Still Lifes

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”
— Iris Murdoch

I try not to take it for granted that I live in a world where flowers exist. Their color, their complexity, their variety, their beauty: all for us to enjoy. So truly amazing (I really mean this, the true “causing great surprise or wonder” definition of amazing, not the “this meatloaf is amazing” use of the word). My ongoing “Still Lifes” series was inspired by Baroque still life paintings of flowers. My Still Life #1 was also the first piece to get me going after my 50th birthday.

Taken from Wikipedia:

A still life (plural still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, and so on).

Some of the earliest examples of still life were paintings of flowers by Northern Renaissance, Dutch, and Flemish painters (I make it sound like I already knew that, and it just rolled out of my head onto the page, but I found this tidbit somewhere in my quest for still life images. I’m not even certain where Flemish painters live.)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573 – 1621) Still Life with Flowers

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573 – 1621), Still Life with Flowers


Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Bouquet

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Bouquet


Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1683/1684), Flowers in a Vase (gotta love the snail)

Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1683/1684), Flowers in a Vase (gotta love the snail)

Can you see why I love these? Besides the fact that they are paintings of flowers, they are sumptuous, rich, elaborate, and just plain splendiferous (this is an actual word! Who knew? Adopting it.) I wanted to capture this splendiferousness into original work, but with a Julie Renfro spin.

A Digital World

Nothing against digital art, but for my own work, just composing on the computer and printing it out is too neat and tidy, too “clean.” Plus I lose the satisfaction of painting. So for my Still Lifes, I decided to start on the computer, but finish with paint.

The computer, Photoshop in particular, opens up so many options for creating art: scanning (photographs and textures), changing colors with a click, adding layers, adding effects between layers, changing the transparency of a layer in an instant, and then changing it back…the options are limitless. While I don’t prefer to work on the computer with most of my work, it really is an invaluable and necessary tool to get the results I want for this series.

Still Life Process

I begin with photographs I’ve taken of flowers, plus scans of lace patterns and various Baroque and Rococo ornament (Dover books are my friends). For the background, I essentially like to work with anything that will add a base of ornateness and textural elements to the work.

In Photoshop, I extract the flowers from their backgrounds, then start layering! Textures go on the bottom layers, flowers get layered on top. I play with Blending Modes (overlay, hard light, multiply, etc) and image Adjustments (color, saturation, brightness/contrast, etc) between layers to get the results I want.

Screenshot of the final "base" for Still Life #2

Screenshot of the final “base” for Still Life #2

One issue I have with working digitally is that the colors on the screen look bright and gorgeous. Then I print them out and…not so much. It takes some tweaking to get some semblance of the color and contrast I want (it can never be exactly as I see on the screen).

For the first two Still Lifes, I printed out the base in parts, cut up the parts, then collaged them back together on cradled wood panels using matte medium. I was going for a subtle, layered collage effect, with the flowers sitting on top of the piece and outlined in a dark color. This wasn’t as successful as I would have liked, and moving forward I think I will just print the base out in one piece. We’ll see.

Paint, Wonderful Paint

I love acrylic paint (oil-based paint, not so much, but I do love the smell of an oil painter’s studio). What’s not to like about water-soluble paint that dries to be, basically, plastic? It’s so versatile and durable.

I take my newly mounted digital print and start painting back into it, working within a grid of sorts. I have a vague idea of what I want (a butterfly to be added some place, for example) but for the most part I play, letting ideas flow as they come to me, using the base print as inspiration. I do know that there has to be plenty of color, gold paint, yummy detail, texture (paint strokes and washes), and more detail (dots…we’ll have to talk about tiny dots one of these days).

Still Lifes #1 and #2

Still Life #1 (9″ x 12″) on the left, Still Life #2 (11″ x 14″) on the right. The edges of the cradled panel are painted gold.

I know, you’re thinking I covered up everything but the flowers, but not completely. If you see the work in person, you can see the background image underneath the paint, more so in some areas than others. It’s part of what I like about the finished work: the sense of layering, the “depth” created with paint upon the digital print, the delicate and subtle nuance of the shapes/colors/textures underneath.

Up Next

Last year we visited the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden at the University of Michigan for the first time (took us 13 years, but hey, better late than never). What an inspiring treat! I didn’t know there were so many different kinds and, dear lord, variation in textures and colors! I took many…many…photos, and peonies need to be in my next Still Lifes. Also, my friend and fellow artist Carol Morris gave me three old, oval frames (brass I think) that have rounded glass, each about 10″ wide by 13″ tall. I think they are perfect for a triptych of Still Lifes.

This weekend I began work on the digital base for one of them. Stay tuned for Still Life #3, #4 and #5.

This entry was posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Art Stories, Inspiration.

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