There is no real requirement for subject matter when it comes to still life painting. The only two things you really need are stillness and life… and really, you (the artist) are the one who creates the life within the painting. The real challenge arises in creating something beautiful and interesting to look at from commonplace objects.
The Dutch and Flemish painters really took off with the genre during the 17th century, creating meaning out of seemingly simple, everyday objects. With the spread of new religions, symbolism and still lifes took on more meaning. The genre was not given as much respect as other creative passions, but through history it has grown on the art community.
Still lifes have never required some larger symbolic meaning. The form is respected as a difficult endeavor taken on by contemporary still life artists. Creating beautiful composition out of a commonplace item takes high level of artistic passion and skill. The genre has evolved over time, but several parts of still life remain the same.
The biggest similarity from century to century — and the biggest difference — is subject. The subject is the life. Over the hundreds of years, flowers, fruits, architecture, and more common elements have appeared over and over. Times change and objects change, but stillness and beauty don’t.
Fruit and flowers are always a good place to start, and a good way to learn how to create or observe great still life. Something about the vivacity and freshness of fruit and flowers keeps bringing artists back.
As the subject is the most important part of a still life, picking the right subject for you is the best way to put the life into a still life. There’s no such thing as a boring subject — there are always a few ways to add some interest to the imagery.
As with any other painting, thematically beautiful colors, dramatic lighting, and an eye for composition will make any everyday object fascinating.
Another artistic trick is to create a border around the still life. Focus the eyes into the object and allow the viewer to spend more time looking closer.
The magic of a still life is that they give people the chance to look at objects that anyone would normally look past. An artist has the opportunity to make any regular object into a beautiful point of interest. There is something powerful in that, and something that demands respect. If you feel that certain paintings are lacking life, maybe look into adding some still life!
Nicole Alger is a contemporary artist living in New York City. Samples of her work (including still life paintings) can be seen at her website: http://nicolealger.com