Posted in Assignment 2, Assignments, Coursework, Part 2

Composition of Still Life

Despite my tutor’s comment that my book work is ahead of my own work I’ve been re-reading the course notes, and have realised that an area I need to consider in more detail is composition. As such I went off on the research trail again. This time I have a different focus: “How do I produce a good composition?” In particular, of course, this means an initial focus of still life compositions. I believe, however, that most of the “rules” of composition are more generic than this.


As with many of these subjects I started looking for interesting articles using a series of Google searches. I was particularly interested in the composition of still life drawings and paintings. I found some interesting articles for this in addition to the course material:

As is often the case my path for the research varies dramatically from the way that I now present it. From this reading I’ve been considering how to apply this to help in the production of an image. When approaching a piece of work there are two major tools that can be useful: A Method and a Checklist for consideration. The idea of the method is to supply myself with (effective) instructions for creating the work, and the checklist provides a way of considering how well the work is progressing.

Once I’ve created a method and checklist I need to test them, possibly on an on-going basis. I decided to check them in two major ways: Consider other artist’s work using the checklist to see what lessons can be drawn out using it; Consider past work using them as a lens for reflection; and Do some work using the method and checklist to try to produce better work than I have previously.


  1. So what’s it about? Decide on a concept or theme. Is the work trying to send a message? If so, is it shouting or whispering it? If not, why would the viewer be interested?
  2. What should be in there? Collect some stuff, or go find it in situ if the composition isn’t to be constructed.
  3. How to arrange it? For a constructed still life play with the way that the things are placed. Think of the principles from Arthur Dow, Percy and the different arrangement rules.
  4. How about the light? Natural or artificial? Can we create interest by light placement? How about some Notan?
  5. How about the background/negative space? What should that be?
  6. Create a series of thumbnail sketches, and use them to optimise the interest. Make sure the image construction is feasible and interesting, and consider viewpoint and crop that makes sense. Is it too hard/easy?
  7. Consider image surface and medium. What might work? What are the implication?
  8. Create a preparatory drawing, or a few. Consider creating preparatory drawings to understand different elements, the tonal qualities of the image and to learn how to draw it.
  9. Consider whether its starting to pull together, and can be drawn well. Does it meet the concept? Is the arrangement interesting? Is the lighting good? Is it the right crop? Does it fit the medium? If in doubt return to a previous step.
  10. Put an outline of the major elements in, considering the full forms and their relative position in space. This might have to form part of the image, or might be able to be removed later depending on the media. Consider using a soft pencil lightly, so that you can rub it out. Would a photo and grid help?
  11. When that’s good move to tone and detail. Consider how to approach working to not damage early work with later. (e.g. top to bottom and left to right.)

Composition Checklist

Distilling the reading into a checklist for consideration I’ve produced this:

  • Shape and proportion
  • Repetition and possible pattern, geometry (1. OPPOSITION;  2. TRANSITION; 3. SUBORDINATION; 4. REPETITION; and 5. SYMMETRY}
  • Arrangement: Positioning/orientation/balance/harmony among the elements (Viewpoint (leading with the eye);  Rule of thirds; Rule of odds; Rule of space; Simplification; Shallow Depth of Field/Levels of detail; Diagonal Method ; Creating of the eye; Negative space)
  • Lighting and Notan
  • Area within the field of view
  • Color and Contrast
  • Lines and Rhythm
  • Perspective
  • When to break the rules

Considering other artist’s work

There is a lot of this in the articles on the diagonal method, Notan and some of the “How to…” articles which I won’t bother to repeat here.  What is worthy of consideration, however, is the work I looked at under the still life genre.

Considering the Diagonal Method


For all of the images the result provides a good correlation with key points of interest. If you add this to the examples provided in the article above there is a fairly convincing case that this approach is at least worthy of consideration.

Negative space

In all 3 cases there is at least some interest within the negative space. This can be seen in the Morandi image:

Morandi - Negative space

Light and Dark

This can be considered by using a curve adjustment on the image. This is the result for the Morandi:

Morandi - Light and Dark

Here, there is a bias towards dark in the image as a whole, and strongly in the native negative space. In fact, the lighter area in the negative space is mainly used to help separate foreground from background – such as the right hand side of the bottle and fruit.

Considering my work

The following images show some of my part 1 work with added diagonals.


The results here are interesting, as from a strength of composition viewpoint I would say that the weakest is the Ceramic tools, followed by the Greek image and the strongest the charcoal pots. There is no real correlation with the diagonal method for the ceramic tools or Greek objects, but some for the charcoal pots. This is as much to do with the quality of the marks as the basic composition though. The weaker images above are also overly complex, and so should have been simplified at the thumbnail sketch level. Similarly the positive-negative space balance is off in both.

In summary, there is reason to believe that if I had followed the method above and used the checklist as a filter it is very likely that the final work would have been better than the submitted work. The next step is to test this with the work of Part 2.


Another area that I’ve been considering is the way that I support this whole process. Previously I have been taking photographs of possible scenes and cropping those to help select an appropriate lighting, position an arrangement. I was then watching “Portrait artist of the year” ( and realised that many of the artists use this approach, and go a step further. As well as using the photograph for reference and to consider these aspects they were overlaying a grid on it and using that to place the initial form. I realised that this is relatively easy to achieve, and so is worth a try. Although there are risks (e.g. Lens distortion, lack of movement) in drawing from photographs it seems worth experimenting with.




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