oil paintings and photography by Amber Honour

Setting Up a Pepper Still Life for Painting

Setting Up a Pepper Still Life for Painting


Painting from life is a great way to keep those observational skills sharp and is a useful skill to learn. It is a tool that should be in every artist’s tool box right next to photography. All throughout my artistic career I’ve always created from both life and photos and used them interchangeably. Right now, it’s just more practical for me to work from photos the majority of the time. Besides life obligations, young kids, animals, etc, I typically work on several paintings in a single day, sometimes up to 5 if I’m particularly productive. It isn’t practical to have that may still lifes set up at once or reset for each one each time. Plus, since I paint in layers, it usually takes somewhere between 3 days and a week to complete a small painting.

Why is there such a hot point of debate over painting from life vs painting from a photo? I’ve always thought of it as a non-issue but I still see artists debating it over and over again. There are benefits and drawbacks of each and the final work of art ultimately either works or fails because of the artist’s skill. I should just stop there, but I find the harsh and persistent negativity against using photos annoying. I frequently hear artists state that art from photos is flat, dead, lifeless, etc. There are certainly plenty of bad paintings from bad photos but there are also plenty of bad paintings done entirely from life. The success of a work of art is entirely dependent on the artist. If all paintings from photos are so dead and lifeless, then all of my work from the last year is also. Call be biased, but I tend to disagree with that.

I almost think non-photographer artists forget that all of the rules of art also apply to photography. If an artist is going to work from a photo, the same care should be taken when photographing the subject as painting from life. A quick snapshot does not equal a photo worthy of further development. Some of the photos people work from are bad in their own right and not worth the time spent being turned into a painting. Polishing a turd doesn’t make it something other than a turd.

My current method is to set up temporary still lifes and photograph them. I actually enjoy this solution very much since I get to play around with my camera and assorted camera equipment. Speaking of, I’m a huge fan of the soft boxes I bought earlier this year. I just wish I had bought them earlier! I use them for all of my studio lighting needs. The difference between painting using an ordinary light and a daylight bulb in a soft box is huge. I feel like I’m much more consistently mixing the colors I’m after and they’re perfect for photographing the final art.



Above is my very, very basic setup. Hanging in the back is a black sheet, to the left a dark grey towel to prevent too much reflected light, to the right a soft box light angled away from the background, and finally a little table with the still life itself. I hadn’t used this still life set up before, but my goal was to recreate the lighting in my bedroom where I photographed all of my previous still life subjects. I couldn’t photograph this in that location because a window air conditioner unit is now blocking the light from the window I used as my light source.


To be honest, I actually like the results from this set up a whole lot more. I may play around with some reflected light to the left to fill in some of those deep shadow areas on future sessions, but I love these pepper pictures! I chose peppers for the subject to fulfill a commission. Unfortunately, it turned out that the client had a very different idea about how the painting should look and didn’t approve of any of these photos.



I’m a little bummed that my client wanted to go in a different direction, but better to know now than once I have the painting started. On the bright side, I can still use these photos for references. On the downside, the need to reshoot doubled my prep work and delayed the painting.



My original plan of painting 30 still lifes has the potential to expand quite a bit. When I was at the store buying the peppers, I was eyeballing all sorts of vegetables to paint. Although, since I’ve finished the original 30, I’m going to start changing up my canvas sizes. Those onions from a several weeks ago come to mind for a much larger format.



Aside from changing up my canvas sizes, I’m also looking forward to more variety in subject. I’ve kept it really simple so far with just the fruits and vegetables by themselves, only altered by cutting and repositioning. More objects in the scene will allow for more of a story to be told. Although I’m probably going to take at least a little break from so much black and so much food. I have an idea in my head that these small still lifes will continue, but between other projects instead of being a main focus at least for a while. I really like painting still lifes, but painting 30 all in a row was… a lot.



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