Archive for the '3.3 Introducing still life' Category

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Attempting a still life

A throwaway line in the course notes suggests having a go at a still life image if we haven’t before. Scary, but nothing ventured nothing gained.

First a review of anything relevant I’ve done in the past. If there is any such thing it could only be as part of Textiles 1: A Creative Approach.

sketch_20120213In February 2012 I played around with a painting by Cézanne’s, Still-Life with Apples and Biscuits. That was while doing a section on design development and I somehow tried to combine elements with some sketches of shells and it all went rather strange. If you really want to you can see more here.
sketch_20120416Not long after that I was playing around trying to get ideas for a class piece. This is based on an old jug, permanently borrowed from my mum, which has a lovely complex shape and interesting little illustrations all over it. You can see the initial sketch here and then scroll down to see the various bits and bobs I did to develop it.

p5s4_03This_is the final work, documented as part of Assignment 2 Project 5 (see post 26-Apr-2012). The photo doesn’t show it but this was printed on a very fine, shiny silk with a beautiful drape (but rather delicate).p5s4_02 All the little elements are based on the decoration on the vase. I was (still am) pretty pleased with the result. I think it could qualify as a still life, or least as a potential component of one. It doesn’t work as a standalone composition at the moment – a bit of a lump in the middle of the “page” – but of course that weakness is one of the reasons I wanted to study Art History. My tutor’s comments included it “had some very subtle and delicate effects combined with collaged effect and then enhanced by over printed sections which added depth. But looking at it as a flat piece of design work, I didn’t find it quite as interesting [as an earlier sample]. However, once it was draped and folded it became quite beautiful and design really worked well on the silk fabric.”

sketch_20120427My next attempt had its genesis straight after in the sketchbook on 27-April-2012. First up was an unsatisfactory sketch of some fruit on a shiny piece of paper.
fruit2_edgeA photograph that I took and manipulated was much more interesting in both colour and texture.
sketch20120508We’re back to unsatisfactory with some dreary experiments meant to explore texture (by now in sketchbook 4).

sketch20120511cA couple more versions followed here.sketch20120511d With colour I found I couldn’t see shapes. In the black and white version I thought maybe I was getting somewhere.

sketch20120629I did a final sketch just before attempting an interpretation in applique for Assignment 3 Project 6. My post (30-Jun-2012) notes that I wanted to keep focus on curves. Looking back I think I was trying to follow my preference of finding echoes of shapes/lines/… across an image – see for example comments 13-Jan-2014 discussing Laurens Craen’s still life, although there I saw that the contrast of a few straight edges provided a welcome contrast and interest.

p6s3_18On 30-Jun-2012 I posted the final work – and it didn’t work (although it looks a little better in real life). There’s more discussion in that post, but one thing I remember particularly was trouble with determining the borders or framing. I think there’s a pattern that I start with some objects I think might be interesting, arrange them thinking of the negative space between them, but never come to grips with the composition as a whole. My tutor’s report at the time commented “Compositionally, I think that the strawberry shape needed a bit more emphasis perhaps in the treatment of the leaves and stalk, using more angular shapes in contrast to the curves. If you look back to the original, the composition is very effective, but it is the highlights created by quality and varied emphasis of the lines, that make a visual liveliness. With your textile version, the colour balances on the shapes are all very similar …”

My conclusion from all the above is that I want now to focus on the composition as a whole, and within that more variation.

Step two was to review some still life works I’ve seen in recent months. I’ve collected quite a few images, but will save the full set for a question in the next project. For now just a brief look back at my recent annotation and analysis of Laurens Craen’s work.

craen_02craen_03Much too complex in the detail of course – and the course notes particularly suggest caution for this first attempt. I looked back at the other Laurens Craen works I’d found (in my files but not here since they’re not my photos). Pretty much all of them are based on a triangular arrangement (although none of the lines straight) on a table top with one corner and part of the front edge exposed.

All of the above was written before I started working on the new drawing.

sketch_20140117I drew out a very much simplified form, then hunted around the house for items and started arranging. And rearranging. I was hoping with the preparation this would be easier, but it was painful. In the end I remembered this is a learning exercise. A start.

sketch_20140117bThis is probably the best I came up with. Potatoes. Not brilliant, and it was only when uploading the photo that I realised I hadn’t got my planned triangle.

In morning light the next day I noticed an angle which seemed more interesting, and got out graphite pencils and paper. Easing into this I wanted to concentrate on careful observation, shapes and relationships.

sketch_20140118bsketch_20140118There was a false start, and a slightly less false version number whatever I’ve got to now.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I don’t think it’s worth discussing in detail. I need to keep working at this – not the specific thing but sketchbook work in general. The goal isn’t good drawing or painting as such, but if I can’t create a satisfying composition, if I can only critique others, how can I ever make good textile art? I’d also like to sharpen my observational skills.

