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Still Life Drawings: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Still Life Drawing
  • 1:10 Types
  • 2:30 Evolution
  • 3:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

If you've ever taken an introductory art class, odds are you've drawn a still life before! This lesson explains what still life drawings are and explores various examples of the genre.

Still Life Drawing

If you've ever taken a studio art class in school, you may have learned how to draw a still life. Still life drawings are drawings of non-living objects, arranged in a specific way, to create meaning or a visual effect. Common still life objects include things like flowers, fruits, vegetables, and other foods and beverages.

Dead animals (like wild game and fish) can also be included in a still life drawing...objects that were once alive can be included in a still life as long as they are dead in the picture!

Still life artwork began to grow in popularity during the 1600s. Unfortunately, all types of still life art, especially drawings, were considered one of the lowest forms of art. Artists believed that still life subjects were less important than other types of drawings and paintings because they did not include images of people.

Still life drawings can be created using a number of different mediums including charcoals, colored or graphite pencils, and pastels. Artists often mix mediums to create different effects.

Types

Still Life with Armor, black chalk on vellum c. 1630s
Willem van Aelst Still Life with Armor black chalk on vellum c. 1630s

In spite of its poor reputation, European artists began exploring still life drawing as a way to communicate messages to their viewers. During the 1600s and 1700s, still life drawings expressed celebration or mortality. Celebratory still life drawings included objects like food, wine and anything else that showed how awesome life really was.

By comparison, memento mori works were symbolic still life drawings that emphasized the short and tragic aspects of human life. They included morbid objects like skulls, hour glasses, and clocks...all signs that death is coming and quickly!

'Still Life with Armor,' by Willem van Aelst, captures two elements that symbolize mortality, a skull and a suit of armor.

Similar to memento mori still lifes, vanitas drawings also grew in popularity. Vanitas combined elements of memento mori drawings (like skulls) with other objects to illustrate human selfishness. Like Willem van Aelst's still life, Pieter Steenwijck created a similar effect for the viewer in his Vanitas Still Life with Gorget and Cuirass. In addition to armor and a skull, he also included a wilted flower (definitely a symbol of impending death!).

Plate with Cutlery and Kettle, 1885
Van Gogh Plate with Cutlery and a Kettle 1885 black chalk on laid paper

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