Still life


Dear Artist,

A friend’s high schooler recently mentioned she was working on a still life assignment. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’ve only just started,” she replied. Without a beat, I blurted a rhapsody of how she might go about such a fun activity. She nodded warmly. Later in bed – while dreaming of still life – I wondered if my zealous instructions had been clear enough. I texted images of still life heroes to inspire her. I remembered what a valuable exercise the whole set up and activity can be, in general. Anyone – and I mean anyone – from a preschooler to a centenarian can do this and get thrilling results.

L'Atelier Paul Cézanne at Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, Aix-en-Provence, where the artist worked from 1880 until his death in 1906.

L’Atelier Paul Cézanne at Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, Aix-en-Provence, where the artist worked from 1880 until his death in 1906.

Choose a spot in your house or studio with a good source of light. Because still life is so controllable, you can even test the light by placing an object in front of, behind or perpendicular to it and see what feels interesting or is most effective. Let the day pass. Look on your object for cast shadows, hard shadows, gradations in shadow, and from warm to cool.

Next, gather up a few items from around the house or garden. Choose vessels, objects, plants and/or textiles of varying sizes. Classics include a half-filled clear glass jar or vase, a couple of stems, a pitcher, animal skulls, shells, feathers or other signifiers of nature. Riding stuff like boots and hats. Table settings, books. I once visited a class of first-graders. When it was time to draw, I asked them to throw their shoes into a pile in the middle of the room – they immediately went to work.

AtelierNow, step back and set up at a middle distance from the arrangement.

Grab a viewfinder. If you don’t have one, use a slide mount or make your own from a piece of cardboard by cutting a small rectangle in the middle of it. The goal here is simply to have a small window you can look through.

“Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing one’s sensations.” (Paul Cézanne)

“Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing one’s sensations.” (Paul Cézanne)

Hold the viewfinder up to your eyes and slowly move it away from your face while looking through it. This allows you to consider a cropped composition, that, in turn, transforms your arrangement into an abstraction of form, negative and positive space and value. You are helping yourself forget what the objects are for the time being, so you can study what they look like as form, together. “I do not know if you bridle your pen,” wrote Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “but when my pencil moves, it is necessary to let it go, or – crash! Nothing more.”



PS: “With an apple I will astonish Paris.” (Paul Cézanne)

Esoterica: “There is no abstract art,” wrote Pablo Picasso. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.” Also, if you’re thinking of skipping the viewfinder, I implore you to not. I gave every one of those first graders a slide mount. “Composition, the aim of which is expression, alters itself according to the surface to be covered,” wrote Henri Matisse. “If I take a sheet of paper of given dimensions, I will jot down a drawing which will have a necessary relation to its format.”

Still Life with Apples, 1895-98 Oil on canvas 27 x 36 1/2" (68.6 x 92.7 cm) by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Still Life with Apples, 1895-98
Oil on canvas
27 x 36 1/2″ (68.6 x 92.7 cm)
by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Have you considered a Premium Artist Listing?  With each letter, an artist is featured at the bottom of this page. The Premium Artist Listings are a means of connecting artist subscribers through their work. Proceeds from each listing contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Fruits… like having their portrait painted. They seem to sit there and ask your forgiveness for fading. Their thought is given off with their perfumes. They come with all their scents, they speak of the fields they have left, the rain which has nourished them, the daybreaks they have seen.” (Paul Cézanne)



  1. Pauline Conn on

    I love this. Years ago I was feeling bored and called my art teacher and said, “I don’t know what to paint!”. She suggested putting 3 eggs on a plate. I had a very reflective glassy blue saucer and placed 3 white eggs upon it. It turned into one my my favorite paintings ever. Such a great memory! Thanks, Sara.

  2. Higgs Merino on

    “Whoever wishes to devote himself to painting should begin by cutting out his own tongue.”

    ― Henri Matisse

  3. I’m glad that you were so excited about the project the young person was doing. It is great fun, I agree! But it is important to not overwhelm a young artist with too much information at first. It is sometimes too easy to discourage as well as encourage them about pursuing artistic endeavours. Easy does it or your zealousness can turn kids off. Let them explore on their own a bit before jumping in gung-ho.

  4. Angelika Ouellette on

    It’s a gray rainy day here. My studio is warm and dry plus I just got some lights I’d ordered from Amazon. Might be the perfect day to do a still life. Thanks for the inspiration Sara. ;)

  5. I think you’ve inspired all of us to go back to the drawing board and play again. The most important tool of all is the viewfinder. I failed miserably at plein air because I didn’t bring a viewfinder. After filling my small canvasses with 20 square miles of paint that said nothing but MUD, I learned to take a photo with my camera to eliminate all those things I didn’t need added to make a landscape painting. Yes, stood there amongst the clouds and natural vegetation looking at a photo on my camera to paint from. Made more sense to go home and paint where I could think more clearly.

  6. John Francis on

    “Stop answering questions I haven’t asked you” is probably the best unsolicited counsel I’ve ever been given. It came from someone I’ve now known for several decades. A younger woman I really liked when we were first introduced by a mutual friend. At the time, she was a ‘Bibliofile’ with an enormous library. Roughly five thousand books, all organized on her shelves in a manner that would make any librarian proud. The next time we met, she said “I don’t want a boyfriend.” In retrospect, that simple declaration remains one of the kindest things she has ever done for me.
    When your friend’s high schooler replied “I’ve just started”, you might perhaps have pointed out that they hadn’t actually answered the question that you had asked. Perhaps, you might also have asked them if, once their ‘assignment’ is done, they would like to show it to you.
    Still life luminaries such as Cezanne and Toulouse Lautrec are not really “heroes”. Admirable as their works are, nothing they did was “beyond the call of duty”. Casualties on a battlefield are not necessarily ‘heroes’, and yet it is usually claimed that they are. Picasso once famously said something along the lines of: Before you paint the peach, first you must eat it.

  7. Larissa Lewis on

    You need to come back to do a residency at Page Street. Thank you for your exuberance. Nothing more inspiring than someone else’s passion x x

  8. Sally Jackson on

    Some friends and I in withdrawal from COVID began a series “COVID in the kitchen”. Not still life painters and no great works produced but fun, focus and kept the brushes wet.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

Permission to Paint Expressively Series (Session 2)
August 22, 2022 to August 25, 2022

image002 (1)Permission to Paint Expressively Series   Session 2 

August 22-25, 2022 

Join Ellie Harold for “Expressive Painting: Making Your  Marks.”  With a focus on intuitive mark-making, this workshop is designed to facilitate a fuller expression of your deepest and most essential artist Self. Content, process and lightly structured exercises give you permission to create the art that wants to be made by you in the safe space of Ellie’s studio and the fresh air and cool light of northern Michigan near Sleeping Bear Dunes. You’ll return home with a specific art “care plan” to assure support for “Making Your  Marks” in the world. Details and registration at

 the Wall
oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches, 2017

Featured Artist

My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.