Our guide to still life painting
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to still life painting

First published date October 29 2013 Amended date October 29 2013

First things first...what is still life exactly? Well, a still life is a work of art (traditionally in paint) depicting an inanimate object such as fruit, flowers, food or an everyday item. The Tate Gallery glossary put it simply as ‘anything that does not move or is dead’. The main focus of the art can be natural (think: a beautiful bouquet of crimson roses, a plate of spaghetti, a craggy rock formation or the carcase of a dead cow) or man-made (it could be a pile of pound coins, a montage of glass vases or an arrangement of glittering diamond jewellery). A still life doesn't move and allows the artist freedom to arrange the items within the composition to suit their own taste. (It would be impossible for instance to do this with a snowy landscape or a field of poppies blowing in the wind!).


Where and when did it begin?

Still life in the 21st century is not just about painting, and these days drawing, photography and video are just as important allowing the artist to break free from the two dimensional barrier by using 3D mixed media with computer graphics and sound too. However, still life painting is a truly historical art form with origins in the Middle Ages, and emerging as a distinct genre by the late 16th century. The term derives from the Dutch 'stilleven'; it was later called 'nature mortes' and was particularly popular in the Netherlands during the 17th century.

If you think it's simply about painting pretty pictures for others to admire, then think again, as traditionally, some of the objects were chosen for their symbolic meaning. For example, cut flowers or a piece of decaying fruit might represent mortality and the futility of worldly life. On the other hand, still life painting doesn't have to be loaded with deep meaning. French artist Paul Cezanne, perhaps the most famous painter of apples, was preoccupied with still life and painted the same objects over and over again to explore the never ending possibilities in colour, shape and perspective.


Traditional versus modern

If you're not sure how you'd like to approach still life, then there are courses to suit all genres, from painting in acrylic, watercolour and oils to commercial photography. Courses are generally part-time (day and evening options) and there won’t be any entry requirements to take part – just bags of enthusiasm and a thirst for learning. You don't have to be a dab hand with a paint brush either, as there are several beginners’ courses, all of which are fun, inspirational and confidence-building. Enrol on a course either for the sheer enjoyment of still life or you might wish to build a body of work for an exhibition or to apply for a degree course.

Some courses will explore still life, portrait and figure through painting and drawing, focusing on expressive use of colour. Modules look at black and white themes, colour mixing and landscape projects while others encourage discussion, sketching and class exercises drawing still lifes in pencil, charcoal and pen. If you fancy studying the work of some of the Masters like Picasso and Cezanne choose a course that looks at how famous artists tackled still life in their era.


Snap-happy still life

Still life photography courses combine fine art perspectives with commercial techniques for a thoroughly 21st century approach that will really open your mind and creative talents. Beginners and professionals alike are all welcome and you won't necessarily need your own digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera as the tutor's will be available to use. Topics include camera training, learning how to light glass and reflective objects, how to succeed in food photography and using Adobe Photoshop to enhance imagery. Before you know it you'll be snapping away to your heart's content.


A trio of famous still lifers

Pablo Picasso: Master of cubism, Spanish artist Picasso, was one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. He took traditional still life painting and extended it into a 3-D space and in his most abstract phase produced some of his most memorable work (See 'Still Life with a Bottle of Rum', 1911)


Paul Cezanne: French artist and post-impressionist painter, Cezanne, did not draw his picture before painting and instead used planes of colour and small, repetitive brush strokes to portray an intense study of his subjects. Most of his pictures are still lifes and were done in a studio using simple props such as a cloth, some apples, a vase or bowl


Vincent Van Gogh: Some of the most instantly recognisable and iconic still lifes were painted by Dutch artist, Van Gogh. His 'Sunflower' series of oil on canvas paintings are known throughout the world while 'Van Gogh's Chair' and 'Gaugin's Chair' are among the most analysed of his works


By Lara Sargent

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