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How to Create Dramatic Still Life Art

Create dramatic still life art by illuminating your subject matter with form lighting or Rembrandt lighting.

still life with onions
"Still life with onions " 
  Oil on masonite; 11 7/8"x 20" 
Limited edition prints available.*

Form lighting is attributed to Rembrandt because the majority of subject matter in his paintings was illuminated with this type of lighting. Rembrandt's paintings are well known for being extremely dramatic, and the illusion of reality he created is extraordinary. Rembrandt is also known as a master of light.

When you use form lighting, about 70- to 75 percent of your subject will be illuminated, while 25- to 30 percent of the subject will be left in shadow. This type of lighing will enable you to obtain the maximum illusion of form in your paintings or drawings. If your goal is to achieve the illusion of three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface, you'll need to use form lighting.

"Still Life with Pears, Grapes and Onion" 
Charcoal, and chalk on grey paper; 14" x 8 3/8"

There are other types of lighting that you can use in your paintings and drawings to achieve different effects.

The following are a few different types of lighiting:

Form Lighting
70- to 75 percent of the object is illuminated, giving the illusion of three-dimentional form. This is the most dramatic type of lighting.

Front Lighting
The majority of the object is illuminated, leaving very little shadow area on the form. This is a flat type of lighting with very little form. This lighting is sometimes used to achieve more detail in a painting or drawing.

Rim Lighting
Only the rim of an object is illuminated. This is also a very flat type of lighting with mostly shadow and very little detail.

Back Lighting
The object is almost completely covered in shadow and lit from behind. The very outside edges of the object may be illuminated slightly. This is very flat lighting.

Moon Lighting
A very low intensity level of lighting. The moonlight can come from different angles, but objects will be illuminated in a darker, cooler range of light.

Day Lighting
This is the highest intensity level of lighting. The daylight can come from different angles, but objects will be illuminated in a brighter, neutral range of light. Shadow values are lighter in value than shadows in indoor lighting.

The following photos illustrate how to illuminate a still life with dramatic form lighitng:

still life photo with light and easel
Photo of still life postion relative to the lighting and easel.

The photo on the right shows you how to position your still life and lighting relative to your easel set-up. You would probably have a light over your canvas, but the light shouldn't be strong enough to have an effect on the lighted still life composition.

Position your easel as close to the still life as possible so that you can see all the details. You should also make it a habit to walk around the still life to get a good look at the structure of the objects at different angles, which is something you can't do when working from a flat photo image (reference).

Use a flood light with a good daylight bulb to illuminate the still life.

lighting the still life
Photo of a still life illuminated by a flood light
positioned at a 45 degree angle.

You can usually position the light at a 45 degree angle to illuminate your
still life with form lighiting.
You'll have to move the light around a little untill you can get exactly what you want. If you lower the light, you'll get longer cast shadows, which can be very dramatic and also help lead the eye to the center of interest of your still life. In this case, the center of interest is the two pears on the right.

Make sure that 70- to 75 percent of the center of interest object or objects are illuminated. This leaves you with about 25- to 30 percent shadow (cast shadow not included).

Close up of the still life composition.

close up photo of still life composition
Photo of the still life compostion and lighting.

Practice placing objects on an illuminated surface. Change the position of the lighitng to see how different angles will affect the form and feeling of your still life.

You can also practice adding and subtracting objects from your
still life untill you get the right relationships. You don't need to add a lot of objects to a still life for it to be dramatic and interesting. Make sure all your objects relate to the center of interest.

Read more about lighting and composing the still life in my e-book,
How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-By-Step Guide

How to Create an Underpainting Like the Old Masters: A Step-By-Step Guide

In order to emulate the paintings of Old Masters like Rembrandt it's essential to create an underpainting. This instructional E-Book will teach you the techniques you'll need to successfully complete an underpainting. This step-by-step guide has photos and explanations for every step of the painting process. 

You will learn:

  • How to light and compose a dramatic still life
  • Why underpainting is essential
  • How to create a realistic drawing from life
  • How to paint three-dimensional forms

    Get it now for $25    Buy Now

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