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Beauty in the Ordinary

Practicing Stillness: Red Peppers, Green Vase


The question is what does a still life painting have to do with artful awareness? While a still life may not necessarily convey a deeper meaning, for the artist there can be a purpose, if they are producing the work with a certain intention in mind.

There are two main phases of a still life painting: the set up and the painting of that set up. During the set up, there can be a certain intention behind the choices made of what objects to use, their colors, which fabrics, what background, and how all of these are arranged. Often these elements may be organized with a few principles of design or composition in mind. For example, in this painting, the red pepper was placed in a particular location, relative to the fabric and the vase, in order to create a horizontal line for the eye to follow across the canvas. The direction of the light, how it fell on the objects, how the fabric was arranged to weave to separate objects together were all considerations in the preparation for the painting. It is during this process of connecting with the visual aspects of these elements that the intention is brought to the set up. This may be different then how we normally view things because attention is being paid specifically to the arrangement and how all these visual elements interact with one another.

Likewise, in the execution of the painting, the same attention is paid to all these details. In a representational painting it is almost a requirement to pay attention to these specific aspects of the setting in order for the painting to appear as we see it. So the elements of light and dark, the shape of those elements, the hardness and softness of the edges, the saturation of the colors, their coolness, their warmth, the highlights that fall on the various objects, the direction of light, and the shadows and cast shadows are all aspects that need to be seen clearly in order to be able to place a shape of paint on a canvas that corresponds to what we see. During this process of careful looking, it can often happen that the objects are no longer seen as objects, rather, their named definition disappears, and they appear more as just simplified bits of color, shape, light, dark, and edges.

So in essence, both the set up and the painting can be an exercise and practice to be more aware of our sense of vision. Betty Edwards, in her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, has talked about this movement of perception from object to gestalt and has called this shift the ‘R mode’ to describe how our perception moves from being focused in the left side of the brain, where language is located, to the right side of the brain, from where we can see the world in an entirely new way.

Practicing Stillness: Red Peppers, Green Vase, original oil on canvas, 4″ x 10″

Original paintings and prints by Seamus Berkeley.

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Original oil painting by Seamus Berkeley