Inside the Process: A Unique Approach to Still Life Painting

In this special article series, we take you inside the painting studios of six artists across the country, from California to Colorado to New Hampshire. You’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at everything from studio setups to plein-air excursions to step-by-step demonstrations.  Please click the links at the end of the article to visit each artist’s page. Enjoy! 

In Part 2 of our series meet two California artists who take unique approaches to painting still lifes. Check out Part 1 of the series here.

Karen Burns

After several years as a successful still-life photographer, Karen Burns found herself drawn toward still-life painting. As she pursued her new medium of oils, she found that while her photographer’s eye proved beneficial, her best paintings were rendered not from a photo but from life. Since then, her process has always begun with arranging a still-life setup in her Northern California studio. “Painting from life gives me the opportunity to not only paint what I see, but to improvise a bit,” Burns says.  

Numerous vintage props line her shelves for inspiration. Her setups usually combine of one of these objects made of pottery or metal with something fresh like fruit, flowers, or leaves. Getting the setup right is important to the artist. “It might fall together right away, or it might take a couple hours,” she says. Even when she’s satisfied with the initial arrangement, she doesn’t paint it right away. “I like to sleep on it first,” she explains.  

Karen’s Props

Burns typically starts and finishes the painting the next day. “I prefer painting wet on wet,” she says. Each piece begins with an underpainting to tone the panel. Next she arranges the shapes,blocks in darks and shadows, works out the background color, and adds some local color. She then builds up the scene with thicker paint, applying the thickest paints to the lights and the areas closest to the viewer. “My goal is to draw the eye through the painting with light,” she says, adding, “everything is really all about the light for me.”  

Karen’s Studio

Key to studio photo above:

  1. My easel 
  2. Shelf to store extra frames 
  3. Still life setup area 
  4. Glass palette  
  5. Cabinet full of props
  6.  A few framed paintings and some of my favorite props 
  7. Shelves for drying/curing paintings tucked into plate racks
  8. Work station for things that don’t require holding a brush 
  9. My shadow! 
  10. My hubby’s little corner 

To learn more about Karen Burns’ artwork and creative process, visit karenburnsphoto.com

Linda Nearon

Linda Nearon painted strictly en plein air for many years before deciding to move her easel indoors. “I wanted to stretch and challenge myself to do studio art with a more fine-art technique,” she says, explaining that working in her studio allows her the time and freedom to experiment with lots of layering and other techniques. A constant learner, she has also experimented with a variety of subject matter, though she always returns to her favorite subject: flowers. “Florals are what I do best, and I absolutely love them,” she says enthusiastically.  

These days the artist typically paints from her home studio in San Francisco’s East Bay. “I have everything I need at my fingertips—a beautiful view, my lights, and enough room for a still-life setup if I want, though I typically work from photographs,” she says.  

Her painting process begins with getting the composition right. Using a large brush and sienna, she blocks in shapes and values. Next she does a careful, fine painting of the focal point before moving to the peripheral areas, where she tends to use looser strokes and softer edges.  

Working wet-on-wet, she builds up about five layers, then lets the piece dry. “My last step is to go back into the focal point and work out the details meticulously until it’s done,” she says. “It’s an intuitive process, but when I step back and feel like I’ve captured the light and the beauty of the subject just right, then I know—and it’s magical.”  

Floral by Linda Nearon
Pink Rose Reflections by Linda Nearon
Heavenly Orchids by Linda Nearon

To learn more about Linda Nearon’s artwork and creative process, visit lindanearonstudio.com/art

–Lindsay Mitchell 

All Artists in this 3-Part Series:

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