Part 2, project 2, exercise 3: Still life with natural objects (step 1: choosing a subject and artist research)

Updated on 26 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

24 April 2016. Since I had already chosen flowers for Assignment 1 I was advised by the study guide to skip exercise 2 to go straight to painting natural objects.

Again, as always, I feel some inner resistance when having to put together random objects in order to display them as a still life. What I want to do is tell a story, even if the task is only keen observation of form, light and composition. So I gave the fruit basket and vegetable drawer a wide berth, collected and then discarded twigs, cones and snail shells, and half eaten breakfast eggs, and in my mind always came back to the study guide suggestion of painting rock crystals. I have a few of these, which we picked up on some mountaineering trips in the Hohe Tauern mountain range. While going through my small collection of rocks and crystals I also came across three specimens, which are, to me, so interesting regarding their surface appearance, provenance and history of formation that I could not resist choosing them for the exercise:
I have now a highly irregular, iridescent and near black piece of pumice, filled with holes formed by volcanic gas, which we found on a lava field near mount Teide on Tenerife, a 10 cm long cylindrical piece of petrified wood (which is at least what we think it is) from Australia, which is yellowish-pink in colour, as well as a piece of cream-white probably coral I inherited from my grandfather and whose ends are extremely worn, so that it looks well-rounded overall (Fig. 1):

Apart from the personal stories connected with the pieces, there is geology and biology to consider, if I am to create a painted still life story. So here I am with a real opportunity to go through a staged process. I just hope that I can force myself to a considerate approach.

First of all, since two of these objects are not what the study guide would call simple forms, while at the same time sharing a lack of colour, I will want a carefully chosen coloured background to emphasize the characteristics of my objects. The matter is whether I want the background to be part of the story, e.g. in its simplest form telling something about the place of formation of each of the three objects. What I could do is to create an abstract background layer in a way I saw in an exhibition of paintings by Herbert Stejskal earlier this year (Lacher-Bryk, 2016), but much more reduced, as e.g. in Anon (n.d.) or Guedez (n.d.). I like the strong lines delineating the boundaries of each coloured area, but I guess that just these lines would not provide an interesting contrast, but would rather suffocate the delicate structures of my objects. On the other hand, I do not want the still life to look like a display in a jeweller’s shop window with the items lying on a nice piece of cloth, satin or velvet, or whatever, or on an indifferent background as e.g. in this painting by Paolo Porpora (1617-1673, Italy) (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Paolo Porpora: Still Life with Shells, oil on canvas, [n.d.]. Source: Paolo Porpora (1617-1673) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Also, since I quite like the strong shadows, I want to chose a background which allows them to be included in the painting.

25 April 2016. In order to start experimenting without thinking too much about a story or concept, I had a look through my collection of scrap paper, which I include in drawings and paintings now and them, and was lucky to find three pieces, which could help me with visualizing background effects regarding colour, as well as size and position of parts. What I do not want to do here, however, is to take a shortcut and use the paper to make a collage. I want to paint all parts, because I know I need the experience. Here are a few photos I took while testing a first setup. To start, I took photos with each rock on similar and contrasting background colours and tones. See the results in the three photos below (Fig. 3, 4 and 5):

Figure 3. Rocks placed on similar background
Figure 4. Rocks placed on contrasting background – 1
Figure 5. Rocks placed on contrasting background – 2

I quite like the combination of tonal and colour variation in the above background experiment. There is, however, when looking at it again, far too much harmony, which I would like to break. I therefore varied the position of the papers and got two more or less acceptable results (Fig. 6 and 7):

Figure 6. Position of background papers changed to form rectangular areas
Figure 7. Position of background papers changed to form triangular areas

For some reason the triangular shapes appear appealing to me, probably because a good-willed viewer might read mountains, sand dunes or ocean waves into them. So I think that I might give that idea a go, but avoiding the jeweller’s shop appearance. So there will be no painting simple patterns for the rocks to lie on. In order to see how other artists solve their background problems, I had another look on the internet and found an example of how the background may be painted using the same hues as the objects placed on top and still successfully creating a background-foreground effect (Groat, n.d.). This gave me the idea that I might try a very subtle combination of the different hues provided by a volcanic eruption, sea water and sand desert. Whether the combination of colours (orange, blue and ochre-pink) will work together and whether I will need to enhance likeness or contrast, I will test in the next step of this exercise.

Regarding paintings depicting similar objects I did not find many examples. Entering “still life natural objects” or even “rock crystal” in my browser gave almost invariably fruit or vegetables interspersed with the odd fish, most of them to a high standard of practically photorealistic painting, which I do not want either. One style I came across I thought fascinating: Sylvia Siddell (1941-2011), a New Zealand based painter, had a very unusual and energetic approach to her still lifes, see e.g. “Out of the Frying Pan” (Siddell, 2007). She used an intriguing combination of line and colour, which I would like to include in this exercise, on a much simpler level.


[Anon.] (n.d.) Abstract Painting on a Wall [n.k.] [online image]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2016]

Groat, H. II (n.d.) Terra Mater [oil on canvas] [online]. New York Art Collection. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2016]

Guedez, C. (n.d.) La Ville de Paris [acrylic on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2016]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2016) Study Visit: Gallery Tour in Salzburg [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA Painting 1 Blog. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2016]

Porpora, P. (n.d.) Still Life With Shells [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 25 February 2017]

Siddell, S. (2007) Out of the Frying Pan [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2017]


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