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How to Create a Still Life in the Style of Primitive Art

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Read Time: 11 min

In this tutorial we will review the basic rules of creating still life compositions. The techniques described here will help you to create artworks in the style of primitive art. There is no necessity to create a sketch at the beginning of your work. We will work to reproduce this style with the help of Adobe Illustrator tools. Let’s get started!

First, let's talk about still life composition. Still life is exactly the genre, where the composition is of a primary importance. Relatively speaking still life composition is a harmonious combination and interaction of objects. Through the composition you can consistently show the observer everything you want, create mood, convey an idea, and even tell a story. Still life composition can be divided into several types: geometric, spatial, and color. Let's review these types in detail:

1. Geometric composition

It's human nature to associate each shape with something peculiar to it. Angles for example are subconsciously associated with pointers. While looking at a square or rectangle for a long time there appears a feeling of stability. A circle creates a sense of comfort and calm. Remember that the horizontal lines (a person lying down) are calmer than the vertical ones (a person standing up). As for the diagonals, the ascending lines - leading from the lower left corner to the upper right one - look more strained than the falling ones: still we read left to right, and our view has to "climb" up the picture to reach the top. But this is where a certain sense of victory is hidden. Descending lines coming from the upper left corner to lower right one, on the contrary, are traditionally associated with relaxation, sadness, or even depression. All these tricks can be and should be used in their own purposes - in order to transfer concepts, ideas of work.

2. Selection by space

If an object needs to be distinguishable in a still life, casting it the leading part, you can apply spatial composition. For example, place the main object in the foreground, in front of the others. Or use a color palette so that the leading element was of a brighter color. Blur filters can be applied to the minor objects.

3. Composition of colors

Each color, besides its original coloration, has its own meaning. Warm colors (orange, yellow, red, terracotta) remind us of summer, sun, warmth. In addition, from the painting course you know that such objects appear visually closer. That you actually cannot say about the cool colors: blue, green, pink, purple. These colors recede the object from the viewer, and are usually associated with winter, cold, water. It is important not to forget about the contrast, sometimes it can be perfectly played out, but often hasty-considered combination of colors push aside or distort the meaning of the whole composition. Also remember that any object has the ability to reflect or absorb hues of the next standing objects, and even two objects of identical colors on a background can look different just because of the difference in their textures. The composition built on barely visible vibrations of lights and shadows without emphasizing the viewer’s attention spots seems unvarying, monotone, and inexpressive. Sharp contrasts create tension, dynamics. Color saturation conducts impact on the viewer: compositions of soft pastel colors will create a sense of peace and nostalgia, while bright, flashy colors, on the contrary, are suitable for attracting attention, to show expression, assertiveness. That is why bright colors are often used in advertising, while the art-design tends to subdued, calm color. There still are a few important aspects to be considered when composing: rule of thirds, rhythm, and internal connections.

4. Rhythm

The rhythm, a repetition of identical or similar lines, is a very powerful composition tool to manipulate the look of the viewer. The "path" of alternate objects may take away too far. But do not overact – rhythm can also kill the whole composition, leaving it without dynamics and making it monotonous.

5. Internal connections

When you create a still life it is necessary that there's a relationship between the objects. Items may be connected in shape (egg and onion), color (tomato and red pepper), and meaning (apple and knife). Remember what you want to convey to the viewer, and use all the available compositional techniques for your own purposes. Let’s get down to creating of your own still life

Step 1

Launch Adobe Illustrator and create a new document. Let’s create a composition of four objects: wine bottle, goblet, cork, and fruit. Later we will chose the colors of the composition and decide what fruit to use in still life. First portray these objects with the help of Adobe Illustrator. Take the Pen Tool (P) and create an Open Path of half of the bottle. Vertical guide will help you to place correctly the extreme internal points of the path.

Select the path and go to Object> Transform> Reflect, with the settings shown on the picture below.

Take the Select Tool (V) and holding down the Shift key move the copy horizontally.

Now close the path of the bottle. Take the Lasso Tool (Q) and select the lower end points of both paths. Now go to Object> Path> Average (Alt +Command + J). This operation leads to the fact that the same new averaged coordinates are assigned to both anchor points.

Join together these points Object> Path> Join (Command + J).

Now give the shape a perfect look, moving horizontally the handles of the anchor point.

Similarly connect the higher points of the path.

Step 2

Using the above described technique create the upper part of the goblet.

Now take the Ellipse Tool (L) and create the base of the goblet.

Place the base and the goblet on the same vertical axis. To do this, select both objects using the Selection Tool (V) and click the Horizontal Align Center from Align box.

Step 3

Still selected, click on the button Add from the Pathfinder box and click Expand.

Make a smooth transition between the base and the stem of the glass. Take the Pen Tool (P) and add four anchor points (1-4), as shown on the picture below (the path of the glass must be selected). Remove the interior points 5 and 6, using the Pen Tool (P).

Step 4

Using the achieved knowledge and the Pen Tool (P) create a bottle cork.

