Are You Making Any of These 7 Compositional Mistakes with Your Still life Paintings?

by Will Kemp

in painting

still life painting composition

Cherries overflowing perfectly in a bowl, a sense of life captured in a single moment, creating the perfect still life composition appears to come naturally to some artists.

Reassuringly, there are a few simple adjustments you can make to your own set-ups, that prevent you making the most common beginner mistakes.

By making small changes to the placement of your objects, you can breathe life and energy into your compositions and by observing how your viewing position impacts the shapes and shadows, will help develop accuracy in your drawings…

Set up #1: A Too Tight Crop

changing crop on still life

Beginner painters often focus too heavily on the object, even if it’s unintentional.

When you’re putting all your effort into the colour mixing and drawing of your still life, it can be easy to super-size your main subject.

This creates the illusion that the object is cramped onto the canvas and gives a claustrophobic feel. If you then have the addition of a thick frame, it can emphasise this problem even more.

spacing-around-still-life

When you set up a single object, try and start with around 50% of blank background space, this will give you a good starting point and give the subject some breathing room.

You can then extend the space – more space usually dictates a more contemporary feel.

how-to-set-up-a-good-still-life

Then add extra elements.

how-to-set-up-a-successful-still-life-compositionThe simplest way to start with fruit, is to introduce more of the same or split the subject in half, this does a number of things:

  • Creates a negative space between the objects
  • Adds a different texture and scale
  • Introduces a wider tonal range (think black pips in a pear next to the flesh)
  • Brings a sense of timescale – the fruit has just been cut
  • Adds a different shape to the shadows

Additional Elements

acrylic-still-life-painting-techniques

For more visual interest, extra objects can be introduced.

I tend to use things related to the subject matter in some way because it gives the painting a more natural story.

The plate brings in complementary colours, the subtle green next to the magenta of the pomegranate with an increase in tonal range from the white of the plate edge.

It also provides a nice surface for the pips to spill out onto.

still-life-composition-drawing

Utensils, such as spoons or knives, add compositional elements to guide the viewers gaze. Diagonal angles in any scene increase visual eye movement, so now we have a balance between the soft circular shapes of the pomegranate and the harder angular shape of the knife.

On reflection, I preferred the angle of the cut pomegranate in the images above when it was twisted slightly. From this angle, the face of the pomegranate is quite circular and similar to the shape of the whole pomegranate.

Whenever I’m working on a painting, I first take into account how the setup would work as a drawing.

The knife lying flat would create a too dark line to sit in harmony with the rest of the objects for the lighter tone of the piece that I want, so I propped the knife with a small piece of blue tac so the blade reflected the shine of the light source.

still-life-painting-ideas

This gives us a lighter tone in the foreground and breaks up the space. Simple, but effective.

I’ve shown the square crop to illustrate a more contemporary composition, but you can vary the crop for a more classical view depending on the feel you’re after.

changing the crop ratio

Set up #2: Misdirecting the Viewer’s Eye

pear-still-life-painting If you have too tight a crop combined with a strong downward directional angle, in this case, the stalk of the pear, it can guide the viewer’s eye off the bottom of the canvas rather than back into the centre of the scene.

pear-still-life-composition

By twisting the pear, the stalk shape has a softer flow to it and the cast shadow has now been combined resulting in a more calming piece.

Set up #3: Too Many Even Shapes Creating a Solid Shape

oranges-still-life-painting-bowl

oranges-still-life-painting-bowl-pile

When you’re arranging a simple still life using a bowl of fruit, the tendency can be to just pile up fruit in the centre of the bowl. What this creates, from a distance, is a circular shape around the bowl and fruit on top.

It doesn’t offer any intrigue, even if you’ve painted each individual piece of fruit perfectly within the bowl, the viewer just sees it as one large block shape.

The easiest way to change the feel and add a level of subtlety is to take one of the pieces of fruit out of the bowl and place it in front of the main subject.

oranges-still-life-painting-bowl-single

This gives space for the eye to move through and also a different variety of shapes on the top line of the fruit – breaking up the shape.

