Sheldon Tapley and the Not-So-Still Life

This article on Sheldon Tapley by Daniel Brown first appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Bacchanal by Sheldon Tapley

The Roman god of wine and revelry informs Bacchanal (oil on aluminum, 6×11), in which Sheldon Tapley places a book cover that shows a detail from Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians. The general air of abundance celebrates life and its pleasures .

Still life is the most problematic—and most abstract—of genres, as the paintings seem to lack the grandeur associated with landscapes or with figures that can assume allegorical or mythological-religious resonance. Because the objects depicted are taken from ordinary life, however, they intimately speak to our daily existence and to our interior lives. Sheldon Tapley revitalizes, indeed, electrifies the still life genre by combining aspects of contemporary life with painterly constructs derived from the history of Western art. His formalist concerns join with his tendency toward metaphor, and his pleasure in painting ordinary objects reminds us of nature’s bounties and art’s artifices concurrently.

Sheldon Tapley also frequently utilizes figurative elements—usually copies of famous images from Baroque art—a sly way of putting figures and landscapes in the background, while the still life elements remain at the fore. Such a design is an amusing reversal of the norm in Western painting, for Tapley insists upon the primary importance, indeed the pre-eminence, of the still life. While the artist frequently alludes to Baroque masters and just as frequently incorporates their work into his own, he’s not an appropriator; his many influences and references weave through the work but do not dominate it.

A Web of Influence

Sheldon Tapley selects which objects to include, then designs the composition and lays in color; in the process, ideas and essences emerge in an erudite yet playful manner. When he describes the “sensuality, abundance and force” that he gets from the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, he’s describing Rubens’s essential influence on his own work. “The power and sensuality of Rubens’s images have always attracted me. I also love French painting,” says Tapley. “Some of the masters I’ve returned to again and again include Chardin, Fantin-Latour, Cézanne and Matisse. Richard Deibenkorn admired Matisse, and I admire both of them and treasure that linkage.” Sheldon Tapley’s still lifes are not only a virtuosic study of the history of art, but more palpably a demonstration of texture, dimensionality, spatial relations, perspectival shifts, color relationships and, most significantly, the hallmarks of the Baroque sensibility: theatricality and sensuality.

Still Life With Flowers by Sheldon Tapley

Still Life With Flowers (oil on aluminum, 36×48) shows a theatrical abundance that’s counterbalanced by coiled rope, and, on the top right, with a drawing of “enso,” a Japanese word meaning “circle.” In Zen Buddhism, “enso” suggests a state of mind in which the body is free to let the spirit create.


Sheldon Tapley’s Unusual Surface

Although Tapley’s mother is an artist, now retired, who worked in watercolor and taught private lessons in their home, Sheldon Tapley avoided art in his youth. Taking a course with Bobbie McKibbin during his first year at Grinnell College in Iowa, Tapley discovered that he loved to draw (he continues to work with charcoal and pastel). He learned, too, the “amazing and forgiving” properties of oil paint. “I particularly like the way an oily film of wet paint responds throughout a day of work,” he says, “so that it sometimes seems to be alive.”

Spiral by Sheldon Tapley

The swirling surface of Spiral (oil on aluminum, 21½x20) shows the Baroque love of circularity (the pitcher, the plate, the lemon and its peel) and movement (the repetitions and folds of the two fabrics), along with a disorienting bird’s-eye view. Another disorienting Baroque motif is the extension of the blue plate and knife beyond the surface of the table.

Sheldon Tapley paints not on canvas but on aluminum panels, which he cuts and prepares by coating the panel with an oil primer. Once the primer is dry, he sands the surface until it’s smooth. As the painting progresses, he structures each work session according to these steps: (1) He sands away or scrapes off anything he doesn’t like (as long as the surface is dry). “For sanding I use wet-dry 600-grit sandpaper, and I work very gently,” he says. Scraping (much less common) is done with a tiny palette knife or fresh single-edge razor blade. (2) He applies retouch varnish to the area he’s going to work on. “The retouch varnish dries quickly and restores luster, allowing me to see the painting better.” (3) Next he applies glazes to any areas that need it (4) and works with direct application of paint, which can go into the wet glazes if necessary; (5) finishes an area; moves on to the next area; (6) and then repeats the last four steps until satisfied with the painting.


