Saturday Studio: Still Life (or is it?)

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

A still life print of a bouquet of flowers sitting below a windowsill. Outside the window, the sun sets above a copse of trees that extend into grass. On the table next to the flowers are postcards laying on a geometric tablecloth.
Katja Oxman, German-American, b. 1942. With Spring Rain. Etching and aquatint on paper, 2018. Gift of the Artist, 2019.147. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Take a look at the print above, With Spring Rain (currently on view at FWMoA in A Year of Making Meaning). Is it as a still life, a portrait, or a landscape? Yes! But, how can it be all three?

Katja Oxman’s richly hued etchings are primarily still lifes, a genre she has explored for most of her artistic career. When she began working with the form, she mainly arranged objects on the floor on top of richly patterned oriental rugs. She has slowly shifted her focus upward to tabletops, with more recent works incorporating serene landscapes framed by a window. The objects inside sometimes connect with the exterior scenes–plants, flowers, insects, and birds with their nests often appear–along with postcards Oxman collects on visits to art museums, boxes, and other small trinkets. This is where the classification as portrait (actually self-portrait!) comes from: although we never see Oxman’s face in her work, the items chosen represent the artist in some way.

It’s not just the objects Oxman chooses, but the way the artworks are composed and even the techniques she uses that tell us about her. With so many trinkets, patterns, and textures in each print, they should feel cluttered and busy, but they don’t! Rather than haphazard piles of postcards and feathers, they are neatly placed along horizontal and vertical lines. Even the plant stems (usually orchids) mostly follow this grid-like pattern. Imagine if they tilted off-axis: the diagonal lines would feel much more dynamic, even messy! Artists often use diagonals when they want to convey a sense of movement, but in Oxman’s work, the grid-like arrangement lends a sense of serenity that is bolstered by the rich yet muted color palette. These colors are created through the process of layering thin, translucent veils of only the primary colors, with a plate for each one. It is a tedious, highly detailed process, with very neat and precise results.

After examining a few of Katja Oxman’s prints, how would you describe her? And what could your stuff say about you? That is what we will explore in the Studio today! Do you collect anything or have a favorite knickknack? Maybe a treasured toy, a gift from a loved one, or a souvenir from your travels? Gather them up to create your own genre-spanning still life inspired by the work of Katja Oxman.

Supplies:

  1. Paint or drawing materials of choice
  2. White and colored construction paper
  3. Collage materials (old magazines, wrapping paper, even fabric!)
  4. Glue stick

There are three essential components we will walk through below, but the rest are up to you! 

  1. The landscape outside the window
  2. The solid wall
  3. The patterned tabletop base

After these are completed, you can add whatever still life objects are meaningful to you.

Start with the background. What time of day and season will you depict? What mood do you want to convey? I decided to use watercolor here, but you could use colored pencils, another kind of paint, or even cut paper! I painted a sunset sky, let it dry, then added bare trees like those I can see outside my window this time of year. Let this all dry.

Choose a color of paper for your walls, then fold it in half and cut out a rectangle (on the fold) to form the window. Make sure the size of your window frame is not larger than the scene you painted before! Lay the window over the landscape scene and adjust until you like how it looks, then use glue stick to attach it.

Now we need to find or make a patterned “tablecloth” for the base of our still life. Look around your home for patterns you find interesting. This might be something you can use directly in your artwork (maybe a scrap of wrapping paper or a picture of a rug from a magazine), or a pattern you draw yourself on another piece of paper. I liked the mix of patterns on a table runner I found, and drew them in with pen and marker on a white piece of paper.

Glue on your tablecloth and arrange your still life! Look for images of artworks you like to emulate postcards on the table, either in magazines or by printing them out. Collect objects from around your home that are meaningful to you, draw them on another piece of paper, and cut them out. When selecting objects for your still life, consider the number, scale, and shape. How do they look together?

After you’ve drawn or collected enough images to add to your still life, play around with arranging them in different ways. Try overlapping them or tilting them, moving them up or down on the tabletop. I tried placing my plant right in the middle, but it didn’t quite “work.” Like Oxman, try to achieve a sense of balance and calm in how your treasures and trinkets are arranged.

Ready to make your own? Share your artworks with us here on the blog or on our social media accounts: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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