Protip: You get a bonus point if you noticed the angle of view and position of the bowl has changed slightly. The clue is in the lighter shape behind the cast shadow and the curve on the top of the bowl

orange-single-painting

composition-for-still-life-painting

Peeling adds great texture, a different shape on the edge of the tangerine top and a human element to the composition.

still-life-painting-painting-composition-examples

However, this has now created a uniform triangle flow between the objects, which is o.k ….but ideally, you want the eye to try and meander through the piece, adding something else will slow the eye.

painting-composition-rules

still life painting composition

The next thing I notice is the shapes of the tangerines are all a bit samey, you’re always trying to achieve irregular shapes and gaps between objects.

Even shapes tend to stand out more in a painting, so if you notice them in your reference photograph, you’ll notice them even more in your painting.

painting-composition-principles

Splitting the tangerine breaks the circular shape and reveals more interesting shapes in-between the segments.

simple still life composition

I then move some of the tangerines around to change the shape and show the dark centres, I’ve also elevated my viewing angle to reveal the inside of the bowl slightly.

The single segment adds a different sense of scale and overlap to the bowl, which helps create depth.

still-life-painting-composition-technique

Set up #4: Imagining Ellipses – Eye-Level View of Jug Still Life

Some of the most common drawing issues tend to come from man-made objects.

Why?

Because any object that is round will create a curve or ellipse when viewed from any angle – and ellipses can be tricky!

The easiest way to think of an ellipse is to imagine squeezing a circle from the top and bottom.

The sides get wider, but there is still a curve to the edge of the shape, and this is the key.

eye-level view of jug still life

In the sketches above, the central drawing is an accurate representation of the photograph, in comparison to the drawing on the right-hand-side – which has been purposely altered to illustrate the most common mistakes.

The urge when drawing a jug (or cup) straight on, is to cheat a little.

Exaggerating what you can see inside the jug to make it look ‘more realistic’.

It’s very easy to find yourself sitting slightly taller in your chair to peak over the edge, but keep strong!

Even this subtle change in the top ellipse shape throws the drawing out.

Eye-level still life of jug

Key points to remember for an Eye-Level View:

  • The bottom of the jug is very flat, there is still a slight curve at either end.
  • Cast shadow is narrow
  • You can’t see inside the jug
  • The spout angles down at the top

Set up #5: Exaggerating Ellipses – Classical View of Jug Still Life

Medium angle Drawing of Jug Still Life

Now we’ve got a more classical view, a slight angle looking down into the jug, giving us a visible ellipse.

However, the exact same mistake can happen.

Even though you can now see inside the jug, the natural tendency is to try and show more.

So you make the top ellipse of the jug a little wider than before.

This drawing has the most subtle differences from the correct drawing to the over exaggerated ellipse, but it still gives us a strange perspective.

From this more elevated angle there are a couple of other changes in comparision to the flat on view that are visible in the reference image:

  • The cast shadow has grown wider
  • The curve has increased on the bottom of the jug

drawing-ellipses-mistakes-jug-middle

Key points to remember for a Classical View:

  • The bottom of the jug is more curved
  • Cast shadow is wider
  • You can see inside the jug
  • The spout angle is a smooth curve into the ellipse line of the top edge

(Here you can see a drawing demo of an apple that illustrates ellipses in the shadow shapes.)

Set up #6: Flat Bottom – Elevated View of Jug Still Life

High angle View of Still Life Jig

90% of the drawing on the right is correct, the top of the jug, handle and ellipse, however, the bottom of the jug is the culprit. It has been drawn flat as if viewed straight on.

This makes it feel like the jug is squashed and folding over itself.

Drawing elevated jug still life

Key points to remember for an Elevated View:

  • The bottom of the jug is much more curved
  • Cast shadow is wider and the angle changes relative to the position of the light source
  • You can see deeper inside the jug
  • The handle shape has changed (a little)

Set up #7: The Pointy Plate – Drawing Ellipse Edges

For jugs and cups, it tends to be the exaggerated viewing angle that causes the most issues.

For plates, it’s the very edge of an ellipse, or more specifically, the lack of edge in an ellipse shape.

