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Still Lifes Revisited

While attending art classes at Cal State Long Beach we had a group discussion regarding composition.  The argument went as such, “Composition dictate the emotive response to the work, and content is secondary!”, or the counter argument, “No!  Content dictates the emotional response and composition reinforces that emotion.”  This series explores that argument by taking well know paintings from Art History and reconstructing the compositions using found objects that do not relate content wise to the original genre.  The goal is to create eight compelling works of art that explore content and compositions.  On the other hand, the still lives have to stand on their own as interesting worthwhile paintings to paint.  Notwithstanding the debate will always remain open, but this will be a way to explore the idea in detail over many paintings; also this is why I often say that I paint ‘Ideas’.

I started with the crowning of Christ by Titian.  It held interest for me since it was a very emotional painting with strong compositional elements.

Using the basic compositional elements of the Crowning, I constructed a composition in the studio using tent poles, cloth, stretcher bar and other found objects that best fit the basic value structure and linear elements of the painting.

The result of this first painting was, as in the Titian, a strong compositional motif which allowed for an interesting still life containing counter diagonal elements with a strong central focus.  I spent a lot of time concentrating on the texture of the found objects which help created the sense of three dimensionality to an otherwise flat still life.  Adding a photo copy of the Crowning added a clue to my motives without being obvious.  I’m not entirely pleased with the white cloth, it competes with the background yellow paper, but since my motive was compositional, it served that need well.

I showed the above painting to Professor Domenic and he suggested I take a look at some early American still life painters, in particular Peto.  This was a great suggestion because this school of painting focused on composition using common objects.  Below is an example of a painting by Peto.



For my next painting I wanted to use Peto’s motif of creating perspective by only using objects that protrude from the lower section of the painting.  For the composition I used Rembrandt’s etching of the raising of Nazareth.  Again using antiquity as a resource for the composition and using a religious subject for the emotive content I was able to address the original goal of content over composition, or composition over content.


I found the Rembrandt etching to be much more difficult to replicate, and in order to limit the motif to a more drawing type genre I composed the still life using my old sketch books and sketches.

The original idea of replicating the composition became less important and the interest in the layout of the sketches and books became more interesting.  I surprised myself over the details in painting the objects and the overall realistic quality of the drawing using oil paint.  Color wise, it is not a “beautiful” painting; the colors are limited and muted when used.  If I took this on again I would ‘liven up’ the motif by adding more hues and saturation of color.

I had completed my stent in school and was interested in continuing this series.  It satisfies my need to continue a more classical approach to image making, and my teleological need for spending the time doing the work.

I had an interest in ‘kicking up’ the color a notch yet still not depriving the image of any emotional and dramatic response to the composition.  So who would better serve this than Peter Paul Rubens?  After looking through many wonderful paintings of his, I settled on the ‘Descent of Christ’. This painting had such a deep emotional feel and such strong diagonal compositional elements that it was a natural choice for the purpose of this series.  I also thought the distinct areas of color added to the drama and it would be challenging to reproduce using found objects from my studio.  Plus, I love a challenge and a chance to learn something.


The first challenge was the practical challenge of putting together the objects; the second is to avoid any sentimental objects. The second was to create a compelling still life that can stand on its own as an interesting motif.  Essentially, this is an attempt not to create a boring piece of art.

(The project seems to be going well and the paintings are showing development and direction as a series.)

The color composition was outstanding, thanks to Master Rubens.  The composition remains strong and this one gets closer to the argument of whether composition dictates the emotional response to the work or does content evoke emotion.   A big part of my personnel emotional response to the work came from the symbolism of the objects I found and used; the bread references Christ and the photo was used to create my Rock Harbor Church mural, both playing a large part in my life.  The ‘photo’ representation of the cloth still remains to be challenging, but it read as cloth and needed no further scratching.

For my next painting in the series I wanted to remove the Faith Based aspect of the reference painting so who better to turn to than Mondrian?  This Artist removes all content and breaks down the picture plane to vertical and horizontal black lines.  The composition is furthered by filling in the space with complementary colors.  What he creates is a compelling work of art with no other motive other than composition.  The result often evokes an emotional response in the viewer solely dictated by the work.  How would this play out in my series?

I choose a simple composition, (many Mondrian compositions are very complicated) that can be easily reproduced using found objects.




(This is a photo of the still life I was to paint from.  The installation took some time to figure out and in a compelling way stands on its own as a work of art.  As a side note, there is this transformation that happens between the actual object (or figure) and the Artist’s paint brush which could work as another series/installation)




This painting was a joy to do and I never lost interest in the art making process.  The composition remains strong and the object remaining interesting.  Unlike the previous painting this one lacks all emotive content, but in my estimation so does the Mondrian.   Yet the painting can stand on its own esthetically.




The series has gone on for four years, each painting taking about three months to do. [In between I was busy with the Hygennobuki project with Patricia (see Series Description/Gallery), my new hobby of Bonsai or just life in general].  My interested got sparked again when we visited Miya in San Francisco and saw an exhibition at the De Young Museum. This exhibition invited florist to reproduce floral arrangement inspired by paintings within the Museum’s permanent collection.  This seems right in line with the idea of content versus composition.

Inspired by the show, I started looking for a classical figurative painting that one could reproduce in flowers.  I choose Rembrandt’s Bathsheba since it is a simple composition with a quiet moment of solitude.  By heightening the compositional contrast of a banal floral arrangement, the original motive of the series this will further advanced.  So the monochromatic scheme and the emphasis on the figure, contrasted with the complex floral arrangement are perfect for my purposes.  The intent is to stay as close to the representation of the figure, but clearly digress from the content.

As with the previous painting, the level of detail in the work is increasing from painting to painting.  (This is due to careful observation and concentrated effort while painting.)  The color scheme of the painting is relatively the same as the Rembrandt, but the value structure is not.  This could only be done by artificially changing the values of what is in front on me.  This brings me to a question of motive; if I am not painting the motif exactly like what the original objects looks like to me, am I still investigating composition?  And, what does it mean to change the object in front of me to best satisfy the painting as a work of art and not as a compositional copy of the classical painting or the object in front of me?


To answer these questions, the next painting will use the same method of creating the still life by using flowers, but with a brighter and more colorful motif.  Renoir seemed to be the best Artist to source for beautifully rendered colorful figure work.  With that disclaimer, I choose Renoir’s ‘Young Bather’ which contains many of the same figurative compositional elements of the Rembrandt, but with the addition of saturated colors.  This will prove to be a challenge and will add excitement to the act of reproduction.


Similar to the previous painting, this one contains a large degree of detail, but differs from the previous painting by adding a large variety of color.  In this painting the color saturation more expressive, and did not fully follow the actual still life.  This adds to the dialog regarding purpose and inner vision; to reiterate, is it more true to accurately represent the Artist’s original motif, or “truer” to the artwork being made to recognize it as just a painting, and that the rendering of the objects are only a vehicle for expressing and discovery of what it means to create a work of art?  Above these Socratic questions, there is a definite learning process working that I do not fully understand, but absolutely welcome.

(I plan to paint two more paintings to make eight in this series, please come back for periodic updates)

2 Responses to Still Lifes Revisited

  1. Ron, your work is very cogently explained. As a series it works well. I think knowing what you were trying to do makes the pieces more interesting. The investigation of content vs. composition gives the paintings an added layer of meaning. I do think that some of them resemble their predecessors to a certain degree, and others not very much. But that isn’t strictly necessary for the experiment to work. My favorite is the painting based on the Rubens, with it’s vibrant colors.

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