1) Choosing the objects:
Choose objects with interesting shapes, but not so complex that the kids will be frightening to draw. You may want to choose a theme for the still life when you are picking objects. (More on this in a bit.) Think about the colors of the objects. Will they work together? What media are you using?
Choose objects with a wide variety of shapes and sizes, organic and geometric, some with a vertical orientation, and some horizontal, natural and man-made.
2) Setting it up:
You may want to select items based on a theme. For example, the objects in the photo below were all used, along with other objects (such as the dive helmet), in a still life that was widely based on the theme of the ocean and the beach. The dive fins, mask, and snorkel all came from the dollar store.
Pick a good place to put the still life, where it can be left set up for a while. This can be on a counter-top if necessary, as above; but even better, put it in a central place, where it will be easily seen by everyone. A great option is to put the still life on a rolling cart, so it can easily be moved out of the way when not in use. I 'rescued' a little cart from an old (and obsolete) overhead projector. It had a fold down shelf, and I put the shelf up to create more surface area to use. I also had a larger cart in my classroom that was big enough for a large complex still life.
If your still life is going to be in a central location and you want it to be 'in the round', cut the edges of one side of a large cardboard box, and place in in the middle of the cart or table.
In the 'Matisse' still life above, I used an ice cream chair that I dragged in from home, to create a level on the still life. I was able to place objects on the seat of the chair, and under the chair, plus use it for draping the many patterned fabrics that were integral in this Matisse still life. The nice thing about a large multi-layered in-the-round still life like this one below is that every child who draws it will find a completely different composition, so you won't end up with a bunch of matching drawings or paintings. (Boring!!!) To see artwork created based on this still life, check out this post. And to see more photos of the still life close-up, go to this post.
The steps in front of a renovation supply store, below, served as nice levels for the 'still life' that I spotted as I was entering the store. See? This wouldn't have been as interesting to me to photograph if the objects had been placed on the same level.
3) Adding the objects:
Once you've gotten your backgrounds anchored, start adding your objects. Pay attention to the angles and lines you create. In the photos below, I noticed the fabric pretty much all fell in vertical lines on this side of the still life, so I started by adding the large, slightly diagonal horizontal, to break up the space. Then I began filling in with the other objects I had gathered. Where possible, put loops of tape on the bottoms of the objects to keep them in place. Add draped fibers or jewelry to create some directional lines. And if you are using a rolling cart, I suggest marking the floor with tape so that each time you bring out the cart, it goes into the same location.
Do I expect every student to draw every object? No way! This would throw them into a panic, and make art that is too busy. I give them each a viewfinder, cut to correspond to the proportions of the paper we will be using. So for example, for 9"x12" paper their viewfinder could be cut to 3"x4". These I cut out of scraps of tagboard. I usually let them choose whether to use it horizontally or vertically. Using the viewfinder, they 'squint like a pirate' and hold it away from their face. What they find in the viewfinder should fill the space of their paper. I usually set a minimum, such as " you need to have at least 3 objects in your composition". As the viewfinder is moved closer and farther away from the face, you'll create totally different compositions, as seen in the versions below:
Or perhaps a close-up. Make sure, if you are using objects with eyes, you consider which way they are looking. You don't want the objects to all be looking off the paper, though you have to remember they might be viewed from a variety of angles, so you might need to vary.
Note the directional lines on the fabric. I contrasted it with horizontal object placement.
And still another side:
The nice thing about all this, of course, is that no two kids will end up with the same artwork. Yay!
- Do I expect the kids to copy the pattern on the fabrics? Absolutely not. I explain the fabric is there to set a color mood for the still life. They can eliminate or simplify fabric patterns in their drawings, and even change the color if it suits the artwork.
- What about glassware and metallic objects? Both can be scary for students. Keep it simple! For a fun idea, put patterned scarves under and behind glassware, and then put water inside the glassware. Zoom WAY in to find and some lovely abstraction!
- Or what about trying a white-on white still life? Look for white objects like eggs, a roll of toilet paper, and so on. Put them all on a white draped background, and illuminate for shadows. Have students explore the values with charcoal, or white conte or chalk on black paper.
- Try a still life using just geometric shapes on solid draped fabric. How about using Legos or other geometric building toys? Or use all white geometric shapes and let the kids turn them into buildings in a landscape.
- Which brings me to setting up a still life to represent a fake landscape. Use layers of fabric to represent mountains, water, etc. Use toy trees, boats, cars. Hang some cotton stuffing on the sky for clouds. This is fun when you live somewhere (like me) where the weather keeps you indoors for much of the school year. Maybe you even want to throw in a toy Godzilla or alien!
- When selecting objects, pick things that the kids will have fun drawing. Toys are terrific. If it looks boring to you, you can bet it will be boring for them.
- Can't set up a still life as I've described? Set up mini-still lifes using cutaway shoe boxes; one per table. In them, drape some fabric, and add Matchbox cars, or Happy Meal toys, or the little plastic animals you buy in bags in the dollar store.
- Use artists for reference, depending on what you are doing. Using glassware? Look up Janet Fish. For some gorgeous still paintings, look up the work of Rachel Ruysch, and consider adding some little bugs or lizards in your still life, as did she. Or of course Cezanne, or Matisse, or van Gogh, or anyone else as suits your need.