When you’re drawing a plate the tendency is to start on the left and then draw the curve on the top.

Then, from the same starting point, draw the bottom half of the plate. This gives you an angled point at each end of the plate.

How to draw ellipses for plates

Subconsciously this can then alter how you draw the cast shadow.

On the drawing on the left, the cast shadow is a smooth curve, whereas, on the drawing on the right, the shadow curve echoes the shape of the plate which further emphasises the point.

You might also find some drawings have a combination of both of the issues, increasing the perceived amount of the plate surface you can see (widening the ellipse) and emphasising pointed edges.

Have a look back at some of your still life drawings or paintings and see if you can spot any of these mistakes that can be easily tweaked.

If you’d like to learn more about painting acrylic still lifes and tackling more challenging compositions you should have a look at the Acrylic Still Life Masterclass Course

 

You Might Also Like:
1. Compositional Cardinal Sins 
2. The Secret to Good Composition
3. Are you 1 cm away from the perfect composition?

{ 112 comments… read them below or add one }

Margarete koepfer October 7, 2016

Hello Will,
Very good informative instructions,
Thank you and have a blessed day
Margarete

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Thanks Margarete, hope you find them helpful.
Will

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Heather October 7, 2016

What a fantastic article, thank you Will! It’s the exact information I needed at this moment in time!

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Cheers Heather, pleased you enjoyed it.
Will

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Akshata October 7, 2016

Very informative article on still life Will!! Thanks for sharing the pro tips..

Cheers,
Akshata

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hope it helps with your set ups Akshata.
Will

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Melih October 7, 2016

Maybe the best article i read on the subject…

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Very kind of you to say so Melih, pleased it was of help.
Will

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Tatiana October 7, 2016

Hi Will,
This info is so good and informative. I just wanted to paint a couple of simple series of 2 or 3 still life pics for my house and this will help a lot. Funny is how I think of a project and some tutorial commes from you like it was ordered… :-) Thank you muchly, very appreciated
Tatiana

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Ha ha, glad it was timely to your paintings Tatiana, hope they go well.
Will

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Peter October 7, 2016

Like you’re reading my mind… I was working on a still life that seemed so ‘odd’ and I thought it was my rendering. But these points show a bunch of corrections to be made in my setup. This post saved the day. Very much appreciated.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hey Peter, that’s great to hear, yes it’s amazing how easily they can put your eye out to the overall effect of a painting.
Cheers,
Will

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Katja October 7, 2016

As always very interesting. Composition is so vital. Thank you Will.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Cheers Katja.
Will

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Margo October 7, 2016

This a sweet article. Thanks for sending it to me. I am somewhat guilty of the exaggerated ellipse, always trying to make it just a tad larger. I will now double check my drawing first before painting. (I might add that turning a drawing upside down can be helpful in seeing hidden problems.)

I do have a question, though. To me, the original angle of the cut open pomegranate is better than the full frontal view. It allows me to see a nice connection between both stems and helps move my eye back and forth. Do you think my preference of views just reflects that we all like different things for different reasons or does my artistic eye need some improvement?

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Margo, yes, on the angle of the cut pomegranate, I agree, I mention it in the article ‘On reflection, I preferred the angle of the cut pomegranate in the images above when it was twisted slightly. From this angle, the face of the pomegranate is quite circular and similar to the shape of the whole pomegranate.
Cheers,
Will

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Margo October 7, 2016

Oh, I see. I didn’t read your quote correctly the first time. Glad I asked though. Now, I see that my ‘eye’ is seeing things the right way. :-)

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Rosary Bittmann October 7, 2016

Hi: Thank you so much, this was so informative. I’ll need to keep referring to it, too much to take all in one morning!

I usually paint scenes with either lakes or oceans. Will you be doing any informative pieces like the one above on scenes with water in them?

Thanks again.