To be satisfied with the painting—aye, there’s the rub. “It’s always difficult to find the right balance between memorable description and a lively surface,” says Sheldon Tapley . “Some painters label that a dichotomy between ‘tight’ and ‘loose,’ but I find those words too loaded and inadequate. Too much discipline, and the painting will look well wrought but dull; too much freedom, and it will look lively but lack substance. The entire process is challenging,” he concludes, “and I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. The most difficult decisions in the process, however, come at the beginning, before the panel is even primed, when I’m setting up the subject or even just thinking of the subject: What will I paint? What do I want this picture to be? No amount of skillful painting later in the process will save an image if I don’t have confidence in it from the beginning.”



The Theatre of Excess

It’s the answers to those questions—“What will I paint? What do I want this picture to be?”—that make Sheldon Tapley’s work original. By regularly including images of female nudes from paintings of the past within his still lifes, Tapley intensifies and luxuriates in the sensuality of the objects he’s depicting, while never losing sight of the fact that all their origins are in the history of art. We relish the Baroque sense of movement he adapts—take a look at the swirling drapes, the bird’s-eye focus, the circular plethora that’s almost dizzying in Spiral (above). Tapley makes these qualities of abundance celebratory. Unlike many of his contemporaries who extol austerity, Sheldon Tapley loves to “pack” his compositions—reminding us that he matured under the aegis of Abstract Expressionism. Working in the realist idiom challenged him to flatten the pictorial space to make an object seem “present,” a tactic he learned from looking at Cézanne.

Harvest Table by Sheldon Tapley

How does Tapley handle such a complex subject as Harvest Table (pastel on paper, 38×32)? “My initial underdrawing is in soft vine charcoal, rubbed down with a paper towel so the black pigment won’t mix with the next layer. The first layers of color are also rubbed down to keep the surface receptive to more layers of chalk.”

Sheldon Tapley designs his works as pieces of stagecraft. There’s a flagrant exhibitionism afoot, as well as an exuberant physicality—a veneration of life’s cornucopia of foods, fabrics and fleshes. When he weaves aspects of Matisse and Cézanne into the typologies of the Baroque masters, we know we’re in the presence of an artist who veers dangerously—tilting picture planes towards us, as if the players/objects were walking off the stage into the audience.


Sheldon Tapley Explores Ways of Approaching the Still Life

In effect, Sheldon Tapley’s work is a case study in how to reinvigorate the still life tradition. His paintings range from the relatively less complex (focusing on single objects) to the nearly all-over compositions reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists. Radically angled perspectives are common. The tilting forward of the picture plane, which reached its apogee in Cézanne, is pushed farther (towards the viewer and away from realistic space) in a painting as relatively simple as Bacchanal (at top) and as complicated as Waterfall (below). The beautifully designed Bacchanal utilizes the fireplace front in his studio as a kind of framed stage set for those mundane objects so fraught with meaning and emotion when de-contextualized from their ordinary usage. In this variation on le tableau vivant, Tapley chooses a Matissean piece of fabric reminiscent of Persian art as the backdrop, a play on painters’ drop cloths from the mundane/profane world, the colors of which are picked up by each object he lovingly selects and depicts: an apple, a plate with an overlaid knife (doubling the spatial complexities), a carpenter’s claw, a translucent blue pitcher (allowing for further investigation of the play of light), and three types of flowers. An art book with two nudes on its cover complete the scene. The inclusion of tools in so many of his paintings celebrates their shapes and colors as they remind us of the artist’s hand and touch (the work of art).


Waterfall by Sheldon Tapley

When working in pastel, Tapley never uses erasers “since they roughen the surface of the paper and leave visible scars.” Instead he rubs with a paper towel or carefully scrapes the surface with a razor blade, which sufficiently diminishes the pastel on the surface to allow for revisions as in the intricate, ornate Waterfall (pastel on paper, 66×45).

