The Footmen of Fine Arts
The ‘still life’ has developed from humble origins. Initially regarded as the lesser genre of the painted arts behind history painting, portraiture, landscape and animal painting because it was deemed to involve less skill as an artist to undertake. Although the obvious talents of the exponents and creators of Trompe-l’œil pieces might argue otherwise.
Samuel Van Hoogstraten the creator of such outstanding Trompe-l’œil pieces such as the Letter Board said that creators of still life art were “mere footmen in the great army of artists”. It was not until Caravaggio’s ‘Basket of Fruit’ c.1599 that the genre of still life really began to gain prominence.
Evolution of Still Life and Attracting an Audience
Before I explain a little about my images, I think that it is important to give the inception of the popularity of still life some context. A set of events involving financial prosperity, war & religion amongst others in northern Europe led to Holland in particular as a standard bearer for the ‘Still Life’ genre and a catalyst for its proliferation in art.
At that time the Calvinistic church banned religious painting. In the early 17th century Amsterdam was experiencing its Golden Age. The city became a center for a world-wide trade network with the formation of the Dutch East India company and was flooded with exotic goods, flora & food from around the world. Its prosperous inhabitants were great art lovers and a market was begging to be fed.
Still Life artists were able to bring together the spoils of prosperity in pictorial form with the addition of, it is argued, underlying iconography, to symbolize a soberer message and fulfill the gap that religious imagery once provided. Objects within a composition took upon a language of their own to symbolize birth, death, the transient nature of life, wealth, knowledge, the list is varied and vast. The Dutch at war with Spain saw artists from the south seeking refuge in the north. Holland became a melting pot for these new ideas to flourish. Still Life spawned numerous sub-genres, Vanitas, Banquet Pieces, Breakfast Pieces, Floral & Pronk.
Merging Photorealism into Still Life Paintings
Development in oil paint meant that the skilled artists gave still life images much verisimilitude. A modern-day viewer might describe as photographic. My eyebrows raised as I looked up from the book that I was reading on the subject.
As time progresses, the lines between art mediums blur. Photography and painting have had a long history of to-and-fro deviation. It is said that Cezanne & Manet were influenced by photography for example. It can be concluded that Manet had frequent contact with photography which resulted in his use of blurriness in a conceptual manner to help him with his paintings in order to show movement.
The Pictorial movement in early days of photography saw creatives manipulate images and negatives to make their photographs more painterly. Photorealism in painting sees the artist imitate photography to be perceived as realistic as possible.
I’m sure you understand my train of thought here.
Therefore, mooting the idea of attempting to undertake the recreation of photorealistic painted still life subject matter from over 400 years ago, whilst trying to achieve a painterly spin in a photographic medium sounded like a challenge.
Falling in Love with Chiaroscuro Photography
Initially trying to recreate old master compositions (at the time of writing) proved to be, well… just extremely difficult.
I neither have the financial or art world resources to get hold of authentic props or recreations. As an example, Nuremberg, Pineapple & Nautilus cups often found in the sumptuous works by Willem Kalf & Pieter Claesz retail at tens of thousands of pounds. There is a whole display of them in the Ashmolean Museum next to the Still Life Gallery in Oxford. Security guards often had to peel me from the windows as I looked on. Instead I stretched as far as my budget would allow and began scouring antique and brick-a-brac stores and markets and started to amass a library of items that I felt would look good under studio lights.
This way I then found a style and development of composition of my own. With this small attribute under my belt I could then really begin to play with lighting and arrangement.
Determining Studio Space and Photo Equipment
You will notice that many classic 17th century still life pieces are illuminated from the left, and for the most part this is how I start to work with my compositions. It goes hand in hand with the way we read in western culture, from left to right. I may ultimately flip the final result but creating this way helps concentration.
“I spend as much time lighting my images as I do with the composition.” – Jon Wild
I work in a studio attached to my house that is just over 400sq ft in area. It’s now packed with props, storage and lighting equipment and a wood burning stove for the winter, which leaves little room for maneuver. I chose to black-out the studio windows and so all my lighting comes from standard studio flash units.
I work with between 2-4 flash units per shot with the addition of a variety of light shapers, both standard studio stock i.e. reflectors, snoot, barn doors and often hand-made gobos to add some interest. I often cast shadows across the scene to lead the eye. A composition often takes many hours to develop and grow. Quite often the scene will build around my lighting rather than the other way around.
Old Masters, New Inspiration
The beautiful chiaroscuro effect employed in many pieces of the Dutch Masters for me is one of the main attractions of their compositions. The depth achieved is accentuated by ornate textures and unusual shadow detail that invites the eye to explore every detail.
“Under studio light, a pomegranate looks far better ripped apart than sliced, a wooden table top looks far better if it’s been left outside to weather for a year or two.” – Jon Wild
I try then to cherry pick subject matter that will exploit these traits. Under studio light, a pomegranate looks far better ripped apart than sliced, a wooden table top looks far better if it’s been left outside to weather for a year or two. A bunch of grapes with uneven sized fruit looks far more interesting on the vine than standard uniformly sized bunches from the supermarket.
