Friday, January 16, 2015

How to create a rockin' still life!

 My previous post, on the topic of observational drawing, received a lot views, and many compliments for my 'Matisse goldfish still life'.  So I thought maybe I would explain how to set up a really killer still life, that your students will want to draw.  I've set up many fun and unusual still lifes over the years, and while I unfortunately don't have photos of them to show, I have lots of great hints to share.  So today I set up this still life (above) to show you how to proceed.

 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?
Where do I find these objects?  Go to yard sales, garage sales, or flea markets.  You can find silly toys and oddball knick-knacks, often for 10 or 25 cents.  Or check out the dollar store.  That's a good place to buy fake flowers and plants.  Or just look around your home! 
Above on the left, the cookie jar (or is it an ice bucket?) was a yard sale find.  The students are fascinated by it.  Mr. Coconut was picked up many years ago in the Bahamas.  The basket on the left below was a freebie, and the puppet in it was made by me.  On the right, a flea market find.
 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.  
 An object like the old violin case below (which belonged to my grandfather) is wonderful in a still life, because it can create some negative space, and set up some environmental boundaries.  You can drape fabric through it, and tuck small objects inside it. 
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 some fabric remnants or papers to use for creating negative space (background) of the still life.  With the beachy objects above, I used fabrics that were shades of blue, turquoise, peach and tan.  To create some vertical lines, I draped strings of 'pearls', and let them rest into and over seashells.  A pail turned on its side had sand-colored fabric spilling out, with some shells and toy fish on it.  There were toy boats, various toy sunglasses, a pair of flip-flops, and more. 

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.
Create a background for the still life.  If your still life is on a counter, this could be as simple as tacking a piece of construction paper or some fabric to the wall behind the still life, as above.  Remember if you are using live plants in your still life, to plan your time accordingly. 

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. 
A still life where all the objects are lined up on one level is usually boring.  Create levels with various sizes of boxes, or containers, that can be draped with fabric or paper.  After the still life is draped, objects can be put on top of the box, or in the crook of the angles where created where the box meets the surface of the table. 
Tape the fabric in place, and drape it with fabric or cover it with paper (construction paper or subtly patterned wallpaper) so it creates a 2-sided backdrop.  Think carefully about the lines you are creating with your drapes, and make sure any patterned fabric doesn't overwhelm the objects you've selected.   I suggest that you stay away from white or black fabric.  Make sure, if it will be viewed 'in the round', that all sides of the box get covered.  
 Above and below are the same boxes in the same position as shown above.  I also added both an upside down Cool Whip container and a cylindrical bottle laying on its side under  the drapes.
 Attach the fabric so it doesn't come down!  For this still life, I used paper clips and masking tape.  Staples also will work well for anchoring your fabric. 

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.
4) Drawing with the aid of a viewfinder:
 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: 
 Here's another side of the same still life setup, also pictured vertically at the top of the post.
 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. 
 And on this same small still life, there's yet another side, viewed from different perspectives.
 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!
5) A few other final tips:
  • 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.  
 That's it!!


  1. Phyl - This is a sensational post!!!!! LOTS of terrific information for any art teacher (or parent wanting to provide some home activities). Now that I am working "off of my art cart" I have found setting up live still life displays challenging as I move from room to room, BUT I do have a small AV cart that I could easily set one up on and just wheel into their room. Why did I not think of that!?? Lucky I have you to think of it for me!!!! Thank you!!!

    1. Thanks, Christie! It took me maybe 1/2 hour to set it up after I'd gThered some junk, and 10 minutes to tear it down and put everything away. Easy. And an AV cart is PERFECT! Glad to know it makes sense for someone other than me!

  2. Thanks! Wonderful ideas! My college graduate daughter left enough toys and stuffed animals that I think I can set up an artistic pile!

    1. There's a good side of sending your child off to college! You get their toys! And my case, now that my son is an employed adult in another city, I've turned his bedroom into an art studio! (With a bed in it, so he can still come home, of course).

  3. Great tips as Always Phyl! What age is best to start this type of observational still life with view finder lesson. I like your idea for painting lilacs with younger students to start them with an observation lesson. I seem to be getting younger students these days (5 and 6 year olds) and would like to incorporate more of these types of observational lessons. Any suggestions?

    1. Mary, I don't think it's ever to young to do observational work with kids! Have the 5-year olds bring their favorite teddy bear or other stuffed animal to draw by observation. They'll love it! Or draw (and then eat) a pile of jellybeans! And if the weather was nice, when I taught in a building with easy access to the outdoors, I used to bring kids as young as 2nd grade outside with drawing boards and we'd draw the big tree outside the school and more. They love being 'real' artists!

      I also did pussywillow paintings annually with the kindergarten. Before the trees start blooming in the spring, I'd slog through the woods in hunt of some. (If I couldn't find them, my grocer store has them that time of year in the floral department.) We looked at them, touched them, and examined them closely. Then they drew the branches and the seed pods, and painted the soft pussywillows with a thumb or fingerprint. Or let the kids look at a large simple flower like one giant sunflower. Examine the shapes of the flower petals and leaves, and what's going on in the big center.

      As for the viewfinders, I think it works well with my fourth graders and up. I've never tried it younger.

  4. Hey Phyl. Thanks for creating and sharing such an amazing post. I liked it so much that I picked your post for my art shout out: