Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Magic of Still Life


"Chimu" © Steve Henderson
The still life has always been one of my favorite subjects for art and photography. It may seem simple, but finding just the right objects, arranging them in just the perfect composition, and finding light that really bring out the best in them is no easy task. There’s something so peaceful about a still life hanging on the wall that makes it worth all the effort to get them right.

My fascination with the still life began when I was a kid. Both my mother and grandmother are artists, and both are teachers. No matter how many times we moved, my mom always had a studio in our house. Dozens of students were always parading in and out, toting giant sketch pads and easels and canvases and boxes full of paint. They were eager to learn how to take all of the beautiful things they had in their mind and translate them into something tactile, and my mom is a great teacher.

"Asian Tea Time" © Mona McGuire

"Golden Abundance" © Marsha Tudor
And… I was a stubborn kid. I wanted to learn, too, but I didn’t want to be taught. I wanted to do it myself. This always resulted in me getting frustrated that I couldn’t draw something the way I wanted and crumpling up papers and grumping about it until mom came in and very carefully, gently wore down my resistance and showed me something that I didn’t know how to do. She was good at that; she never pushed me or insisted on teaching me anything until I was ready to learn.

It didn’t matter how much she taught me or how many times she guided me more quickly towards what I wanted to do, showing me shortcuts and giving me knowledge that improved my drawing. I didn’t want to hear any of it until I knew for sure that I couldn’t do it myself, first.

As one of my elementary school teachers put it to my mom at parent teacher conference one night, “Wendy, your daughter is… tenacious.” My mom laughed and said, “that’s a nice way of saying she’s stubborn.” And it’s true. I’m not sure what caused me to be this way, but it ensured that even to this day I have never been particularly good with a pencil or paint brush; I found my creative calling in photography and writing instead. Maybe I just didn’t want to take after my mother and grandmother; I wanted to do my own thing. Because of this, I never sat in on any of my mom’s classes. Looking back, I probably could have learned a lot from her.

"Amaryllis" © Richard Harpum


"Still Life in the Sun" © Tien Frogget
But the one thing that I do remember is watching her do the still life setups for her classes. The way she would take a table and arrange fruit or flowers or vases and other objects on it and then do various lighting setups to teach them about the direction of light and how it touches different objects. Still life is all about the way light will bounce off of some things, and bend through the more translucent objects, like glass, and the way it makes shadows and defines shape and color.

For some reason, out of all the things she taught, this was the one that held my attention and fascination, and one of the few things that stuck with me through the years. It caused me to experiment with my own still life photos when I later got into photography, and instilled within me a lifelong love for the relationship between stationary objects and light.

I really appreciate an artist that can capture that on canvas, for truly, it doesn’t matter what creative medium you choose: we are all ultimately painting our own light and shadow.

"Tea by the Sea" © Steve Henderson

"Time" © Tien Frogget


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