Still Life Painting – Create Your Own Small Universe

Rubies & Porcelain 16x20 72dpiMany artists still negatively associate the ‘still life’ with memories of mundanely drawing and painting Styrofoam cones and balls in art class!

At second glance, it may seem as though the still life painting goes in and out of vogue much like a pair of bell-bottom jeans.

However, the reality is that a still life painting is much more like the timeless cashmere sweater – warm, nostalgic and familiar.

The joy of painting a still life is that I am able to create my own small Universe. Out in the field, Mother Nature is in charge, but in my studio, I am the boss! At least someone in the house will listen to me, even if it is only a vase…

But seriously, whether I am in the studio or plein air painting outside, it is my job to feel and portray the solid weight of the mountain or vessel, the wisp of a cloud or the bend of an orchid. My arrangements are a juxtaposition of man-made and nature-made objects and most always include birds or butterflies.


On Edge – Magpie: The concept for this painting began with the relationships between black & white, hard & soft as well as stillness & energy. That was my original concept.

But little did I know, I painted this only months before the sudden end of my marriage. This painting illustrates how the my brush reflected my subconscious mind. The title, On Edge, eerily foreshadowed what lay ahead. The magpie is poised to fly off the painting and into the unknown…

Although my work is unique, it is not a new concept. The Dutch Masters mixed birds and bugs into their still life paintings. So why can’t I?

Jan Davidsz Heem

Most generally, the average still life painting features an arrangement of inanimate, everyday objects. In fact, the Tate Museum glossary drearily defines the still life as “anything that does not move or is dead”. I break this ‘rule’ of course, by adding ‘life’ to my still life paintings!

  • Natural objects: like flowers, food, fruits & vegetables, nests, etc.
  • Man-made objects: common subjects, such as books, vessels, tables, etc.

Importance and relevance of the Still Life:

  • Historically speaking, the still life painting documented everyday life before the invention of the camera. But after a broader analysis, many of the 17th century still life paintings have a deeper meaning between painting and language, allegory and naturalism. For instance, a cut flower or decaying fruit symbolized mortality.
  • “Vanitas” painting style was a symbolic message. It was meant to be a warning about temporal vanities of life.
    • Example:
      • Flowers (beauty),
      • Books (knowledge)
      • Hourglass (time)


  • During Victorian times, it was quite common to paint a still life with symbolic meaning. The clever Victorian painter subtle used the language of flowers to paint particular sentiments, superstitions and meanings that were associated to specific flowers in their still life arrangement. These myths have been drawn upon by not only painters, but writers including Shakespeare.
    • A few examples are:
      • narcissus (egotism)
      • hyacinth (sorrow)
      • rosemary (remembrance)

But, the still life painting does not have to have symbolism to be a successful painting. But, there is one fundamental point that it must have – a concept.

Ask yourself:

  • What do I want to say?
  • How am I going to get there?
  • What emotion do I want to portray?

The following are a few fine examples of ‘concept’ by well know still life artists:

  • Regarded as one of the founders of modern art, Paul Cezanne had an undeniable talent for the treatment of space, mass, and color. Cezanne chose a painting subject simply for color, shape and perspective.



  • Edouard Manet’s flower paintings were painted at the end of his career and life. These are some of my favorite still life paintings. They can best be described as fresh, simple with masterful, loose brush strokes. His concept rejected the careful shading and color transitions of botanical illustrations that were popular during that time. His artistic interpretation was more important than careful accuracy.  His works, including his flower paintings and other still-life images, stayed near the surface of the painting, emphasizing the materials of art rather than the illusions.

lilacs Manet

  • Contemporary artist, David Leffel uses Rembrandt’s technique of chiaroscuro in his famous still life paintings about light. Leffel believes if you just copy your subject matter you’re missing ninety per cent of the art. His paintings are simple in concept. They have one essential visual idea about color, shapes, values, edges, alone or in combination. These are things that paint can do. The idea or visual concept creates a relationship between objects.


Please do not underestimate the power of the still life painting. It can make time stand still as you share your own small Universe with the viewer. At the very least, a still life painting is an important discipline to any serious artist. At best, the still life gives the viewer time to ponder, reflect and extrapolate the importance of the subject.

lori3 What do you think? Lori

About Lori McNee

Lori McNee is a professional artist who specializes in still life, and landscape oil paintings. She is an exhibiting member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of Idaho, serves on the Plein Air Mag Board of Advisors, and is an Artist Ambassador to Arches/Canson/Royal Talens. As the owner of, Lori blogs about fine art tips, marketing, and social media advice for the aspiring and professional artist. As a social media influencer, Lori ranks as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and named a #TwitterPowerhouse by The Huffington Post. She is a keynote speaker, has been a talk show host for Plum TV, writes for F+W Media publications including Artist’s Magazine, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, Photographer’s Market. Also, Zero to 100,000: Social Media Tips & Tricks for Small Businesses.


  1. it is always nice to get inside the mind of other artists. thanks for sharing a part of your creative process.

  2. Glad to share my story with others! Thanks for the visit.

    • Lori, thanks for the insight that you share linking your art to how it can foreshadow the psyche.
      I too, have seen how my art can act as a personal interpreter at times.

      I also love how you link your art to great masters throughout history. Paying homage, while processing self-deiscovery is a valuable teaching tool. I teach kids grades K-8. I am excited about sharing your work with them! I will, of course, interpret and translate for them in bite-sized, grade level pieces.

      You do beautiful work, and have a beautiful spirit. I applaud your success and wish you much, much more of it! Your joy is contagious. My background is in graphics and in education. You have inspired me to pick up my brushes and paint… it really does create my own little universe of sorts. I like it there.

      Diana Stein

      • Oh Diana, thanks so much for taking time to leave such a lovely comment. I really appreciate the feedback. Blogging takes a lot of time away from my studio, and it is very rewarding to hear that my articles are helpful to others. I am so glad you are going to paint again soon!
        I love working with children too. The have a natural and uninhibited zest for art and expression. We can learn a lot from those little people.

        My best-
        Lori :-)

  3. Lojy Leonhart says:

    well i am fascinated by your work..i am a student from the faculty of arts Alexandria, Egypt i am 2nd year..
    your paintings make me to just stop the time and keep watching as well as they inspires me in my paintings i really hope that i can be like you one day..

    and thanks for sharing your tips becuz i really need them all the time

  4. Thanks Lori for sharing so much information. I truly appreciate it as a beginner (in my 50′s!!!). I’d love to take a workshop with you. Do you teach in the northeast?


  5. Hi Lori
    I’m an amateur and have jst a handful of oil paintings, but since I once two years ago come across one of your videos in YouTube, I couldn’t forget that elegant artist lady who paints like magic. I liked painting birds (tdy I had my first work) since I watched you painting a bird. Really appreciate your work and i dare to say that you’re one of the very few pple i wish to meet one day and learn from them.
    Tripoli, Libya

    • Hello Baset, you honor me with your words. I am happy my videos have inspired you. It is amazing that you can watch me paint all the way in Libya. Thank you for the nice message. I appreciate your support.

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