Finding a subject to paint… New life in still life

Still Life artist Paula Oakley talks to us about how she find subjects for her paintings and what inspires her. 

Whenever I used to think of a still life painting it would conjure  up a drab boring image of a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit set against a dark dreary background.  
The definition of Still life is “ an arrangement of inanimate objects”
Doesn’t sound very exciting does it? 
But….it  can open up a whole world of endless possibilities involving light, shade, colour, texture, detail and of course …fun!.

So where does the inspiration come from? 

Sometimes I can find myself singing away to a song and suddenly the lyrics set off an idea, sometimes it’s a phrase like “A little of what you fancy…” soft sexy pinks and a saucy imagination resulted in a painting . The shoes were originally plain and beige, so I painted them pink and black, then glued on the lace and roses. It’s not just a matter of throwing a few items together, it’s about creating the idea.

“A little of what you fancy…”



Perhaps a saying, a colour, a texture will be inspiring, maybe a favourite item of clothing or a special memento that brings back a memory like in my painting “Keepsakes”.  For this painting I made the box and decorated it with wrapping paper, butterflies and a bow, the contents are items I found around the house. I then surrounded them with soft fabrics of different textures.





Once I have an idea my first quest is to track down the items I want for the composition. This often involves rummaging about in cupboards, charity shops or even other people’s belongings! Sometimes I can’t find what I want so I make it. A flower book mark, a notebook, even a pair of old shoes can be painted and decorated!
I also like playing with the titles…”Eton Mess” is the name of a wonderful dessert made of meringue, cream and strawberries. It made me think of Eton public school and the high spirits I’m sure they indulge in at their Summer parties.  This was such fun to set up and tasty too! The straw boater and Sunday glass I found in a charity shop, the Union Jack Pimms bottle was a bargain at just 1p on e bay, unfortunately it was empty so I made the “Pimms” of cold tea!  (Tea works well for beer too!)

“Eton Mess”  


“Beer and Old Blighty”

You never know what or where an idea will come from . My still life’s either tell a story or are about having fun with ideas. Pictures that are not only pleasing to the eye but that the viewer can relate to in some way and hopefully make them smile.
One of my recent paintings “The Bulldog Blues” originated from spotting a bottle of beer on the shelf of a well known supermarket. I just loved the design, a grumpy looking Bulldog wearing a bowler hat. I thought  it looked like the perfect drink for drowning one’s sorrows. Maybe a jilted lover sitting alone in his room with a few beers?...  Perhaps strumming his guitar to some old love songs whilst he reads the letter from his girlfriend once again. So the picture evolved into a story and all I needed was a few appropriate items to arrange together.
Once I am happy with the set up I photograph it from different angles and with different light and shade effects . Usually I have to take about 100 shots just to get one that I’m happy with. I work from photos  as not only does it make sure the light and shadows don’t vary during the painting process but often the angle of the view would be awkward to maintain. On average a painting will take about 4-5 days to complete so I need the continuity.
Now the canvas is primed and I’m ready to paint! If it’s a complicated composition then I will sketch out the image using a simple grid. This ensures that the perspective is correct. I don’t do a detailed drawing as most of it gets painted over in the first steps.

“The Bulldog Blues”

Using acrylics the largest areas are painted to give an even opaque base (about 4-5 coats) then thin washes are built up to give depth, detail and textures. The shadows and highlights  bring it all to life.
Although my paintings are realistic I paint on a medium grain canvas to ensure that it looks like a painting, a smoother base would result in it looking too much like a photo for my liking.
Overall my still life’s are about taking an idea,  creating it  and recreating  it on canvas. So if you ever get stuck for ideas then get rummaging through your drawers and cupboards, you never know what could inspire you!


By Paula Oakley
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