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Still Life

Kentucky Educational Television
Lesson Plan
Still Life

Context: This lesson plan is for teachers interested in working with students in-depth on painting still life. It is based on KET’s Looking at Painting, Programs 1: “Realism” and 2: “Expressionism.” Students may find viewing both programs in their entirety both inspiring and instructional, but this lesson focuses in on two landscape painters: Sheldon Tapley (from Program 1) and Ann Tower (from Program 2).

Activity: Still Life: Arranging, Sketching, Painting

Video: Looking at Painting, Program 1: “Realism” and Program 2: “Expressionism”

Grade Level: high school

Length of Lesson: 12 class periods

Web Site Resources:
Sheldon Tapley: biography; five paintings beginning at gallery page 27
Ann Tower: biography; five paintings beginning at gallery page 58
Paul Cézanne: Two Apples on a Table


From Program 1:
Excerpts from “Origins”
  06:41-07:20  Sheldon Tapley about education
In-cue: “My mother is a watercolorist ...”
Out-cue: “... I was hooked.”
  08:46-10:19  Sheldon Tapley about influences, development
In-cue: “I worked in both abstract and realist ...”
Out-cue: “... I was trying to imitate.”
10:29-13:10  Sheldon Tapley about process
In-cue: “This is a little Masonite panel ...”
Out-cue: “... I don’t have to grip a very thin item.”
30:57-35:08  Sheldon Tapley about ideas
In-cue: “I’m making a deliberate attempt ...”
Out-cue: “... that’s why I paint it.”
40:01-43:34  Sheldon Tapley about Paul Cézanne
In-cue: “This is a Cézanne painting ...”
Out-cue: “... his reconsideration of every stroke.”
44:33-45:45  Sheldon Tapley about the future of painting (optional)
In-cue: “It’s a difficult question to ask why ...”
Out-cue: “... people still keep making painting.”
From Program 2:
Excerpts from “Origins”
  11:22-12:14  Ann Tower about childhood (optional)
In-cue: “You know, as a kid ...”
Out-cue: “... encouragement from my family, from my friends.”
  14:06-14:58  Ann Tower about training, travel (optional)
In-cue: “I was at art school at the university ...”
Out-cue: “... to keep me interested in it.”
  18:47-19:43  Ann Tower about early influences, Matisse, and painting still life
In-cue: “I love all the American modernist painters ...”
Out-cue: “... how loosely things are described by great artists.”
Excerpts from “Ideas/Process”
  25:13-26:21  Ann Tower about her approach
In-cue: “I am interested in the abstract side ...”
Out-cue: “... rooted in the realistic world, the observed world.”
  31:23-32:48  Ann Tower about painting flowers, her paintbrushes
In-cue: “I subscribe to the method of trying to work from large to small ...”
Out-cue: “... big brush collection over the years.”
  40:27-41:20  Ann Tower about meaning in her work
In-cue: “It’s almost inexplicable ...”
Out-cue: “... affects very much how a thing is painted.”
47:46-48:53  Ann Tower about Alice Neel
In-cue: “This is a portrait by Alice Neel ...”
Out-cue: “... exactly like her.”

Students will:

  1. collect and assemble objects for a still life.
  2. analyze the composition of the still life set-up using the art elements and design principles as a guide.
  3. study and analyze still life paintings by other artists as well as their own.
  4. further their painting and color-mixing skills.

Questions To Guide Your Instruction
Ask these questions of your students at the beginning of the first class period:

  1. What is a still life?
  2. Why would artists want to paint a still life? [Answers might include the following: It is convenient; an artist can stay in the studio and have complete control over the selecting, arranging, and lighting of the objects; the arrangement can remain in exactly the same position for long periods of time; it is easy to rearrange and modify the subject; it allows a painter to try out different color schemes and techniques using the same subject.]
  3. What kinds of objects might be included in a still life?
  4. How can an artist organize a still life to prevent it from being chaotic? [Answers might include the following: Select objects with a theme in mind; choose one or two colors which appear on most of the objects; limit the area selected for the final painting; use a variety of the same objects.]

Kentucky Core Content for Assessment:
AH-H-4.1.41, AH-H-4.1.31, AH-H-4.1.32, AH-H-4.1.33, AH-H-4.2.36

Critical Vocabulary:
balance, color, contrast, emphasis, form, line, movement, pattern, shape, space, still life, texture, unity, value, variety

Instructional Strategies and Activities
Initiate the lesson by viewing and discussing the segments on Sheldon Tapley and Ann Tower. Compare and contrast their approaches to painting still lifes, using the Questions To Guide Your Instruction as a guide. Display prints or actual still life paintings that depict a variety of objects and painting styles and techniques. Visit the web site Gallery to view and discuss artworks featuring still life as subject matter. Supplement with slides or transparencies of professional and student artworks. Include works by the following artists:

  • Sheldon Tapley
  • Ann Tower
  • Paul Cézanne
  • Henri Matisse
  • Georges Braque
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Juan Gris
  • Janet Fish
  • James Rosenquist
  • Audrey Flack
  • Georgia O’Keeffe
  • Paul Gauguin

Gather a selection of many different still life items to lend to students. Ask students to bring in empty shoeboxes and objects they will include in their own personal still life arrangements. Instruct them to bring in some three-dimensional objects, rather than all two-dimensional ones. Suggest that they choose items that are “treasures” to them and that reveal something about personality—e.g., items from a certain time period, items that have a common color that would help unite them in a painting, etc.

