Still Life

I am not an art expert. I have, however, been lucky enough to visit a lot of places of art and see quite a few examples of art1. I've noticed that one thing there tends to be a lot of in museums is paintings. And one of the more popular subjects among paintings is that of the still life. Historically, I didn't pay these any special attention but have been thinking about them more lately. The genre undoubtedly has a lot of depth and facets my uncultured mind is unaware of2 and so I don't intend to (or even hope to) get into everything the subject has to offer. But in considering even just the practical aspects alone, I think there is a lot to be learned.

A still life subject can be very useful for an artist. The use of static, inanimate3, everyday objects gives them a lot of control of the overall scene. It allows them to play with composition, with lighting, with subject, until what emerges feels like something worth capturing. And it's important to note here that what is actually being captured is not exactly the scene itself but rather the artists visualization of the scene4. The artist, then, is just as much a part of the end product as the scene itself. They become part of the subject5. Or, if you prefer, the subject becomes part of the artist. With the subject (as both the scene and the visualization) then pinned down, held still6, the rest of the work can begin.

Translation, by definition, is an imperfect process. And painting is the really just the translation of vision into pigment. When it comes time to put brush to canvas, the still life artist will be working with palette and brushstroke to get the color, the texture, and the emotion just right. Trying to get the representation as close as possible to the original vision. The impreciseness of the process means the result will inevitably fail to capture the subject in some way7. When the work isn't quite right, it can be tempting to start to question the premise itself. Because doubt, it turns out, has a way of sneaking into any open crevice.

It's precisely because of this that the concept of still life is such a powerful one. It allows for the subject and the result to be considered (and iterated on) separately. In a still life, once the subject is arranged what remains is having the patience to see it through. To hold still as the effort is put into translation. To remain confident in the original vision long enough to allow for a chance to capture it. To know that a failure in translation does not mean a failure in vision. It may take a few tries, require some practice, and, sometimes, an uncomfortable amount of time. It may even turn out, that after all the trying, the vision itself wasn't right somehow. But that's a lesson to be learned when it's over. One that can only be learned when it's over. When the picture is complete.

This idea first started to came up for me as I've been thinking about my photography. In fact, the idea of visualization that I've been talking about here was stolen directly from reading Ansel Adams. This week, I decided what it is that I want to say with my photography. And now, in choosing a subject8, I can move on. With photography, I'm still practicing. Even if I'm eager to say what I want to say the words are still imprecise. But now, at least, the effort can be focussed on finding the right words.

Now, this might be starting to feel a lot like last weeks post. While writing this, it even started to feel like a bit of a contradiction9. Really it's just a continuation of the idea of finding what you want to say first and then working on saying it. Even the practice of writing here feels a lot like what I've been describing as still life. Each week, I pick a subject. Usually it's something that's been bouncing around in my head already but that I haven't quite been able to pin down. Something that has the quality of feeling important to me but is somehow still ephemeral. Having a weekly deadline means I can't keep switching subjects and holding the subject still means I can focus on getting it out there. I may not always start with a clear vision but in writing I can work on bringing it into focus. And through this practice I can be better at visualizing in the first place.

Of course, the whole reason I'm writing on this is because I think the concepts here extend beyond painting or photography. The idea, of course, is useful beyond art. As I've been thinking through it all this week, the phrase itself, "still life" has started to become evocative of some feeling of serenity. I imagine the open sea. In the same way that still waters beckon the sailor, a still life, a still mind, is one that is ripe for exploring.

  1. I'll admit, the vast majority of art I've been exposed to has been western. So wherever I am saying art in this, I should really be saying "western art". This may not apply to art generally or really even art as a whole. As I said, I am not an art expert. 

  2. Like showcasing culture at the time (e.g.the food, the dishware, etc.) or in what the things depicted or symbolized. Everything symbolizes something. 

  3. Often they were previously animate things like dead birds waiting to be eaten 

  4. In many cases, the visualization and the scene look a lot alike (given the constraints of the medium). But this is not necessarily a requirement. And is especially not true when considering impressionism and still life. Here, maybe, the still life became a tool for showcasing the new technique. Serving as a kind of benchmark. The subject then becoming more abstract as closer to the vision and less a true representation of the scene. Of course, then the scene itself was the still life, the thing held static and known. Providing the very canvas for the vision to live upon. Part of the vision was the translation itself. The pointing at things through an abstraction in a way that allows the abstraction to be the message. Because the original subject was so familiar already, the still life as a genre was still. The translation then can be the message. 

  5. Sometimes quite literally 

  6. I think this is where the "still" in "still life" comes from but I'm not sure. 

  7. I don't mean mistakes here. A mistake is an accidental result, failure to get things right represents an intentional act that is lacking. In some earlier drafts of this, I had drawn an analogy between still life and unit testing (both are about holding still some variable). In this vein, a mistake is a bug, whereas here I would mean something closer to the product not meeting requirements. It is actually a bad analogy. It doesn't quite capture it, failing to accurately convey what I'm trying to say. Which is why I've left it out. And exactly why I've included it here, to serve as an example of what I mean. 

  8. It's probably more accurate to say that I didn't really decide what the subject was but rather realized what it has been all along.