So this post is recording a start. I’m hoping to continue having goes at still life images although not necessarily write about it here. However for a number of reasons I like having a searchable, reviewable record so I’ll quietly add to a new sketchbook page at

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Attempting a still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Exercise: Attempting a still life

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Annotate and analyse a still life image

This exercise calls for a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century still life where the artist has made a deliberate attempt to show off his skill at representing different materials and textures. I have chosen Still life with imaginary view by Laurens Craen, oil on panel, circa 1645 – circa 1650 in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). I feel fortunate to have a painting which fits the brief in a local collection.

I took the photograph below on my mobile phone yesterday and the colour is much too golden. The AGNSW photograph is at, but the best online image with excellent colour, detail and focus is on the google art project at
The painting shows a profusion of foods – fruits, meat, shell-fish, wine – mounded on a table. A drapped window opens to a distant landscape view.
craen_02At first sight the composition appears as if it should be asymmetrical, with an irregular triangle of fruit, but it is actually very stable with the window upper left balanced by the leg of meat upper right. All the major elements are firmly within the picture frame, and on the right where the eye is drawn to the edge it is directed back into the picture with repeated curves of platter and melon.

craen_03Curves are repeated across the picture, echoing, balancing, providing movement, accentuating the voluptuous feast. Even the hard architectural lines of the window are softened into curves by drapery and a clinging vine. A sequence of curves runs down the centre of the painting – lemon peel and the handle of the pitcher – centering the image. The large meander of the river outside is echoed in a vine tendril in the middle right. The curve of the table leg is visible and the table largely covered, softening the edge. The mainly diagonal lines of the visible corner, wine glasses and interior of the melon highlight the curves of the rest.

Much of the image is in subdued tones and shades of red and green, disrupted by the sharp, clear yellow of the lemons on the left, the pink of the meat fat above and the pale orange melon on the right. The off-white of the napkin cuts across this, forming its own triangle below. In a curious effect the napkin goes under a platter, but the creamy tones are continued across in the oyster shells.

craen_04There is a clear direction in the lighting within the picture – a bright window above and behind us to the left, made clear in reflections in the pitcher and platters. This is handled consistently across the image, bringing highlights and liveliness. craen_05I am particularly drawn to reflected light (also noted in my comments on Rembrandt 13-Sept-2013
and del Vaga 21-Jul-2013), and the sliver of light under the platter plays with all the other reflections to produce a lot of complexity and interest.

craen_06Most of the texture and optical effects in the picture are produced using colour with the exception of the skins of the foreground lemons. The heavy application of paint combined with the relatively light and saturated colour makes the lemons highly intrusive in my eyes. Against the frosting of the grapes and the slick of the oyster the effect on the lemons seemed heavy handed. I wonder if grime has been trapped in the paint over time and increased the visual impact of these areas.

craen_07A great appearance of depth has been achieved in the painting. As well as the more obvious external view behind and projection of the falling lemon peel, one can look into the interior of the melon and even further into the dark recesses of the basket – an effect intensified by the tendril of vine catching the light in front.

This painting is an example of pronkstilleven or sumptuous painting (mentioned in my post 11-Jan-2014). There is no particular iconographic significance in the items depicted. This is a decorative work intended to show the skills of the artist and the taste of the owner.

Solid information on Laurens Craen is scarce. The most authoritative source I found is RKD (Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie/Netherlands Institute for Art History), which shows he was born in Den Haag in 1620, was active in Antwerpen, Den Haag and Middelburg (Zeeland) 1638 to 1664 (based on membership of the Middelburg Guild) and died between 1663 and November 1670, perhaps in Middleburg (see RKD Artist Database, [n.d.]). RKD Images has nineteen pictures, but three of those are previous attributions which are no longer current (see RKDImages, [n.d.]). I found three more paintings in other searches – a total of nineteen works attributed to Craen. Curiously, I found two websites stating only twenty or so paintings by Craen are known (Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, [n.d.]) and (Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, [n.d.]). It’s possible both sites use RKD as their source, but otherwise it seems incredible that with a few internet searches I should be able to view the entire oeuvre of a little known artist.