In the exquisite, explosive Waterfall (above), a pastel on paper, Sheldon Tapley designs his composition another way, according to an arithmetic arrangement. Four potentially separate still lifes are combined in one painting. A pile of rocks suggests the dialectic between soft/hard, smooth/textural that provides a yin/yang of delight. A vase of flowers inhabits the center, and a basket of contorted gourds dominates the middle ground; a picture of a cascading waterfall is tacked on the wall; an Etch-A-Sketch, as if to comment on that explosion, appears beneath it on the left. On the other side of the waterfall is a hand-held light. The foreground includes tools dramatizing the craft of both art and construction: a sledge hammer and ropes that create diagonal spatial relationships and dimensionality; a ripe melon, a bowl of lemons and eggs, and a vaguely anthropomorphic lobster. Finally, a large saw, angled and arched like a scythe in the foreground, reminds us that within the luxuriousness of these erotically charged symbols of life and sensuality lurks the specter of decay, a reminder of death’s knock upon Eros’s door.

Eroticism indeed is one of Sheldon Tapley’s primary themes as is its cousin, sexuality. The instinct toward love/sex (Eros) as it’s commingled with death (Thanatos) and is interpreted as and via still life (la nature morte) may be his underlying concern; the sexual climax, we remember, is called “la petite morte.”

From all this it’s clear that Sheldon Tapley is a theatrical painter. Tapley’s is a kind of vivid hyperrealism, and the very brightness of his colors gives his fabricated objects lifelike qualities, almost in the way a stage director manipulates lighting and the colors of costumes. After years of looking—absorbing ideas and technical lessons from other masters—Tapley has moved into the fertile realms of his own vast imaginative powers.



See a step-by-step demonstration by Sheldon Tapley; read about his studio lighting. For links to these articles plus articles about other artists featured in The Artist’s Magazine, go to the Featured Artists page.


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Watercolor Artist 2015 CD | The Best of the Year’s Watercolor Painting

Just in time for the gift-giving season! Our CD archive of all six 2015 issues of Watercolor Artist is the perfect tool to keep the creative fires burning throughout the new year—and then some! The searchable index is like having your own personal assistant to track down that article with the excellent Ron Stocke plein air demo (June issue) or find out what kind of watercolor painting surface Carrie Waller uses (February issue). You can also opt for PDF downloads of the entire year instead of a disc.


watercolor artist 2015 issues | watercolor painting


Six issues on one CD not enough for you? Check out our newly-released 5-year (2011-2015) archive!

Whatever you give or receive this season, we wish you happy watercolor painting, continued inspiration, and peace.


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Jamie’s Critique Corner: At the Diner

Pastel artist Karen Howard hasn’t had an official art critique in many years. Thanks, Karen, for putting yourself out there and agreeing to have your work critiqued! Opening yourself up to comments can be a little intimidating, but it is so important take small risks if you’re going to improve your art. Like many artists, Karen has had a lifelong love of art, but has had more time in recent years to concentrate on her painting.

Art Critique of “At The Diner”

Art critique of "At the Diner" by Karen Howard |

At the Diner (pastel, 14×18) by Karen Howard (

Karen requested that we talk about composition and focal point and, after looking at a few of her paintings, I thought At The Diner was a great subject for an art critique. The strong contrasts within the painting create drama and the reflections throughout the painting engage the eye. Karen works from photographs and she has no qualms about getting the set up she wants, often taking hours or days to create the best arrangement.

The design of this painting provides movement, creating a triangular route for the eye. The ketchup bottle is obviously the dominant element (it’s red, after all), but the eye travels down to the reflections in the knife and fork, and then up the straw to the lime floating in the glass of water before returning to the ketchup bottle. Along the way, the eye encounters some lovely elements, like the subtle reflections on the table top, the cloudy water in the glass, the reflections in the chrome condiment caddy and the highlights on the ketchup and mustard bottles.

