Still Life Composition Made Modern

Kari Tirrell revitalizes the still life genre in her colorful paintings that feature nontraditional subject matter.

When Kari Tirrell was growing up in the ‘70s, there wasn’t much “good TV,” so drawing was her entertainment. She enjoyed drawing people and animals, and honed her self-taught skills using charcoal and ink. “It was kind of like meditation,” she says. “I got into a Zen place.” These days, that place results in stunningly realistic renderings of ordinary items often arranged in playful jumbles: toy cars, game pieces, toys, holiday ornaments, baking ingredients and more. It is a truly unique take on still life composition.

Creative Parking by Kari Tirrell (18 x 19)

Jumble Paintings

Tirrell’s first attempt at these chock-a-block “jumble paintings,” as she calls them, was inspired by a box of Christmas ornaments. She enjoyed the challenge of assembling a pleasing still life composition that appeared haphazard. The subjects for these jumbled compositions went on to include toy cars and trains—even jigsaw puzzle pieces. Her latest subjects are antique tin toys, which she arranges in portrait-like settings, as she has in Cat and Mouse.

Cat and Mouse by Kari Tirrell (9 x 19)

“When I decided to paint still lifes, I knew I wanted to do something modern and fun,” the artist says. “Traditional still lifes are great, but I found them boring to paint. For me, there was nothing inspiring about painting a bowl of fruit.” The objects she chooses are intrinsically playful, and Tirrell likes to showcase them by including different surface materials— plastic, wood, metal, ceramic, cloth. “I enjoy the challenge of making these different surfaces read accurately,” she says.

Ultimately, no matter what the subject matter, Tirrell’s goal is to have fun with the entire process. “I think you have to love what you’re doing,” the artist says. “Otherwise, there’s no point.”

Driven to Draw

Tirrell never thought she could pursue an artistic career, so she didn’t seek formal training. But, she still felt driven to make art. When she became friends with a woman whom she calls a “real” artist, it planted a tiny seed for the future. Once Tirrell’s children reached an age at which she had time to start working again, she studied to be a clinical nutritionist, but wasn’t really enjoying it. In 2006, her husband suggested that she take the summer off to paint, and that was it. “I thought, ‘ This is awesome; I’m not going to do anything else,’ ” she says.

Full House by Kari Terrell (16 x 20)

Tirrell tried pastel for the first time in 2008, which turned out to be a natural fit for the life-long drawer. “It was like drawing in color,” she says. “It’s the perfect marriage between drawing and painting.”

Controlled Chaos

Tirrell spends hours setting up and refining the items in her compositions before she begins drawing or painting. She arranges the objects, takes photos of the setup and then uploads the images to Photoshop so she can analyze what’s working and what’s not. “I’m looking at object placement, balance of color, interesting shadows, light bouncing off objects, color from one object reflecting onto others, whether or not adjustments need to be made to my light source, etc.,” she says. After completing that exercise, she readjusts the setup and takes more photos. “Then it’s back to the computer to repeat the process as many times as necessary for me to get a still life composition I’m happy with,” Tirrell says.

Game Time

If her still life composition is simple, Tirrell might draw directly onto the paper; however, for more complicated compositions, she transfers a basic line drawing to the paper in sections. After Tirrell transfers a section of the drawing, she fleshes it out by using a white charcoal pencil and one or two pastel pencils. She then builds the pastel in layers, working first on the local color, including all of the object’s values. This process typically involves lots of different colors. “Because my work is dependent on a full range of values, it’s always about layering and then blending different colors to get the result I want,” she says.

Saturday Evening Puzzle by Kari Tirrell (18 x 24)

If an object or area needs to be really dark blue or black, Tirrell applies an underlayer of Terry Ludwig eggplant (V100). “I lay that down first and then layer over it with Girault black, which is the blackest black I’ve found,” she says. “This combo makes a really rich, deep black.”

Still Life Composition Brought to Life

Once an object looks solid and its values are accurate, Tirrell adds any necessary details and highlights. “I often line that edge with a pastel pencil in the closest color to the adjacent object, even though it will eventually be covered by pastel sticks, just to ensure a smooth transition from one object to the next,” she says. She also relies on pastel pencils for blending.

Train Wreck by Kari Tirrell (18 x 24)

For complicated compositions that cover the entire painting surface, Tirrell starts in the upper-left corner and paints her way across and down to the lower-right corner so that her painting hand never rests on a painted area. After she completes a section, Tirrell cleans up the edges with a Tu Stu Eraser Stick before moving on to the adjacent section. Throughout the process, Tirrell pounds on the painting often to dislodge any loose pastel. She also uses her vacuum’s thin nozzle handheld attachment to pull up loose pastel.

You Do You

From her subject matter to her methods, Tirrell’s approach is rarely traditional. She pushes herself to find subjects and methods that excite her, and she advises other artists to do the same. “Don’t paint what other people are painting,” she says. “Or, if you do, find a way to differentiate yourself.”

“I feel like it’s one of those if-you-build-it- they-will-come situations. If you paint what you love and do it well, there will be people who respond to it.”


About the Artist

Kari Tirrell (karitirrell.com), of Gig Harbor, Wash., is a self-taught artist who spent her formative years drawing people and animals in graphite, charcoal and ink. After years of drawing, she changed direction and started painting abstracts in acrylic, selling her work online. She eventually returned to realism, and currently paints contemporary still lifes in pastel, oil and acrylic. Her work has been juried into regional, national and international exhibitions, and has received numerous awards. She’s a Master Pastelist of the Pastel Society of America, a Master Circle member of the International Association of Pastel Societies, a Distinguished Pastelist of the Pastel Society of the West Coast and a signature member of the Northwest Pastel Society.

Full more pastel techniques from Kari Terrell, check out the full profile written by Amy Leibrock in Artists Magazine, December 2018 issue.

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