Using pattern in food photography – what we can learn from art: helpful advice from Penny German

I’m a regular subscriber of The Artist and last year the magazine published an article by Penny German entitled Pattern In Still Life.


About Penny German

Whether the medium is oil paint (Penny German’s choice), or food photography, the advice she gives is just as relevant and helpful. This is particularly easy to see, and apply to food photography, because a good half of what she paints is food or drink.

Penny discovered the Daily Painting phenomenon (set up by Duane Keiser) and now she produces a small study of an everyday object on gesso-prepared hardboard…well…. everyday. Attractive objects close to hand are often fruit or vegetables. Perhaps it’s not surprising that she started to investigate the use of pattern, but she says that much of her inspiration comes from her travels (she currently splits her time between Northamptonshire, and Pakistan where her husband is posted) as well as a particular love of textiles. To see more of Penny’s work, go to her site.


A collection of props

Penny has amassed, like most food bloggers also do (vis Michael Zee’s collection of 2,000 plates and tiles), a collection of ethnic or vintage textiles, tableware and wallcoverings, together with bits of chipped painted wood, marble slabs and blue-and-white china. Her first consideration is what the pattern which has caught her eye might contribute to a painting.


Different uses of pattern in images

1. It might be allegorical – a subconscious symbolism

So, for example, can the background be made to convey a meaning, or a sense of time or place? A painting of aubergines, a beloved middle-eastern vegetable, features Ottoman Iznik tiles. A painting of figs is placed on a sari, oranges are painted against a paisley (an Indian – see mangos – inspired pattern).


‘Mackerel’ has a coral pattern behind which evokes the sea as well as echoing the pattern on the fish in front. A Cornishware jug, together with egg shells, evokes a whole childhood.


Seeing this gave me the idea to buy a book of Turkish papers for the background to an image of köfte, and equally an old map of India seemed appropriate behind a bowl of emerald Indian sauce.



You can’t really distinguish the individual peas in Formula One Pea Tart (below), but you can certainly see them in the tea towel on which they’re placed – when you look at that image you think peas, even though you can’t see any clearly-defined real ones!


pattern in food photography
Formula One pea tart – peas on peas


2. Or it could be to enhance the beauty of the subject of the painting


a) Use complementary colours

A background might be used to very good effect to enhance the colour of the subject – light orange-coloured pomegranates are positioned on a complementary-coloured table cloth of deep indigo and white.

Complementary colours - indigo tablecloth against orange pomegranates
Complementary colours – indigo tablecloth against orange pomegranates


b) use reflections or shadows

Alternatively the background can highlight the way the light hits the subject –  silky fabrics (such as the sari with the figs above), tin foil containers, or shiny saucepans can do fabulous things to dramatise light.  Shadows can add great drama, and also echo the shape of the subject.





c) The background can help to unify the painting

This can be done subtly via echoes – the scars on the aubergines in the painting above recall the chips on the tiles below them. If you look at ‘figs on a sari’ you will see that the pattern of the sari echoes the shape of the figs.

Or it can be achieved wholeheartedly, as for example in the pink and grey peeling wall behind the pink and grey garlic.

pattern for food photographers
Pink and grey wall echoes pink and grey garlic

I tried this out when I photographed the mangosteen on a pink and blue patterned fabric which echoed the fabulous purple hues of the fruit’s shell. Or when I used a largely monochrome pattern, with touches of the same colour of the crackers for the featured image of Middle-eastern crackers.



That doesn’t mean that you can’t sometimes get away with a very busy background, especially if the subject is plain, with strong tonal values – as in ‘Cornishware, eggshells and wallpaper’ above. Matisse was a past master at this – see ‘The Desert, Harmony In Red’.

pattern for food photographers
Matisse could get away with anything though…


It doesn’t have to be the subject itself that is the strong shape. There’s a very active (shape-wise) pattern in the background of ‘steak and blue cheese pie’, but it’s largely monochrome. It’s the powerful plain orange oven glove surrounding the pie which gives it its focus.


recipes and menus for November
I like to think I got away with this one but it’s a bit on the edge!


d) Use changes in tone or pattern to define

Contrasts in tone and patter can be used to highlight and emphasis the subject. In ‘Mackerel’, the fish are dark, and the background is kept very light. And working the other way around – ie with a dark background and light subject – can be even more effective.


e) The pattern can be in something else other than the background

Sometimes the background is better kept relatively plain, but the painting still needs a bit of life – then the pattern can be on a plate, a jug, or a cup (as in ‘satsumas and tiny pot’ below).


pattern for food photographers
Here the pattern is in the pot, not on the background.


As a food photographer I find this a particularly useful approach when considering anything ‘difficult’ …mostly dark brown! A busy blue and white plate, or a red gingham ribbon can be image-saving props!



Penny German uses blue and white patterns again and again in her paintings, and as a food blogger I also find the very dark blue and the off-white works as a fairly neutral background which can fit well with many subjects.


Penny German’s paintings for sale

Penny German’s paintings (both her daily oil sketches, and more developed works) are for sale on her blog  – where there are also details about the workshops she runs.


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