Natural light plays a major role in my still life paintings. I usually set up the still life on a table placed about five feet from a high, north-facing window. I place my easel next to the still life on the side farthest from the window, angled toward the window to catch the light. I then make all of my observations from a point about five or six feet in front of the easel. This allows me to move my eyes quickly between the painting and the still life to compare the two. This also allows me to look at the painting from the same distance that viewers that will ultimately see it.
I like to create a strong center of interest and develop sight lines that lead to that area. I also try to establish a color scheme that focuses on either primary or complementary colors. And I like to have one strong color that dominates the picture.
My compositions stray from the traditional to the degree that I allow objects to bleed off of the canvas. It?s as if I?m zooming in on a close up of the still life, with foreground objects that leap forward and background objects that represent only a small portion of what seems to be a larger scene.
To establish my composition, I like to use a brown umber underpainting. I thin the umber with paint thinner and apply it as a wash, creating light and dark variations by adding more or less thinner. I then allow this layer to dry overnight.
Next I cover the underpainting with a single layer of opaque color. I add this color in sections so that I can finish each area as I go along. This gives the painting the look of having been painted in a single session, alla prima style. But it?s not a true alla prima technique. Because of the underpainting, I?m able to control the paint more.
For the lightest notes in foreground objects, I use a heavy impasto. I load my brush with lots of thick paint directly from the tube. This causes the highlights to stand out above the surface of the canvas. When the light rakes across the canvas, it catches those brushstrokes, creating a slight shimmer that makes the objects leap forward.
Howard Lieberman is a professor of art at Allegheny Community College in Pittsburgh.