Karen handled these reflections very well, creating a realistic balance between the darks and highlights. One of the keys to creating realistic reflections is to find the shapes, values and colors within the objects you’re painting. It’s useful to stop thinking of the objects (like a glass of water) as objects and start thinking about them as shapes, values and colors. Seeing those parts within the objects and capturing them accurately will help create a convincing painting. Just be careful the shapes are accurately rendered, or your objects will appear unrealistic.

As we talked, it occurred to me that sometimes we can be good at something and not realize it, and that hearing about our strengths can give us confidence to press on and do great work. Karen was interested in how she could create better compositions, but she’s already creating strong, innovative ones. I encouraged her to keep trying different set ups, and to trust her artistic eye when creating her still lifes.

Quick Note: Karen will take photo references of still lifes found in public places and work to find the right composition. It’s always good to get permission to take photos in public, but don’t be shy in asking. Many people are more than happy to accommodate the creative process.

Jamie Markle mixed media artist

Jamie Markle

As group publisher of F+W Media’s fine art community, Jamie Markle oversees the development of fine art magazines, books, videos and websites.

Want to receive a FREE art critique?

Send a link to your website or 6-8 lo-res images to with the subject line “Jamie’s Critique Corner.” If your work is chosen, we’ll be in touch (please do not send follow-up emails). Chosen artists will receive a thank-you gift.

For a more in-depth art critique that includes an overall evaluation of your artwork’s strengths and weaknesses and clear suggestions on how to move forward with your art, visit Artists Network University, where we have more artists on hand to critique your work.

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Break Your Inhibitions and Learn How to Paint: A Proven Method

It’s all fun and games to joke about being a procrastinator, but overthinking some things, such as how to paint a subject, can be a serious roadblock. Sometimes it’s best to just jump in and see what happens when you begin sketching your composition or start putting paint onto the canvas. Craig Nelson, who recently filmed four DVDs on how to paint, explains that painting quickly is the best way to practice–and improve–your art.

“After teaching at two prestigious art schools for the last 26 years, I’ve realized that one avenue of improvement is studies done in short periods of time–quick studies,” Craig says. “Quick studies allow for no overworking or overthinking, but bring basic knowledge to a more intuitive state.”

Painting Tips: Quick Studies | Craig Nelson,

Restful (oil, 14×18) by Craig Nelson; completed in 40 minutes (Pin this!)

How to Paint – From Craig Nelson’s 60 Minutes to Better Painting:

By painting quick studies you will:

• Break inhibitions. Painting is often intimidating. The concept of taking a blank surface and creating a finished, pleasing image on it can be overwhelming. It may paralyze the painter and lead to a tentative approach without confidence.

• Deal confidently with mistakes. Whenever doing anything, you will make mistakes. In sports, music or any other endeavor, you must go through some growing pains in order to become proficient or to excel. To be afraid of making mistakes should not keep you from attempting something. That is how we all learn.

• Learn the differences between line and mass. From our earliest memories we have all drawn with pencil, crayon or pen. Generally, when we draw anything, we start with lines. This, however, is not how we see. We see mass and form; therefore, mass and form is how we must paint. Lines are a shorthand for painting.

• Learn brushwork. The way in which a painter wields his brush is much of the beauty of a painting. It may be energetic, careful, soft or crisp. Brushwork often is like handwriting–very distinctive.

• Understand how to see. You must learn how to see in stages. You must not see the detail first, but must see the larger more basic images before studying the smaller and often more interesting areas. It is important to train your eye to see in the proper order so your subject can be approached as if it were a painting.

• Get started. The evil word “procrastination” is the constant enemy of all painters. That blank canvas and the concept of a finished painting can be a burden. The study, as opposed to a finished painting, can eliminate any burden. It’s stated as a study; to learn, to improve, to try something, not a precious final piece of art! When procrastinating on what to do, how big, etc., do a study. ~Craig

When you order Craig’s Quick Solutions to Better Painting collection (only available at North Light Shop), you’ll receive:
1. Quick Studies: Landscape Painting (DVD)
2. Quick Studies: Figure Painting (DVD)
3. Painting Landscapes Day into Night (DVD)
4. Water Painting Solutions (DVD)
5. 60 Minutes to Better Painting (book)

Scroll down to read Craig’s advice for deciding what to include and what to edit when you’re practicing how to paint with your next quick study.

