... with Sharpened Perception

Article excerpt

"Learn to see," advised 19th-century physician William Osler who, without the aid of advanced medical technology such as MRI, could diagnose a disease simply by seeing subtle signs.

Unlike humans and animals, the objects in a still life don't move, making it easier to observe, draw and paint them. So, let's give our students the advantage of being able to take a careful look at subject matter for their artworks. Providing your students experiences in seeing is an important skill and the foundation of discovery in many endeavors.

A little historical background concerning still life, as well as an explanation of the term, is helpful. A few still-life reproductions by artists such as Matisse, van Huysum, Cezanne, Harnett, Braque and Picasso will provide a variety of examples, since still life has been a popular subject for artists for many years.

The term "still life" appeared in about 1650 in Holland, where artists used vivid accuracy and presented symbolic values in their works, reminding the viewer to remember death and the passage of time, but to also celebrate life. Dutch citizens at this time delighted in hanging beautiful still-life paintings in their homes, paintings that reflected their own possessions.

Later, in the 19th century, a group of artists used still life to "trick the eye" (trompe l'oeil) and make the viewer believe the objects in the composition were actually there--and not on the two-dimensional surface of the painting. In the 19th century, Paul Cezanne used still life in his search for ways to show solid forms. Then, the Cubists took still life apart and reconstructed it in the form of geometric shapes. When 20th-century artists used common, popular objects for their subject matter, Pop art was born.

So when you are ready to introduce still life to your class, you will need to gather a variety of "props." A resource box of items already collected will make it quick and easy to arrange several still-life setups, since every student needs to be sitting close to a frontal view of an arrangement.


* Fruit and vegetables (real or artificial, whole or cut)

* Flowers, plants, leaves, cacti

* Containers: bowls, bottles, baskets, teapots, pitchers, bottles

* Tools: implements, utensils, hammers, pliers, wrenches

* Other items: toys, dolls, hats, shoes, musical instruments, large feathers, plastic butterflies, bones, shells, driftwood, mounted birds and animals.

A backdrop is important. It may be plain or patterned, and may extend from the wall behind the arrangement and cover the tabletop. A drawing board provides a good support for draping the backdrop.

It is advisable to select fairly simple objects for a still-life setup, choosing one object for the arrangement that is quite tall and two or three other smaller objects grouped near it. …