Introduction: Vanitas Still Life

Picture of Vanitas Still Life

"Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas" / "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

Vanitas, translated from Latin, means vanity and emptiness. Vanitas still lifes, a type of paintings usually associated with the 17th century, focus on the vanity, temporarility and futility of the earthly life. Looking at these classic still lifes, they are packed with symbols to accentuate that view on life. An extinguished candle can often be seen, just like soap bubbles, both representing the fleetingness of life. Another big thing is direct symbols of time, like a clock or an hourglass.

I personally think it's quite fascinating to study old paintings, especially when they are filled with symbolism like this. For this project, I took these symbolistic paintings as an example to create my own.

Step 1: Research and Inspiration

Picture of Research and Inspiration

Before getting started with an own piece, I looked up still lifes painted in the 17th century, looked up various Vanitas still lifes and thought about how to recreate a work in the style of the 17th century while still making it my own.

The first image shows a collection of works by Pieter Clasz, together with the notes I added, focussing on composition, use of Vanitas symbols, and light.ex

The second image is a collection of various Vanitas still lifes, together with the explanation about Vanitas.

The third image is an explanation on how I decided to work on this project. I took a painting as reference and studied the composition and the symbols used. These elements of the painting, together with colour and painting technique, were used as inspiration.

Step 2: Choosing Items

Picture of Choosing Items

For the final list of items, it was of course a matter of available items. The final list of items I used:

- A candle
- Books
- A watch
- Dice
- Skull
- A scallop
- Feather
- Egg-shells
- Butterfly wing

Step 3: Composition

Picture of Composition

While building up, I constantly kept my camera in the same position to see how the composition looked. To get the idea of the slanted composition, I started by stacking books in the right corner. Working towards the left, the space was filled up with objects until it looked right. After that, minor changes were made to the camera position to complete the composition.

Step 4: The Final Composition

Picture of The Final Composition

When looking at the final picture I took to use as reference, there are three main composition lines, all going through the center point of the books.

The first line goes through a point of the skull, the center point of the books, and the corner of the dice.

The second line goes through the wick of the candle, the center point of the books, and the bend in the watch strap.

The third line goes through the center point of the books and the middle of the watch.

Studying these lines, line one and two are perfectly perpendicular to each other. Line three adds a division of 45 degrees between line two and three.

Step 5: Candle

Picture of Candle

To properly paint a just extinguished candle, the most logical thing to do was light a candle and photograph it the moment of extinguishing. The molten effect wasn't exactly what I was looking for, so I looked up reference images to properly get that on the painting.

Step 6: Colour Choice

Picture of Colour Choice

To get the right colour for every part of the painting, everything on there was written down with space between the lines. I made colour swatches for all items untill the colours looked right.

Step 7: Sketching

Picture of Sketching

Before getting into the painting, the image was sketched out on the canvas. Starting with the books to have a first solid shape, followed by the line between the desk and the wall. After that, the smaller details were filled in.

Step 8: Painting

Picture of Painting

And with the sketch ready, it's already time to start adding paint! The desk was made dark brown instead of white, to match better with the overall setting of the painting. The books were made dark red with yellow/brown-ish paper to give them the look of leather bound books with parchment paper. Most other objects were kept quite similar in colour, though slightly darker.

To add depth to the painting, for every part that had a shadow on it the colour was mixed with black to create a realistic shadow effect.

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