My tentative explanation is that many of Craen’s works are not identified – possibly in various attics and basements, but more likely through misattribution. As mentioned above three works previously believed to be by Craen have been reconsidered. Moving in the other direction Light in a Dark Niche (Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, [n.d.] a) describes the discovery of a work by Craen which had substantial overpainting, including an apparent signature by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. Careful and brave restoration uncovered the truth, and I suggest based on the web images a much more attractive and dynamic painting. My subject painting at AGNSW has its own stories. The painting was the gift of Sir Arthur Downes in 1929 and a letter from him at the time explained “‘there is a tradition that the picture was won at cards by a gambling Mytton of former days’ (Mytton was a Downes ancestor)” (Art Gallery of New South Wales, [n.d.]). Further information provided at AGNSW states the picture “was formerly attributed to the great 17th-century still life painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem, but recent scholarship favours an attribution to Laurens Craen”.

Comparing all the images found, almost all of them use the same light from the left side and many show the still life sitting on the same or a very similar table. Only one doesn’t include a lemon, and the majority have that same cascading peel of lemon. The web images vary in quality, but it appears that the heavy and textured application of paint to represent the lemon skin is repeated. (Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, [n.d.] b) includes “The rendering of the texture of the fruit is highly suggestive and the wrinkly irregularities of the skin are literally palpable because Craen has, as it were, moulded the peel with thickly applied paint.”

Although I have suggested the AGNSW work is purely a display of skill and wealth, elements of vanitas have been identified in two of the other works. De Jonckheere Gallery ([n.d.]) finds a butterfly “offers a disturbing counterpoint to the grape leaves that have been gnawed through by worms: the latter signifying the vanitas of the pleasures of the senses set against the promise of the eternal life of the human soul as symbolized by the butterfly coming out of its cocoon, the contrast easily takes on a greater symbolism.” Writing of another work Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, ([n.d.]) includes “The pipe and the glowing embers of the brazier indicate that this is a vanitas. The half empty glasses and tobacco refer to the fleetingness of earthly pleasures. The smoke produced by the tapers, brazier and pipe allude to the transience of life. Oranges are the traditional symbol for redemption as the lemon is for salvation.” Despite these I see no need to amend my assessment of the AGNSW picture.

Only one other work I found included a draped window and distant landscape view and unfortunately I can’t give a stable link to it. However I have found a number of examples of similar treatments in works by Jan Davidsz de Heem, supporting the note in the RKD Artist Database roughly translated as “strong similarities between the works of Craen and Jan Dz. de Heem could indicate the presence of Craen in the studio of the Heem about 1645”. On a side note, while researching for this post I was delighted to come across a work by another artist influenced by or based on de Heem – Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte” (1915) by Henri Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art (see


This is an attractive painting with great appeal to the public (based on my observations at the gallery). The items depicted are generally well known, well executed and instantly recognisable. The composition is balanced yet dynamic, although there are a few anomalies in the detail such as the wine glasses whose only apparent support would be the rim of a woven basket and the rather lumpen indeterminate shape supporting the lower platter which could just barely be bread. I also find the treatment of the drapery rather stilted and unconvincing.

While I found some of the colours and texture discordant, in particular the yellow of the lemons, the overall impression is light, fresh and lively, almost astringent. It is interesting to compare this to the Jan Davidsz. de Heem still life at the National Gallery of Victoria which I saw last year and showed in my previous post (11-Jan-2014, and see also I remember that as a dark work with very rich and mellow tones. I wonder if different restoration treatments over time have made the contrast more extreme.

Still life with fruit (detail) Jan Davidsz. de Heem c. 1640-1650 National Gallery of Victoria

Still life with fruit (detail)
Jan Davidsz. de Heem
c. 1640-1650
National Gallery of Victoria

Despite more poor photography I think you can get an idea here of de Heem’s very lovely and skillful representation of pomegranate seeds, each beautiful, delicate, faceted form filled with colour and light. craen_08I don’t see such precision as de Heem’s brushwork in the work by Craen. Instead we see loose and lively passages such as in this section of the vine around the window casement.
craen_09Craen had a variety of techniques at his disposal in his paint handling, as can be seen in this detail of the wine glass. As well as the lemon peel which so distresses me (although it must have been highly regarded in its day since Craen used it repeatedly), the wine in the glass looks an energetic drop while the variation in the white highlights of the bowl of the glass – straight lines showing the triangular form then a smear giving roundness – is very effective.

While Craen may be seen as a student, follower or imitator of de Heem he clearly had a lot of ability in his own right. To my modern eyes the freer handling and overall freshness and vitality of the AGNSW work is particularly attractive.


