Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nature Morte

Kate Kern Mundie, Tradescantia Pallida and Orange, 14 x 12 inches, oil on panel

The French term for "still-life" is nature morte, which sounds rather depressing. I like still-life paintings, and the idea of painting a still-life.  It is a great way to explore the design, shape, and color of objects. However, I struggle to create compelling compositions or render the objects in the manner I feel they deserve. I get too fussy trying to capture details. And Jim says I get morose and overwrought when I paint a still-life, but that could be because I am struggling with it. The painting above is more or less a successful attempt after several bad paintings.

When I was in school I read Charles-Édouard Jeanneret's and Amédée Ozenfant’s manifesto, Purisim. They proposed that there are perfect composition formulas for painting still-life based on the so-called golden mean or ratio using orthogons. They felt Cubism had degenerated and painters should make clean and simple paintings based on the mathematical formulas of the golden mean. Jeanneret and Ozanfant thought design was more important than color.  

image via MOMA: Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) Nature Morte,
1920. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 39 1/4" (80.9 x 99.7 cm).

Below is an example of how the golden mean applies to painting composition. 

Image via  timelessbydesign.org: An example of the golden mean

The general rules for setting up a composition are:
  1. Break up your painting surface into thirds.
  2. Don’t place the main focal point at the center of the canvas. Place it to the side, off-center.
  3. Have curved and a diagonal forms that bring the eye off and back onto the surface of the painting. 

The golden mean is a great tool to creating a pleasing design, but I treat color as equal to form. While good design provides a foundation, I find color creates an emotional connection. Diebenkorn's work is a good balance between design and color. I always find inspiration in his paintings.    

Image via MOMA: Richard Diebenkorn, Large Still Life,1966. 
Oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 70 1/4" (163.8 x 178.4 cm)

I like how Diebenkorn's still-lifes are of ordinary objects arranged in a natural way. It does not feel as contrived as Le Courbusier's painting of guitar, stack of plates, bottles and book. I try to make my own still-life set-ups feel natural and not too cluttered. Often I am attempting to recreate a grouping of objects that I saw somewhere else in the house, just arranging them in the studio on a table where I have the room to work and the light to paint by.

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