Rosary

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Rosary, I can’t think of any specifically focused on lakes or oceans, the main thing to look out for in seascapes in the horizon line. It seems obvious, but just checking your horizon line isn’t veering off at an angle can make a big difference.
Cheers,
Will

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Tammy Berk October 7, 2016

Will – thank you for these excellent tips. I find the jug and plate ones to be especially helpful – “foreshortened” objects almost always present a problem to me with regard to drawing them realistically.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Tammy, pleased it helped, yes foreshortening can be another issue, particularly when painting figurative pieces.
Will

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Oksanna October 7, 2016

So much information in so few words! Very helpful. Thank you. You are a wonderful teacher.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Thanks Oksanna, very kind of you to say so.
Will

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Sherry Morrison October 7, 2016

Thank you, Will! This has been so very helpful to me!

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Pleased to hear it Sherry.
Will

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Jill October 7, 2016

Thanks Will, very helpful, I love it when your emails pop up.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Cheers Jill, hope it helps with your paintings.
Will

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Carol October 7, 2016

Great article, Will. I just bought two yellow pears and a red one for a piece this weekend. Now I’ll think about the set up a bit differently.—-Also, thanks for clearing up the cut pomegranate dilemma. I’m noticing so many different things now.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Glad to hear it Carol, yes, you’ll find as you start moving objects around you’ll start to notice different things pop out at you. Good luck with your pear painting.
Will

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Jose Gama October 7, 2016

Hi Will

Always generous and kind sharing your knowledge and advice.
Thank tou so mutch.
Can we send you fotos of our atempts for you to comment and critic?

Hug

Jose

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Jose, pleased you enjoyed the article, I’m afraid I can’t offer personal critiques on your setups, but really hope the article helps to guide you.
Will

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Sheila Whooley October 7, 2016

Thanks for sharing it is so helpful ,I have learned so much from you .A truly great teacher

Thanks

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Cheers Sheila, so pleased you enjoyed it.
Will

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Marilyn Wescott October 7, 2016

Outstanding article, Will! Thanks for sharing these guidelines-actually the most helpful I’ve seen for analyzing and improving composition.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Thanks very much Marilyn, very kind of you to say so.
Will

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Jill Teresa October 7, 2016

This was great! It will also help me in my photography. I realize that one mistake I have been making is placing things too close together. Thank you so much!

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

That’s great to hear Jill, yes having that space for the eye to travel through can really help. You might find this article on tangents of interest about issues that can happen when objects touch together.
Cheers,
Will

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Alok Hari October 7, 2016

Hello Will
You are my favourite teacher. Thanx for shairing this knowledge.
Regards
Alok Hari

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Thanks Alok.
Will

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Micki October 7, 2016

This has been very eye-opening. I love painting still-life and cannot wait to go back to the drawing board. Thanks Will!

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

My pleasure Micki, really pleased it helped.
Will

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Namrata October 7, 2016

Thanks Will. For the beginner like me, such tips will always help!

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Great to hear it Namrata.
Will

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Claudiane October 7, 2016

Hi Will,
Thank you for your very informative info.Always like to read you and see what you doing.Thanks for taking the time to teach me.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Thanks Claudiane, pleased you enjoyed the article.
Will

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Patricia Hartmann October 7, 2016

Thank you, Will, for this reminder. My bad habit is I paint too much, trying to improve my work. Often, as with the bird I am working on, my subject gets larger, and LARGER. If I plan, as you suggested, I can control in advance where my weaknesses will lead me.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Patricia, yes giving yourself more space that you think around the subject to start with can help to give a more balanced finished painting.
Cheers,
Will

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Lee October 7, 2016

Thank you for the excellent article, Will! This is very helpful!

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

My pleasure Lee, pleased you found it of interest.
Will

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Sheila Burdon October 7, 2016

Thanks Will, beautifully and simply explained once again, you are a truly gifted teacher.
Sheila x

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Sheila, hope you’re keeping well, pleased the different setups were simple to follow.
Will

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Dave Mazza October 7, 2016

Thanks Will for the review of some fundamentals we all trip over no matter how long we’ve been painting (like pointy plates). Always enjoy your tips. Dave

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Cheers Dave, yes those pointer plates can have a habit of always creeping in!
Will

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Sarah October 7, 2016

Thanks, Will. Very helpful article, as always. Also, your vid/ info on glazes is the best out there.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Thanks Sarah and really pleased you enjoyed learning about glazing.
Will

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Marijke Bentley October 7, 2016

Just in time to stop me beginning an arrangement of all basically round squashes. The difference in size and colour would not have been enough for a good composition. Thanks for the guidance and reminder that time spent on this planning is worthwhile.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Oh great one Marijke, pleased it helped just in time, good luck with your painting.
Will

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Monica Meitin October 7, 2016

Thank you.. As an amateur artist,I found this quite helpful in planning my compositions.

