Still-life Painting Course

Course Summary

Saturday 13th April, 2024
Monday 15th April, 2024
Full. (two on waiting list)

Still-life Painting Course

Still-life Painting Course

Still life at Art Courses Wales

Bowl of Fruit by Jo Munro-Hunt at Art Courses Wales

Still-life is not as simple as flinging a drape over a table ,scattering some apples and placing a bottle on the right hand side with a glass.   However it could be, but it does not mean this would lead to an interesting or inspiring painting .

Setting up a still life requires some skill and an understanding of its traditions by observing how artists of the past and present have approached the subject.

The following introduction sets out to explain the history and development of still-life.

By the end of March I will write to those who have enrolled with a check list of materials and what to bring. In addition to this a task to find  still-life works  you particularly admire. There is no shortage of finding these on the internet or Pinterest and to print one or two out.This is as good a place to start as any. We won’t be copying them but your choice will give us an  idea  of your preferences and where to begin.

Introduction and short history of still-life.     

Today in our post modernist world still-life, generally speaking, is an obsolete term. However Still-life painting has had a long tradition. It could be said to have begun on cave walls in prehistoric times, some 40,000 years ago, with representations of humans and beasts.  Then the Egyptians decorated the inside of their tombs with food to sustain the dead. It is not surprising the term Still- life or Nature Morte was used as a modern day term to describe the activity of bringing objects and natural samples from the outside world into a sheltered environment to give them a new life. The works would then translate into symbols of life and death, food and sustenance, flora, forna, and  beauty. Inside and outside. All of which are mainly transient

The Dutch in the 17th Century became the great masters of still life and if you have the chance visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford you will see a fantastic collection. Much Dutch still life painting was about immortalising the transient. Paintings of lobsters, fruit, perishables and rare flowers, grapes, cut glass and silverware all in abundance. The Dutch still life was also a symbol of enduring  opulence and wealth.  People paid hundreds of pounds for a black tulip, but the best way of preserving it was to commission it into a painting.

Below is a painting by the Dutch master Pieter de Ring. It is as opulent as you could possibly get and painted circa 1650. Paintings like these  have  influenced generations of artists to the present day. Beyond the superficialities of representation and likeness it is the underlying  structures of composition that lead the eye to focus on the abstract qualities of balance, rhythm, shape, colour, light, form and space. In addition to this we tend to ask  what does it all mean and what does it symbolise ?

( Vanitas (latin for vanity) is another apt term for still-lifes of this nature )


Modern masters such as Mattisse and Picasso constantly drew upon the old masters for inspiration. Here is a 1915  Matisse  painting which transcribed a 1640 painting by Jan Davidzss de Heem. What is plainly clear is Matisse’s  interests were in the sub structures of de Heems work. Matisse also pairs down any suggestion of realism to simplified shapes, spaces, forms and the ever present light

From realism to  abstraction 

The invention of photography in the 1820’s was  the greatest ever challenge to painting. Photography had captured the territory  of representation.  Without photography the modern painting movements would not have happened. There had to be a reaction  for  the art of painting to survive.   By 1860  impressionism  had emerged to show a different form of representation by capturing light defusing spaces and forms,  combined with a true observation of colour in that context. This was something photography could not do. Cezanne looked back to the Dutch masters and revived still life.  His influence was enormous and a new generation emerged  using  still-life to occupy a central role in the furthering of  20th century Modernism .












Above  left are two  untypical paintings by Cezanne circa 1860’s. To the right two paintings 100 years later by Richard Diebenkorn. It would seem  still-life  theme had remained  still and static . However these were two artists working at the cutting edge of their time. Whatever the distance of time these images  are forever  present and you feel you could be standing there in the artists’ shoes experiencing  their thoughts and perceptions  and what they saw before them.

The great exponents in the early and middle  years of the 20th century were the Cubists, Braque, Picasso and Gris then later  Europeans and Americans  such Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Nash, Ivon Hitchens, Mary Fedden, Prunella Cough, Giorgio Morandi, William Scott, William, Ben and Winfred Nicholson and many others. Perhaps the most radical where the cubists whose influence prevails across the whole of the visual arts industry, not only the fine arts, but  graphics, advertising , photography and film and now the digital world.

It is ironic the decade of the  1910s , under the umbrella of Cubism, was probably the 20th centuries’ finest artistic moment at a time when the world was at war not peace. Perhaps still-life has always meant what it says. There is certainly calmness in  most of its varied works over many years and eras

  Juan Gris 1915







Juan Gris 1913


Any surface object or space can make up a still-life. It comes with a vast repertoire much wider than touched on in this  short introduction. Still life was,  for instance,  very central to the Surrealist movement  and pop art..  Magritte and Warhole  made us question representation. If it was “not a pipe” then what did the image mean or stand for ? If it happened to be a can of soup, what else was it portraying?

Other artist such as Morandi ( 1890 -1964) did not take the semantic line, though his early work was part of the metaphysical movement. His later work was  purely about a directly visual approach . Morandi was well versed in the tradition of still-life painting and became a great exponent of ‘less is more”  He paired everything down to  the bare essentials with absolutely no frills. His greatest  influence has been on a minimalist approach to painting whether   abstract or representational

The standard still-life has a table and background. Morandi in effect makes both dissolve. The objects do not carve themselves out from the space they occupy, they are equal to those spaces between. Nothing is overstated. Every part of the painting is integral to the whole and  seamlessly joined by light. There is a flatness to the whole work but a very precise depth from  the picture plane. The objects are still but nowhere near  static. Everything is considered but not contrived. There is a certain calm and  application, which is not to disimmilar from what you experience when standing in front of a Mark Rothko.

Niel Bally 9/02/24

 Some examples of paintings from previous courses

Painting by Nick Weaver

 Still Life at Art Courses Wales

Painting by Faye Kinsella

Still -life is a kind of visual poetry offering endless opportunities  to experiment with forms, composition  and symbolism  and to explore a world of  surfaces, natural forms, objects and light. Some artists have painted  and worked from nothing else. The idiom  has so much to offer.  Still -life  doesn’t have to be  a complex intellectual exercise or predetermined . It can start with a purely visual response to any arrangement. Meaning and associations  come later and can be quite unconscious

The course aims to  reveal some of these approaches and possibilities with the purpose of helping you find your own way and always have something on hand to work from.

There will be a large selection of man made objects and natural forms including spring flowers. You will be asked to bring things of your choice as well.  We will aim to develop at least 3 pieces of work each. These could be a mix of drawings, paintings or collages.

 Still-life painting at Art Courses Wales

Painting  by Norma Howe


Still Life drawing at Art Courses Wales

Drawing by Joanna Munro-Hunt

The course has 8 places


Our lunches are outsourced  to an award winning chef called  Gavin Kellett, who provides us with very wholesome  and delicious vegetarian soups. If you have dietary requirements please let us know. Lunch  provides a very welcomed break  from the working studio. It is held in the spacious dining room in the main house.

Refreshments. Coffee ,teas and biscuits will still be freely available through out the day.

For further examples of work go to this gallery


Still – life  by Niel Bally.  Oil 55 x 65 ins. 1998