caves, More Tombs”, “Ripped Up” and “Fish Woman”). To be brutally honest, I thought that they were barely comprehensible scribbles that look like they were made by a child. But, when you read the text below each one – you can see that there was obviously a hell of a lot of emotional meaning behind each of these drawings – far more than there is behind most of my own drawings.

These three drawings were obviously a powerful form of self-expression for Emin. But, without the explanatory text underneath them and her famous name beside them – you probably wouldn’t know this. You wouldn’t know the meaning of these works of art – in fact, with a couple of them, you probably couldn’t even make an accurate guess about it. I could understand this if Emin wanted to keep the meaning of these drawings private, but she obviously doesn’t.

And, well, this made me think about self-expression, accuracy and meaning in art.

There’s no denying that art is one of the most powerful forms of self-expression out there. One cathartic emotional drawing is worth ten hastily scribbled diary pages, one deeply personal drawing can show more about yourself than an hour of deeply intimate conversation can. One angry political cartoon can express far more rage than a two-hour speech can. Art is one of the purest and most powerful forms of self-expression in the world.

But, all of that expression is lost if the meaning of your art isn’t immediately obvious (or easily guessable) to the complete strangers who will see your work if you choose to publish it online or in a gallery.

Your audience will not have had the same experiences as you and they may not even have the same opinions you do – so, they are not likely to understand your art unless they can work out it’s meaning just from looking at it.

No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make deeply personal art that only you can understand. In fact, what would be the point of being an artist if you didn’t do this every once in a while? But, if you’re going to show it to other people, then you have to understand that they probably won’t understand it.

So, at the very least, you have to make sure that your art looks good enough to be appreciated on a purely visual level – so that they don’t leave feeling completely empty-handed. If you do this, then you can publish all of the cathartic and emotional art that you like and people will still like it.

In fact, if your cathartic “self-expression” art looks good enough on a visual level – then people might even put a lot of effort into guessing what it means. Why? Because they actually like it and want to learn more about it.

But, if your cathartic art doesn’t look good enough to be appreciated on a purely visual level, then you’re probably best keeping it safely inside your diary.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