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Shoot your own flat lay for a professional look

A great way to provide context for your artwork is to set up a professional looking flat lay shoot. What the heck is a flat lay? It simply means arranging items and then shooting them from above, usually flat or slightly angled.

This type of shoot is especially great when you work traditionally as it can give potential clients insight into your work process. I’ve been working a lot on the iPad using the Procreate App or in Photoshop, and have even been creating flat lays with my iPad instead of a piece of paper. Do you work only digitally on a monitor? Simply shoot a blank piece of paper surrounded by props. Digitally add your illustration on to that blank paper and voila, instant context!

Ready for some behind the scenes?

Here you can see my “studio” setup. That’s right, you don’t need much to create professional looking photos. Work with what you’ve got! The best window light in the house is upstairs in my boys’ room. It’s been a dreary winter here in Toronto and the overcast sky provides the perfect light. So I shoved their toys to the side, stepped through all the lego (Note to self, get them to clean their room!) and set up.

I gathered up a box of plants, geodes and even a deer skull I had laying around the house. For this one I just picked trendy looking generic props. Ikea has some amazingly realistic fake plants. All of these except for the guy in the purple pot are plastic. Fake plants are great since you don’t have to worry about them looking half dead when you need to feature them beside your artwork. Dying plants are definitely an issue in my house. I tend to love them too much and overwater them to death. I’m slowly getting better at plant care though! Funny that I can keep two kids and a cat alive but not a plant in a pot.

It’s important to choose props that will add to your artwork’s composition. Do they create context, provide insight, add colour, compliment or contrast what you’re displaying? Do they help to convey more of the message of the art?

Here are some creative prop ideas:

  • candy - provides an easy bright pop of colour
  • coins - great for providing size context. Everyone knows what size coins are.
  • toys, video game controllers
  • flowers - real or fake add elegance
  • art supplies - Shows what you used to create the piece. A messy palette can provide great colour and texture
  • food and cooking supplies - Perfect when your artwork has to do with food or eating
  • taller items - they will come closer to the camera and create some great depth of field if they blur out of focus.
  • vintage items - keys, old documents, stamps, old toys
  • rocks and crystals
  • jewellery

Once you’ve got your props gathered be sure to have a flat surface that you can shoot on. Here I’m using a piece of white foam corer and on top I’ve placed a sheet of blue bristol board from the dollar store. Pure white is very stylish and trendy right now but I decided to switch it up to blue to make the white paper stand out. I’ve also seen other artists use planks of wood, cardboard, or sheets of plywood. I also have some beautiful Japanese paper with great patterns handy. It’s great to have an arsenal of backgrounds ready so you can swap them out to compliment the painting and props. 

Here are some additional layouts from the shoot.

Do a bit of styling. Play with the props, move them around, even move the whole board around so the shadows are cast differently. Think of where you want the focus of the composition to be. Do you want it in the middle, the top third, the bottom third? Think of balancing the props. If you’ve got a bunch at the top, make sure you add some to the bottom to create weight.

Try shooting it at a slight angle. However, be careful with this one if you’re going to be Photoshopping your artwork into it, you’ll have to skew it to meet the same angle or it could end up looking strange. Best to shoot straight down if you’re showcasing digital work.

You can use any type of camera. Of course a DSLR will give you the best control, colours and depth of field. I personally shoot with my iPad Pro or, if my iPad is physically in the shoot, I just use my iPhone. Phone cameras are great these days, so don’t sweat it if you don’t have a pro camera. I don’t own one either.

What ever camera you’re using, make sure your camera is parallel to the table or surface you’re shooting. You can even try standing on a chair to get more height. If you’re doing these types of shoots all the time think of investing in a special tripod that can hang the phone or camera over your artwork without the legs getting in the way. There are a bunch of different options on Amazon.

Here are some other flat lay examples.

A simple flat lay with my iPad and Apple Pencil to show the tools I used to create the piece

A flat lay composition quickly shot at the cafe I was working at

Video game props to add to the message of the illustration

A couple more that I shot with a product from my Geeky Pet shop. I used colourful candy to accent the playfulness of these cute cheeky brief undies I designed.

It not that hard! I promise you’ll be amazed at the results once you try it. Just work with whatever you have on hand and get ready to take your artwork to the next level. Have fun!

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