“Unfortunately, much fruit has been harmed in the creation of my images in the pursuit of perfection and the imperfection of vanitas still life…especially lemons!” – Jon Wild
A photography tutor once said to me that my knife cutting skills left a lot to be desired after an early attempt at still life. He was probably right but at the time I was a student of photography and not Chinese Fruit Carving. However, I guess that I should have paid attention and addressing some attention to this process is important and you will be glad that you did. It’s very difficult to hide away from scrutiny later. I still have issues with lemon peel which the Dutch Masters majestically and flamboyantly portrayed cascading from the sides of plates and tables and have developed a nervous twitch when I think about trying to adding them into a scene.
Scouting out the Perfect Prop
Many of the Still Life 17th century pieces featured historical glassware. Berkermeyers, Roemers, King’s Goblets and Beer glasses that were adorned with prunts around their bases which also lend themselves to great light and shadow play.
Modern day equivalent pieces are reasonably easy to source although I have commissioned a bespoke giant roemer glass especially for my work. I’m currently tee-total but I found it ‘important’ to use real wine and beer on the long, long photo shoots.
Shining Light on the Still Life
In my windowless studio I create the illusion of window reflections by using cardboard strips taped together placed at the front of a softbox to reflect as mutins onto shiny and transparent surfaces. This would often be my key light defining the direction of the shadows as well as main light source which I would bounce through glass and off the surfaces of fruit sheened with cooking oil or sprayed with water. A simple trick, but effective.
“I create the illusion of window reflections by using cardboard strips taped together placed at the front of a softbox…” – Jon Wild
The lower the light, the longer the shadows. I also try to ensure enough fill light illuminates the rest of the scene. Whilst chiaroscuro is a wonderful effect to achieve to bring some drama to your work it’s also important not to plunge a whole scene into the dark unless this is the exact effect that you are after. I try to illuminate a surface across all areas of the composition to peek out from the shadows.
“Still Life demands total human interaction at every step to achieve the result” – Jon Wild
Still Life is still overlooked by many young photography students (not unlike in days of old) as the lesser of subject matter against the likes of fashion photography or portraiture for example, perceived perhaps as boring and mundane maybe easy.
Much unlike a human model, a bowl of fruit will not respond to verbal direction, dried butterflies won’t cling to flower stems, objects in a scene simply won’t arrange themselves. Still Life demands total human interaction at every step to achieve the result. For me it’s the most engrossing of subject.
Drafting a Composition
The Dutch Masters compositions would often fall within the Golden ratio. As with the rule of thirds, there are no hard or set rules but merely guidelines of composing the shot.
“I often use candle smoke to add movement in my images.” – Jon Wild
Sometimes when working on a single shot for so long it is easy to become distracted by the basics of composition. Far from being dull and boring still life can involve movement….and even people. Take a look at Dali Atomicus by Phillipe Halsman, which I saw featured in a Still Life exhibition a number of years ago for example. I often use candle smoke to add movement in my images. (Smoke was symbolic of the brevity of life in Vanitas still life).
I do this all in-camera and so as with the poor cats in Dali Atomicus, this often takes many attempts. The candle and smoke help form the completion of composition and its positioning for lighting needs to be thought out a along time before finalising the scene.
The Science of Building a Set
Forever a learning curve, it soon became apparent that backdrops for my images were going to have to be created by hand to add variation and go some way to achieve the effect that I sought. If only my painting skills equalled that of the Dutch Masters.
I purchased a number of 7’ x 5’ pieces of hardboard and painted on each side. Often this size is nowhere near enough and so some degree of creativity is involved to double up. I’m still no theatrical set designer but practice certainly helps. Using resources to hand I would sometimes add soot from the stove to add texture. Painting your own backdrops gives you freedom to work. It may be time consuming but certainly worth the effort.
“I’m still no theatrical set designer but practice certainly helps” – Jon Wild
With no photographic set ever being the same, what you can’t see is quite often more important than what you can.
I wish I that I could report that I run a spotless production regime and that the studio area remains in a constant orderly fashion. The truth being that it resembles a small bomb site most of the time beyond the reach of the lens. With dead matches strewn of the floor, the odd butchered lemon (twitch), dried flowers, cast off ornate cloths and an accumulation of detritus amassed throughout scene creation.
With this in mind I find it important to make space to work around the composition which is often very constrained by lighting and tripods. It’s often the case that height adjustments to aid aesthetics of pieces within the scene need to be made on a regular basis. That odd book under table cloth or behind an object perhaps to maintain its balance. It’s extremely demoralizing to have to deconstruct a set to accommodate a small change.
Cutting Down on Post-Production
With camera tethered to a workstation throughout the shoot I attempt to minimize post production making the most changes within camera raw itself and maybe enhancing some light and contrast within Photoshop. One danger of trying to achieve great chiaroscuro is underexposure leaning the composition too far into the dark and so I try to keep a keen eye on the histogram throughout.
If you haven’t started snoring yet, then well done, you! I’m glad that you are still along for the ride.
It’s very difficult to encompass all facts about the genre and my work within such a small written piece here. If I have whet your appetite at all for further reading on Still Life history, then my work is done. It is an amazing subject that has brought me great pleasure. Please visit galleries and see the work of the Dutch Masters first hand.
Oh! and there is a small hotel in Amsterdam that has some my work in every room displayed from floor to ceiling that I have not had chance to visit. I’d be grateful if you could tell me how they look!!
Please share your thoughts in the comment section. For complete works of Jon Wild, check out the artist’s website!