Have students go through their boxes of items, plus items the teacher has in the room, and do the following:

  1. Select a variety of forms—some curved, some boxy.
  2. Pick items of different sizes.
  3. Choose objects that show variations in surfaces—patterned, plain, smooth, textured, shiny, dull.
  4. Choose objects that have easy-to-see (thus easier to paint) value changes and color contrasts.

Have students create their own still life arrangements in their shoeboxes. They should set objects at different levels to create interest in all parts of the arrangement and drape a cloth or scarf around or under the objects as a way to create visual movement and help unify the objects. Once they are satisfied with the arrangements, have them tape the objects in place. If they have objects spilling out of the box, have them mark the locations so they can duplicate the set-up the following day. Then mark each still life box with the student’s name. Carefully stack and put away all the boxes at the end of each class period.

Have students use a viewfinder (see Landscape lesson for instructions on how to make one) to find the part of the composition that looks best. Use the viewfinder both vertically and horizontally. Ask them to do at least four small “thumbnail” sketches of various selected areas. Remind them that their paintings will look more stable if most of the forms and shapes are vertical and horizontal and that they should balance any strong diagonal lines with objects going in the other direction.

Have students select the composition that will become a painting and enlarge it using the grid method (see Landscape lesson for instructions). After they decide what they will emphasize through the use of the art elements and principles of design, have them develop the painting, using color either realistically or expressively. Before they finish their paintings, do a critique where the students display their work and analyze the compositions. Limit the time for this. A good reference to help guide them in this activity can be found in Chapter 3 of Brommer’s Exploring Painting.

shoeboxes or other small, easy-to-store boxes
still life objects
small pieces of drawing paper
paint—tempera or acrylic
heavy drawing paper or canvas
mixing palette
water containers
rags or paper towels
drawing board with clips or tape (optional)

Books, videos, and web site used in this lesson:

  • Brommer, Gerald F. and Nancy K. Kinne. Exploring Painting. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications Inc., 1995.
  • Clark, Gilbert and Enid Zimmerman. ART/design: Communicating Visually. Blauvelt, NY: Art Education Inc., 1978.
  • Gatto, Joseph A., Albert W. Porter, and Jack Selleck. Exploring Visual Design. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications Inc., 2000.
  • Ragans, Rosalind. Arttalk, Teacher’s Wraparound Edition. New York: Glencoe Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, 1995.
  • Looking at Painting, Program 1: “Realism”
  • Looking at Painting, Program 2: “Expressionism”
  • Looking at Painting web site Gallery
  • Arttalk, Fine Art Transparencies and Instructor’s Guide. New York: Glencoe Macmillan/McGraw Hill, 1995.

Having students bring in their own objects helps them feel an ownership of the completed work: It is a painting of their objects. The teacher-collected objects are just a backup.

For an alternative assignment, have students draw and then paint individual still life objects on separate sheets of paper. Have them cut them out and arrange them on a background of wallpaper or heavy wrapping paper. Have them check for value contrast and color harmony. Once they have a pleasing arrangement, have them glue down the shapes. They may add additional textures or lines to create visual movement and unity among the different items (Brommer, Exploring Painting, p. 151).

Assessment and Scoring Guide
Distinguished: Student collects and arranges still life objects and uses most of the art elements and design principles when arranging the set-up. Uses good craftsmanship in taping objects in place and in developing the painting. Successfully draws at least four thumbnail sketches of the still life arrangements and includes value changes. Successfully completes all parts of the lesson on time.
Proficient: Student brings in most of the objects for an individual still life and uses some of the elements and principles when arranging still life objects. Practices good craftsmanship most of the time. Draws four sketches of selected areas of the still life. Completes the lesson on time.
Apprentice: Student brings in a few of the still life objects and uses a few of the elements and principles in the arrangement. Sometimes craftsmanship is practiced. Draws fewer than four sketches of the still life. Completes much of the assignment on time.
Novice: Student brings in no still life objects and uses only teacher-provided ones. Does not take elements and principles into consideration when arranging the still life. Shows no awareness of good craftsmanship. Makes only a slight or minimal attempt to do the four preliminary sketches. Completes very little of the assignment.

This lesson was prepared by Zuela Hay.

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