Wishing you all the best,
Cherie Haas, online editor
**Subscribe to the Artists Network newsletter for inspiration, instruction, and ideas, and score a free download > Still Life Painting Techniques and Inspiration

How to Paint: Deciding What Is Important

Painting tips - quick studies | Craig Nelson,

Photo reference for Venetian Laundry

by Craig Nelson 

The most important aspect of a quick study is the editing that each artist makes. This requires rapid and confident decision making. You must decide what is important to the subject as well as what is important to you. For example, the accuracy of shape and size may be important to the subject, while the mood and lighting may be important to you.

How important is something within a given setting? In a quick study, if something is not essential to capture the subject, then it can be left out. When painting in this abbreviated style, you must leave out unnecessary details. The best way to approach this is to think of your strokes as rapid indications of shapes, values and colors–not details.     

Painting tips - quick studies | Craig Nelson,

Venetian Laundry (oil, 16×12) by Craig Nelson, in 60 minutes


Simplify the Scene

The powerful design of sky and architecture is simplified from the photograph. Within the short time frame of the study, enough detail is indicated to give believability to the scene. In the study the perspective is important and relatively accurate while much of the detail is understated or deleted.

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Watercolor Webinar with Birgit O’Connor | Artists Network Online Event

In the recording of this live webinar, Birgit O’Connor shares her tips for creating gorgeous flowers. Learn how to create shape, shadow and form, let the color flow, and create dramatic backgrounds! This webinar includes a live Q&A.

About the Artist
Birgit O’Connor is a self-taught painter who has been working strictly in watercolor since 1988. She has been teaching watercolor instruction since 2001. She has written for several magazines, including Watercolor Magic, The Artist’s Magazine and Artist’s Sketchbook, and she has produced thirteen watercolor instruction videos. Her award-winning work has been exhibited in dozens of one-woman shows and group shows and can be found in private and corporate collections around the globe as well as in four galleries. She resides in northern California. Visit her website, www.

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Exhibition of the Month: Diebenkorn Sketchbooks at the Cantor

Artists know that the sketchbook often serves as the place where ideas are formed, experiments are tried, and art is created rapidly, fluidly, and free of self-consciousness. It’s a privilege to look inside the private sketchbook of any artist, much less a great one.

We’re given precisely that opportunity in “Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed,” an exhibition on view through August 22 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in California. On view are 29 Diebenkorn sketchbooks, created throughout the career of the Bay Area artist. The museum show is accompanied by a thorough digital exhibition that allows viewers anywhere to flip digitally through Diebenkorn’s sketches.

Richard Diebenkorn Sketchbooks | Artist's Network

Untitled from Sketchbook #13, page 13, by Richard Diebenkorn, ca. 1965–1966, pen-and-ink. Gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, 2014.13.15. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All artwork this article courtesy Cantor Arts Center.

According to the museum:

Throughout his long career, seminal California artist Richard Diebenkorn (Stanford BA ’49) always kept a sketchbook—a “portable studio,” as he called it—to capture his ideas. The books contain 1,045 drawings that span the artist’s career and represent the range of styles and subjects he explored—both gestural renderings of mundane, everyday items and powerful vignettes of intimate family moments. In the pages of these books, we see brief visual meditations upon vistas encountered through travels, carefully built-up studies that would become the large-scale Ocean Park paintings we know so well, and a multitude of renderings of the people who surrounded him over the years, revealing his fascination with the human figure.

After Diebenkorn’s death in 1993, his wife, Phyllis (Stanford BA ’42), kept the sketchbooks stored in a cardboard box for years, uncertain if she would be willing to share such private artistic meditations with the public. In 2014, she decided that the sketchbooks should be seen and studied, and in an extraordinary gesture of generosity and trust, she gifted the entire collection—along with bits and pieces of ephemera tucked inside several books—to the Cantor Arts Center. The exhibition at the Cantor Art Center marks the first-ever public viewing of the sketchbooks. As the care and preservation of these books necessitates that they be displayed in cases, making only a single page or spread visible at a time, the Cantor completed the digitization of all twenty-nine books, making them accessible in the exhibition on touchscreens and here on the museum’s website. With these, one may now leaf through the books digitally and see every sketch in the order conceived, gaining insight into the way Diebenkorn experimented with line, shape, form, and perspective and creatively tackled challenging subjects.

