top of page

A still life is still life

Once upon a time, a little girl stuck her fingers into a pot of paint and proceeded to apply digit to construction paper and thus, art was declared. If only it were that simple. Everyone knows that art is subjective and deeply personal if not objective. To reinforce this point, look no further than the aforementioned finger painting. It’s not art in anyone’s eyes but the parents’, the child’s and the teacher’s. Except that it is. I find it interesting that the first things we learn to do when we’re very small, other than crawl, walk and eventually use the toilet properly, is to color. Give a child a magic marker, or better yet, let them discover one on their own and watch the art that happens on the floors and walls. Jackson Pollack, wherever he is, would be proud.

From the magic marker we graduate to crayons and paper, sometimes in the guise of coloring books. We scribble without structure. It is only later that we learn that the proper way to color is to stay within the lines, to always make the tree leaves green, and the sky blue, the sun bright yellow. My mother tells the story of when I was very little and coloring in a coloring book at my grandmother’s house. I was doing what small children do which is something I’ve come to call free-form coloring. I was probably three at the time. My grandmother remarked, with great disappointment, that it was obvious my mother didn’t want me to learn to stay within the lines. My grandmother was a schoolteacher and all about structure. My mother was an artist and saw things outside of structure. What a perfect description of art.

Following in my mother’s footsteps I applied to and was accepted into the Paul Creative Arts Center at the University of New Hampshire. By then I had learned more structure, how to color in the lines. I learned at Paul Arts, as we called it, that I wasn’t any good at art, certainly not at creating it. I did excel in appreciating it, though. We did form drawing, and still lifes. I always thought that lifes sounded wrong, that it should be still lives. Which defeats the point but explains why I wasn’t cut out for art, but rather for English and writing. While trying to “learn” art, I dutifully sketched my horrible still lifes, my professors frowning all the while. Art moving beyond subjective to being subjected to understandable scorn. Art being taught.

I had great disdain for still lifes, thought them boring and too structured, unmoving. The French call them “nature morte,” or dead nature. Historically they tell quite a tale, though, starting with the Ancient Egyptians who painted stacked feasts for their gods on the walls of their tombs. The Greeks and the Romans added more technique, using shading and perspective. An unearthed painting from the ruins of Pompeii, circa 70 AD, shows a vase of grapes and other fruits, and a jug of wine arranged as if on a step, complete with shadows.

Still life painting and drawing has often been derided as tired, a style that people who really can’t create art can excel at because if requires little imagination. I disagree and as proof I offer the paintings of Hans Holbein, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Peiter Claesz, Adriaen van Utrecht, and Harmen Steenwijck from the 17th century, and Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne from the 19th.

A still life drawing or painting done well can evoke all manner of emotions because to be still is one of the requirements of being an artist. You have to experience stillness in order to see and hear the world around you, and then recreate it based on your observations. That’s what Pablo Picasso did in the early 20th century when he steered still life painting into modern abstraction and cubism. Just look at his Still Life with Basket of Fruit and you’ll never look at a basket of fruit the same way again.

Still is contemplative, unmoving. It exists in between movements. But it is still life.

In his 1934 book, Art as Experience, John Dewey wrote this:

“The juice expressed by the wine press is what it is because of a prior act, and it is something new and distinctive. It does not merely represent other things. Yet is has something in common with other objects and it is made to appeal to other persons that the one who produced it. A poem and picture present material passed through the alembic of personal experience. They have no precedents in existence or in universal being. But, nonetheless, their material came from the public world and so has qualities in common with the material of other experiences, why the product awakens in other persons new perceptions of the meanings of the common world. The oppositions of individual and universal, of subjective and objective, of freedom and order, in which philosophers have reveled, have no place in the work of art. Expression as personal act and as objective result are organically connected with each other” (p82).

Art is life captured so that it stands still for a brief moment. It is without structure even though it is contained. The best art continues to change even while you’re observing it. And the best artists dip their fingers into a pot of paint, or pick up a pencil, or pen, a piece of chalk or charcoal, a marker and begin filling the blank space.


Lorin Shields-Michel is a writer, author and editor. She blogs daily at, weekly at and bi-weekly at The Artist’s Loft. For more about Lorin, visit

bottom of page