Step 5

Now decide the colors of the composition. I associate a bottle of wine with summer and warmth, so I decided to choose a warm color range. I chose an orange as a fruit. It will be created using the Ellipse Tool (L). Fill it with orange color. Of course you may have your own associations. You can experiment at this step. Fill the shape of a glass with pale blue, the bottle - with green, the cork - with light brown. Take the Pen Tool (P) and create a shape of wine in a glass and fill it with red color.

Name the layer we worked in Still Life. Create a new layer BG below this layer; this is where the background will be created. Take the Rectangle Tool (L) and create a rectangle of the same size as our document and fill it with a linear gradient from light green to light brown.

At this stage we only choose the colors, we will work with them in detail later on.

Step 6

The composition of each still life has its own structure. The sense of stability, balance, peace arises from the compositions created on the basis of different shapes, but using symmetry. Asymmetric and diagonal dislocation of objects conveys movement, anxiety, lack of balance of composition pieces. I chose the classic triangular structure for my composition.

Step 7

Decide where a source of light will be placed. I decided that it would be on the right at the top from the viewer. Thus, the lights on the objects will be on the right and the shadows - on the left.

I decided to create still life in the genre of primitive art, so the shapes of the objects and shadows are somehow exaggerated. Cover the techniques of creating shadows and lights. Take the Pen Tool (P) and create shape of a shadow on the orange, coordinating its location with the source of light.

Copy the shape of an orange (Command + C) and Paste in Front (Command + F).

Select the copy of the orange and shape of the shadow. To do this, take the Selection Tool (V) and holding the Shift key click on the shape of an orange and the shape of shadow, or perform the same procedure in the layers palette.

Now click Intersect from Pathfinder box.

Now click the button Expand from Pathfinder box.

Step 8

Now check the method of shadow color matching, as well as the color matching of the light areas of an object. Select the shape of an orange, notice the fill icon in the Toolbox is the color of the orange. Double-click this icon to open the Color Picker dialog box.

Now moving down to the Select field we can get the color of the shadow, while moving to the left - the color of light areas. Depending on what color model we are working in, choose and write the numerical value of colors.

Now select the shape of the shadow, and assign the appropriate parameters to the color in the Color palette.

Using the same technique, create the shape of light areas on the orange.

I prefer CMYK model, because it is intuitively understandable and allows you to easily customize the color by moving the sliders in the Color palette. It is also the colour model you need to use for print images.

Step 9

Using this technique, create the shape of shadows, penumbras and lights on the other objects. When you create a shadow it is more convenient to work with the shape without fill color but with stroke shadow color. Once the desired shape of the shadow is achieved, simply change the stroke into the fill by clicking on Swap Fill and Stroke on the Toolbox.

The correct order of objects can be achieved by moving the sub-layers in the layers palette.

The pictures below show how to create the undertones on all of these objects.

Step 10

Transform the shape of the cork.

Take the Ellipse Tool (L) and create the top of the cork.

Now create a shadow on the cork, applying the method described above.

Step 11

Now go to the BG layer and get down to the background. We used a gradient fill color of the background just to determine the color gamma of our artwork. Fill the background with solid light yellow color.

Take the Pencil Tool (N) and create the shape of background and foreground with light green and light brown fill color.

Take the Pen Tool (P) and create a shape of shadow, coordinating its location with the source of light. Choose the light-brown color (darker than the foreground color) to fill the shadow.

Step 12

Add the texture to our artwork. Use the Photoshop program for this. Launch the program and create a new document 600 by 600 pixels.

Now go to Filter> Render> Fibers, with the settings as shown on the picture below.

Go to Image> Adjustments> Threshold

Save the filter, to do this go to File> Save As and save the file as a PSD.

Step 13

Go to the Adobe Illustrator program. Create a new Filter layer below the BG layer. Go to File> Place and insert the file created in the previous step into this layer. The filter in this layer will be used as a template.

Step 14

Now add the texture to our background. Copy and paste the filter into the BG layer.

Select the filter and objects that have to be textured in the layers palette. Now apply the transparency mask.

Step 15

Using this technique, add texture to the other objects of still life. To achieve the contrast in texture between the objects and background, I turned the filter 90 degrees. I advise you to add texture to the objects separately, rather than all at once, so you would not get stuck in the order of sub-layers.

Step 16

Create a new Outline layer above all the layers. In this layer we will create the stroke of the objects of still life. Create a selection of brushes with different thickness and shapes for the strokes. Usually these brushes are created by the distortion of the ellipse.

Drag the created brushes to the Brushes palette, and choose the Art Brush. Start creating the stroke, using the Pen Tool (P) and applying the created brushes. The stroke in the shadow area of the objects should be bolder than on the light. Remember that the thickness of the stroke can be changed easily in the Stroke palette, even after the brush was applied.


There are many designers who do not like to apply bitmap effects in their artworks. I would advise for these “pure vector” adherents to trace the PSD filter. Then apply the transparency mask. And for those who do not apply even transparency in their artworks, I advise to use the Subtract from Pathfinder box after the tracing. But keep in your mind that this will substantially increase the size of your file, and will slow down your computers performance. Good luck to all, we have the best job in the world!

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