Our page banner is a detail from 'Basket of Fruit', (1596) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Still Life Techniques
Still Life art lessons are the best way to discover and practice the basic techniques of drawing and painting. You can take the drawing and painting skills that you learn from this lesson and apply them to any subject in art.
Each of our still life lessons will teach you about:
- The fundamental techniques of drawing and painting.
- The handling of different media. e.g. pencil, chalk pastels and oil pastels.
- A step by step approach to building up a still life drawing.
- A step by step approach to building up tone and color.
- The qualities of a good composition.
The practice of still life develops and strengthens your natural level of drawing ability. It improves your observation and rendering of shape, tone, color, pattern and texture in a range of different media. You also learn a lot about composition - the interaction of positive shapes (the objects) and negative space (the area around the objects)
What is Still Life?
Still life is the art of drawing or painting inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers and household items which are usually arranged on a table or shelf. Artists create still life paintings for various reasons: to reflect the status of their owner, be it humble or haughty; for their symbolic meaning which reveals a hidden story or idea; to capture the natural beauty of transient object like a flower or fruit; or as a controlled structure to express the abstract elements of the visual elements.
Still Life art has existed in one form or another since the time of the Ancient Romans and Greeks. Although there are examples of Ancient Roman still life, mostly in the form of interior decoration, that have been preserved when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D.79, there are no examples from Ancient Greece. There is, however, a story from around this time in the book 'Historia Naturalis' (the only surviving history of ancient art) by the Roman writer Pliny who lived from AD 23-29. It tells us about a competition that took place about 400BC between two Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis created a painting of grapes which were so convincing that the birds flew around and tried to peck at them. In art, this kind of realistic painting is called a ‘trompe l’oeil’ (a French artistic term which means ‘trick of the eye’). Envious of his fellow artist’s display of skill, Parrhasius painted a ‘trompe l’oeil’ image of a curtain which appeared to conceal a painting about the Trojan War beneath it. On seeing his friend’s work, Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to pull back the curtain to reveal the rest of the painting. At that moment, Parrhasius claimed victory. Although Zeuxis had fooled the birds, Parrhasius had succeeded in fooling a fellow artist, an altogether more difficult task. Since the earliest times, Still Life has always been a subject that artists have used to show off their technical skills in painting.
Before the 17th century still life was usually limited to the background detail of religious figurative art usually with some symbolic significance. Many fruits, for example, had meanings that now seem rather strange. The cherry symbolized heaven (it was known as the Fruit of Paradise) and the pomegranate symbolized Christ’s Resurrection. This is because in Greek mythology the pomegranate was associated with Persephone who returned to the earth every year from the Underworld, symbolizing the way in which spring brings new life after winter.
However, during the Reformation, as the Catholic Church’s patronage of the arts declined, and the patronage of dealers and collectors grew, a greater demand for still lifes emerged, particularly in Protestant countries like Holland. These early works were usually displays of rich possessions or lavish ‘banquet pieces’ which reflected the wealth of the patron. Alternatively there were the ‘Vanitas’ works: objects depicted for their obvious symbolic meaning, warning us of our mortality - the skull, the hour glass, the burning candle, the smoking pipe, the open book, etc.
However, as a subject in its own right, still life painting was considered to be a lower form of art. Some painters had achieved great skill in the realistic representation of objects, but it was not elevated to the status of a major art form until the work of Chardin emerged in the 18th century, followed by Cézanne in the 19th century and the Cubists in the 20th century.
Still life has provided a platform for artists to explore their relationship with the objects of their own world and time. Use our Art Appreciation pages to discover how some of the greatest artists over the centuries have developed their ideas through the Art of Still Life.
Still Life Slideshows
Each of our Still Life Lessons concludes with an animated slideshow that demonstrates the techniques used from start to finish.