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

That’s brilliant to hear Monica, hope it helps with your compositions.
Will

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Martha P Lamkin October 7, 2016

Thank you, Will. Great advice and instruction! Very helpful. If I were to do this painting myself, I would cut down the background space at the top of the painting (wall) by 1/4 or a bit more in order to make the balance of the composition more pleasing to ME. It is jarring to me to have everything at the bottom of the composition. Am I wrong? Your feedback will be appreciated. Thank you. Martha

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

Hi Martha, yes, you can change the crop above the objects depending on the look and feel you’re after. I’ve added an image below the pomegranate composition so you can see how different ratios of canvas would work.
Hope this helps,
Cheers,
Will

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Martha P Lamkin October 8, 2016

Yes, i now. Thanks!

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Michelle October 7, 2016

Hi Will, great advice again, very helpful, thanks so much for you generosity! best Michelle

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Will Kemp October 7, 2016

My pleasure Michelle, so pleased you enjoyed it, hope it helps with your paintings.
Will

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Kaz October 7, 2016

Wow what great tips. We’ll be right for sure now

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Carol October 7, 2016

Clear, easy to understand with good examples. I’ll re read often to help compositions and photos. Thank you for sharing your excellent techniques with beginners. It makes it less challenging and is very motivating. And I need motivating!!
Carol

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

Thanks Carol, pleased you found the examples helpful.
Will

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Heather October 8, 2016

Just started subscribing to these but the info is really helpful. Thanks

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

That’s great to hear Heather, hope it helps with your compositions.
Will

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Tom Elden October 8, 2016

Thanks much. A great presentation. Terrific.

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

Cheers Tom

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Lorrie October 8, 2016

Wow! You are so exceptional at relaying information! This is the best article I’ve read on this subject – I’m not left with questions, but rather the inspiration and confidence to just jump in and do it! Thank you so much!
Lorrie

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

Really pleased you’re feeling inspired to feel more confident setting up your own still life Lorrie.
Cheers,
Will

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Jude October 8, 2016

That was a great Saturday arvo read. Real informative. Cheers for that. :-)

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Janie Chase October 8, 2016

Hi Will, this was very helpful advice. I had started a new still life but it seemed “off” and now I think I see what was bothering me. Thank you for opening my eyes to some areas of the set that can help the painting be much better. Appreciate your generous sharing of information! Thanks so much.
Janie

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

Glad it helped with your current painting Janie.
Will

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Aroon Parab October 8, 2016

Dear Sir.

Thanks a lot, for my first lesson.

still a long way to go.

Thanks Aroon Parab .

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Allison October 8, 2016

Excellent article – love how you give us pictures to show what you are teaching. Great refresher after going on instinct for years and forgetting why certain things work and others don’t. Thanks Will!

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

You’re more than welcome Allison, hope it helps to give you a framework to get started.
Will

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Lori October 8, 2016

Will,
Thank you so much for this information. As a true novice I am learning a lot from your videos and newsletters. I appreciate your time and effort!

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

My pleasure Lori.
Will

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Camille Bodey October 8, 2016

Thank you for a very informative article. I’ll have to refer to this often because there is much to look for that I didn’t know before.
The pomegrate looked better to me when the half was turned slightly rather than have a full frontal view. Did you mean that was OK?

Camille

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Will Kemp October 8, 2016

Hi Camille, yes, on reflection, I also preferred the first angled view of the pomegranate as mentioned in the article:

“On reflection, I preferred the angle of the cut pomegranate in the images above when it was twisted slightly. From this angle, the face of the pomegranate is quite circular and similar to the shape of the whole pomegranate.”

Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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Jackie October 8, 2016

Thanks, Will ! This is so helpful, especially as I am a beginner at painting and not very good at drawing

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Will Kemp October 10, 2016

Pleased you found it helpful Jackie.
Will

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Laundrea October 8, 2016

Will – Those ellipses get me all the time. Getting better though. Love the tangerine setup. So many different shapes and angles. This should be a good challenge for me to try.

As always quite helpful!

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Will Kemp October 10, 2016

Thanks Laundrea, yes pointed ellipses can always seem to sneak into a still life! glad you enjoyed the setups.
Will

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Irene October 9, 2016

Thanks again Will. You have a wonderful skill and are able to share it in a clear way that is very helpful. Most of all, your generosity in sharing your knowledge is really appreciated.

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Will Kemp October 10, 2016

So pleased you found it helpful Irene, hope you’re doing well.
Will

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vahid October 9, 2016

Hi
i love your training article .thanks

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Sharin October 9, 2016

Thanks for those wonderful points, subleased yetwhat adifference they make in the overall composition. I’m saving this to review before my next drawing.

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Will Kemp October 10, 2016

Hope it helps for your next sketch Sharin.
Will

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Peter Browning October 9, 2016

Hello Will,
Many thanks for the very useful hints on my favourite subject matter. I never tire of Still Life compositions and looking back at some previous efforts, I have found a couple of the errors you have highlighted.I must try harder in future!
All the best,
Peter B.

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Will Kemp October 10, 2016

Hi Peter, glad you spotted a few of the issues, it’s often when looking back on works they seem to jump straight out at you, glad you’ve been finding it helpful.
Will

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Anya October 10, 2016

Thank you Will !

Very important information. It is exactly I was looking for.
You are really great teacher !

//Anya

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Will Kemp October 11, 2016

Thanks Anya, pleased you found it helpful.
Will

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Kate Warthen October 11, 2016

Hello Will,
Thank you so much for sharing this information. I really enjoyed the composition lesson for still life. It is so helpful to analyze composition in this way.
Kind regards,
Kate

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Will Kemp October 11, 2016

Hi Kate, you’re more than welcome, so pleased you enjoyed the lesson.
Will

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willie lee October 11, 2016

Hi there Will
Many thanks for these useful tips. Thanks for sharing.
Have a wonderful day!

Willie

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Will Kemp October 11, 2016

Pleased you found them helpful Willie,
Cheers,
Will

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Paula October 11, 2016

Wonderful help, Will, as always !

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Will Kemp October 11, 2016

Thanks Paula.
Will

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Frances October 15, 2016

Thanks Will, I always learn something new from you, we never stop learning and that keeps me excited about my art. I appreciate all your emails, thanks so much, Frances.

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Will Kemp October 16, 2016

My pleasure Frances, pleased you found the article of interest.
Will

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Jo October 15, 2016

Thanks much. Very. Helpful.

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Rinus October 18, 2016

Very interesting

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Rhona October 23, 2016

Hi Will
What a coincidence! I have just been drawing still life – jugs, creamers, cups etc and learned all about what you have been teaching us in your email. Thank you so much for your emails, I can’t wait to receive them. I learned so much from you with your Portrait lessons. I have been self teaching myself from books to paint Portraits for about 3 years now but , you showed me in your Portrait lessons so much that I needed to know. Thank you once again and keep them coming.
Regards

Rhona

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Will Kemp October 24, 2016

That’s brilliant to hear Rhona, so pleased you’ve been finding the portrait course helpful in your paintings.

Will

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Jerry November 2, 2016

Thanks alot for these tips Will, consciousness in directing the eyes through a piece.
This is really helpful. Thanks again

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Will Kemp November 2, 2016

My pleasure Jerry, glad you found it helpful.
Will

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Marya November 9, 2016

I appreciate how you so wonderfully flush out this subject with great pictures and step by step adjustments to illustrate the thinking process. Thank you for your wonderful gifts!

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Will Kemp November 10, 2016

My pleasure Marya, so pleased you enjoyed the article.
Cheers,
Will

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