Art Gallery of New South Wales, ([n.d.]) Still life with imaginary view, (circa 1645-circa 1650) by Laurens Craen :: The Collection :: Art Gallery NSW [on line] Available from (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

De Jonckheere Gallery ([n.d.]) Laurens Craen Still life with fruit, glass of white wine and lobster [on line] Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, ([n.d.] a) Light in a Dark Niche [on line] Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, ([n.d.] b) [on line] Dark niche – after restoration Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, ([n.d.]) LAURENS CRAEN [on line] Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

RKD Artist Database [n.d.] [online] Available from (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

RKDImages [n.d.] [online] Available from[kunstenaar]=Craen%2C+Laurens (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Annotate and analyse a still life image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Exercise: Annotate and analyse a still life image

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Iconography of still life paintings

Flanders St Jerome

St Jerome
C. 1540
National Gallery of Victoria

Although still life as an independent genre didn’t begin to flourish until the early 17th century in the Netherlands, elements of its iconography can be seen in earlier works. This unsigned and undated painting in the National Gallery of Victoria shows the saint in his study. He points at a skull on which sits a fly. The skull is a symbol of death, and a special attribute of a number of saints including Jerome. James Hall (2008) provides extensive information about symbols in art, including the use of a skull as an aid to “the contemplation of death as a spiritual exercise [as] recommended by the Jesuits” (Hall, 2008, p. 293). Unexpectedly Hall suggests the fly does not have symbolic meaning. Rather than perhaps a link to putrefaction, Hall suggests a fly serves as a “protective talisman” against insect damage (Hall, 2008, p. 130). On the window sill the hour glass suggests the passing of time, the apple Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. The crucifixion image seen in the open book could suggest the Resurrection and conquest of death. The quill pen may simply refer to Jerome’s philosophical writing, or as in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) “suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006).

Skull and bones vanitas still life

Skull and bones vanitas still life
circa 1600
Published by: Robert de Baudous After: Abraham Bloemaert Print made by: Jan Saenredam
© Trustees of the British Museum

One major sub-category of the still life genre was the vanitas, emphasising the brevity of human life and insignificance of human concerns. An extreme example is on the right from the British Museum. In addition to the skull there are straight trumpets (“blown by angels to announce the last judgement, and at the day of wrath” (Hall, 2008, p. 323), scythes (carried by Death to cut lives short), lit lamps and torches (the brevity of life) and spades (man must toil for his food following the Fall). The rope may refer to Christ’s betrayal, as he was bound by soldiers. The shields across the top are difficult to see, but there could be reference to the fleeting nature of music, the sword which is no protection from death (or wields power only briefly in life), and the bird if a swan could be uttering its last beautiful cry.

"Vanitas" Still Life

“Vanitas” Still Life
Adam Bernaert
circa 1665
The Walters art museum

This work by Bernaert is just as full symbolism, but much more decorative and suitable for the wall of the wealthy middle class in the Netherlands. The hour glass is there, also an overturned glass symbolising emptiness. Creative endeavours such as music and writing are transitory as is the beauty of pearls. The important looking papers and the map of the Dutch East Indies reflect possessions and power that will pass. The globes show that all is affected by time, even the heavens above and the earth below.

Still life with fruit

Still life with fruit
Jan Davidsz. de Heem
c. 1640-1650
National Gallery of Victoria

Another sub-category of still life was the pronkstilleven or sumptuous painting. I mentioned this one by Jan Davidsz. de Heem in my post about visiting the NGV (see 21-July-2013) as I was impressed by the neighbouring cabinet displaying items similar to those in the painting. In paintings like this there is no Christian or moral message. Instead they show the wealth of their owners and the technical virtuosity of the artist. heemThe pomegranate could be a symbol of the Resurrection, or of “the unity of the many under one authority” (Hall, 2008, p. 257), but here it seems more likely to be seen as one part of an abundance of rare fruit. The reflections of light and of fruit in the glass are masterly.

Doing this Research Point I have not had time to consider more modern use of iconography in still life paintings. Audrey Flack uses traditional still life vanitas icons in Marilyn (1977), including an hour glass and a candle (which could have layered meaning given Elton John’s Candle in the Wind of 1973), updated with modern items such as cosmetics and photographs (see In contrast Stoker (2008) suggests that more modern artists, no longer using traditional Christian iconography, have developed other methods to express transcendence. He describes Rothko’s chapel paintings, maintaining that in viewing them “we will be confronted with our mortality” (Stoker, 2008, p. 94) and proposes that “the arrangement [of the chapel paintings] invokes the tension between the mortal tragic existence of the human being and the transcendent” (Stoker, 2008, p. 98).

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) “Pieter Claesz: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (49.107) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006) (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Stoker, W (2008) “The Rothko Chapel Paintings and the ‘urgency of the transcendent experience’” In International Journal For Philosophy Of Religion, 64 (2), pp. 89-102, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 January 2014.

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Iconography of still life paintings
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Research point: Iconography of still life paintings


No Instagram images were found.

Calendar of Posts

April 2021

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.