Still Life 1; Painting in the spirit of Sir William Nicholson

January 4, 2022

Over the next six weeks our challenge will be to paint still life paintings in the spirit of William Nicholson, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Matisse, Ben Nicholson, Mary Fedden and David Hockney.  These artists were chosen because of their very different approaches to still life subjects and also the different media and objects favoured by each.

Photograph: William Nicholson often selected metallic, lustrous or glass objects for his Still Life paintings.

Our first artist, Sir William Nicholson(1872 to 1949), is perhaps the most traditional of these artists. Alongside painting in oil, Nicholson was a printmaker using woodcut, wood-engraving and lithographic techniques and produced many book illustrations, posters and set designs for the theatre. For more detail on this look at the Wikipedia article; link below

Encouraged by James McNiell Whistler, after about 1900 Nicholson ‘s efforts were concentrated on painting. By this time he had already become well known as a portrait artist but is probably more celebrated today because of his still life works and poetic landscapes.

William Nicholson’s landscape and still life paintings were also greatly admired by his son Ben Nicholson whose work we’ll be looking at in a few weeks’ time.

Photograph: a more complicated set up with a mirrored glass and two ceramic objects

My Still Life Pinterest Board samples a few of William Nicholson’s still life paintings and shows his enormous aptitude for painting lustrous, metallic and glass objects, depicting their highly reflective surfaces with deft brushstrokes that look fresh and convincing.

The challenge is to either paint your own version of one of Nicholson’s works or to set up a still life including similarly reflective objects to those depicted by Nicholson. The photographic illustrations in this post indicate some of the kinds of objects you may like to find for your own studies for which acrylic, pastel or gouache would all be suitable media.  I will demonstrate in acrylic but if we have any oil painters amongst us that would be the best!

Photograph: lustrous vase with spoon and fruit

If you have time, familiarise yourself with your chosen objects, drawing them from a few angles and then decide on the composition.  Nicholson often chose a very simple set up; just one or two main objects as in The Gilt Tankard which hangs in Clarence House or Still life with Glass and Spoon.

For a more contemporary composition try painting just part of the set up. If working from life use a viewfinder to select an interesting arrangement of forms and colour
or take the easy route and crop a photograph.

We’ll discuss starting and developing paintings at the beginning of the practical session. meanwhile you may like to think about the following;

If working in acrylic or gouache, I like to start by start by drawing in the main shapes with a brush, then  lay in the dark and mid tones.  Some may prefer a pencil line to indicate the composition but there is always the risk of becoming too detailed too soon, on the other hand there may be elements such as cutlery handles where some accurate drawing will be useful. Another way to start is to make an under-drawing in charcoal and fix this well before blocking in the main shapes.  With all media, work on the large shapes first making sure the tones are right before depicting the smaller shapes and details.

If painting a glass object, especially against a dark or any ground darker than the highlights try painting the dark backdrop first with thin paint or use a dark coloured paper(dark blue in this case) if working in pastel.
The same applies when the backdrop is far more subtle.
Note the slightly green colour of the glass.
Here again I would start by painting a neutral, lightish ground, pale and cool for the table top and warmer and darker for the wall, or a darker neutral paper for pastel.
When painting transparent vessels, note whether they are empty or contain liquid. Are there differences in how objects placed behind the vessel appear when seen through empty or water filled parts of the vessel? What do you notice about the water in the jar facing the light compared with the water in the jar on the same side as its shadow?

Starting with a background that is near the colour and tone of the reference setup results in very harmonious, peaceful works. You may at some stage like to paint the same picture over a much more vibrant ground. For the lemon and rosemary in a jar, a sienna or even bright red could be chosen.

Acrylic, pastel and gouache are all opaque media or can be used opaquely, so the sharp details of pale reflections and highlights can be added as the final touches.

Have a good look at each photograph observing not only the obvious reflections but also where colour is more subtly reflected onto the different surfaces. You may have already done this but right clicking on each image will give you the option to open a larger version in a separate tab.

Your Paintings;

Goblet with Lemon and Lime
Acrylic by Heather C
Goblet with Lemon and Lime
Acrylic by Heather C
Metal, Glass and Ceramic
Acrylic by Mali
Brass Bookend
Pastel by Mali
Still Life
Acrylic by Ann
Sweet Peas with Jug and Knife
Acrylic by Maricarmen
Golden Tankard after Sir William Nicholson
Coloured Pencil by Anne
Scandinavian Glass with Etched Decoration
painted on blue card by Heather N
Still Life
Acrylic by Heather N
Still Life with Tulips
Acrylic by Sandra
Silver Tankard with Lemon
by Pam
Still Life with Tankard
Acrylic by Virginia
Still Life
Acrylic by Kate
Metal, Glass and Apples
Acrylic by Maryon

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