The examples shown here range from line drawings to an intensely shaded figurative sketch a geometric study in watermedia, which together give a sense of the breadth of work found in the Diebenkorn sketchbooks. Click here to view the full sketchbooks, and to stay informed about all the best drawing exhibitions–of sketchbooks and everything else–be sure to subscribe to Drawing magazine. Enjoy!

Richard Diebenkorn Sketchbooks | Artist's Network

Untitled from Sketchbook #2, page 17, by Richard Diebenkorn, 1943-1993, ink wash, watercolor or gouache with crayon and felt-tip marker on paper. Gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, 2014.2.19. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn Sketchbooks | Artist's Network

Untitled from Sketchbook #2, page 37, by Richard Diebenkorn, 1943–1993, felt-tip marker ink. Gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, 2014.2.39. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn Sketchbooks | Artist's Network

Untitled from Sketchbook #20, page 45, by Richard Diebenkorn, 1943–1993, crayon. Gift of Phyllis Diebenkorn, 2014.20.47. © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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Juicy Paint Qualities That Will Draw You In

What draws you into your favorite pieces of art? Is it the use of color? The composition, perhaps? For Julie Gilbert Pollard, it’s the texture of the paint itself, specifically, in watercolor and oil paintings.

“When I’m looking at paintings in a gallery or museum, the ones that cause me to stop in my tracks because I can’t bear to look away, are those in which you can see the painterly brush marks and fluid, yummy paint,” Julie says. “Of course, there are many other qualities in a painting that instill this reaction, but I personally find that oil and watercolor are the ones that seem best suited to the type of juicy paint quality that draws me in, even before I have a chance to take in the entirety of a painting, with its color, shapes and subject matter. The paint itself is exquisite.”

Beginner oil painting | Julie Gilbert Pollard,

Rosa Carmela (oil on archival canvas board, 11×14) by Julie Gilbert Pollard (Pin this!)

Oil Painting Inspiration

Julie is featured in four new oil painting video workshops with (get all four plus a digital download on Quick Solutions to Better Painting), and she can tell you that the key to a beautiful oil painting is education.

Beginner oil painting | Julie Gilbert Pollard,

Play of Light (oil on canvas, 12×12) by Julie Gilbert Pollard

“If you’re new to painting, or even after you’ve been painting for a while–maybe especially after you’ve been painting for a while–the amount of information you need to learn and assimilate can seem pretty overwhelming,” Julie says. “We’re usually surprised by that, because, really, it just doesn’t look that hard! But as Edgar Degas said, ‘Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.’ (Like this? Tweet it!)

“Experienced painters and beginners alike, we all have that glowing mental image of what we want our paintings to look like. All too often, however, somewhere between that mental image and the canvas, as that vision travels from our imagination, down our arm into our brush, something goes awry and we aren’t able to ‘make it happen.’ Experienced painters have learned to persevere! Study and practice your painting skills and try to take things in manageable steps. There’s a lot of valuable information and mentorship available. Take advantage of the experience of others in classes, books, videos, etc. As you continue to learn and become comfortable with the tools and techniques, you’ll be able to put it all together and the painting process will gradually become more intuitive. Just remember that your skills have to catch up with your vision. Enjoy the process, enjoy the challenge–it’s a wonderful adventure!”

Indeed, it is a wonderful adventure. My hope is that you make the most of it by arming yourself with the knowledge of artists such as Julie, who are here to guide you on your painting journey. Learn more about Julie’s Oil Painting Essentials video workshops so you can develop your own painting intuition.

Stay creative,
Cherie Haas, online editor
**Free download: Oil Painting Tips for Beginners: Learn How to Oil Paint!
**Click here to subscribe to the Artists Network newsletter for inspiration, instruction, and more!

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