Art Dieting: Skip Dinner and Paint It Instead

When I was young and taking art classes, I was always stumped when my teachers would let us decide individually what to paint. There were just too many creative options and I would simply shut down. One time I went home in a funk, stressed out about what to do, and I said to myself, “Well, toss it. I’m just going to paint what’s for dinner.”

This is a simple but moving still life by Richard Edward Miller, composed of a simple tea pot and cup.
This is a simple but moving still life by Richard Edward Miller,
composed of a simple tea pot and cup.

And that’s what I did. Or at least that is where I started. Still life paintings are a great way to warm up when you feel uncertain or conflicted about what you really want to paint. So when you don’t know, just wait for dinner (if you are lucky, you won’t have to make it first!) and start there.

Still lifes give us permission to just look and react. We don’t have to deal with anyone’s emotions but our own, and we don’t have to manage expectations. It is one of the best painting exercises I could ever recommend.

Stovetop by Michael de Brito, 2009,
oil painting, 12 x 19.

And what’s even better is that still life painting means you can always change it up to suit your whims. There are always objects around that can spark inspiration—the cup sitting at your elbow right now, the plant on the windowsill, or even your next meal!

If you want to go down memory lane with me and paint still lifes that may not be glamorous but sure are real—and convenient—for any artist at any stage in their career, you may first want to brush up on your still life skills with spot-on resources like Botanical Drawing. There are some great tips on color mixing and how to stay sensitive to the little details that really matter in a still life. Enjoy!

P.S. How do you feel about still life painting? Has it been an art-saver for you the way it has been for me?

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

8 thoughts on “Art Dieting: Skip Dinner and Paint It Instead

  1. I recently started to get back into painting after many years of not doing it. I had been at one of the top art schools in the 1970s, and I remember being overwhelmed by too many creative options then, especially because during that period, there was almost no direction or training in techniques. One example: an instructor in a particular class told us to get started on a project, and I just sat there at my table for a long while. He came over to me and asked why I didn’t get started. I said, “I can’t think of anything to do,” and he responded, “Maybe you shouldn’t even be here then.” I look back and know now that was a pretty awful response, especially to a 17-year-old who preferred classical/traditional art. (Traditional methods were pretty much scorned at most east-coast schools in the mid-seventies.)

    Your post really resonated with me today, because still life painting has provided me with a wonderful way to return to painting after all these years. You’re right… there’s no agonizing over what to paint. It’s easy to get started by finding a few interesting objects around the house, at the supermarket, or at a local thrift shop (where one can find a variety of unusual vases, silver-plate items, candlesticks, etc). This idea is giving me the practice and discipline to find my way as an artist again.

  2. I have always promoted still life drawing and painting during my 35 year career as a professional art educator…in addition, now that I am retired, I am instructing other adults and we have just begun working with still life. Once they have finished the initial exercises, I plan to have them do their own set-ups using personally meaningful objects…the best art comes from the heart!

  3. I consider myself a beginning art student, and still life painting is my passion. A few years ago I saw a Daniel Keyes Still Life in the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio. I was so inspired that I have dedicated myself to Still Life painting. I have been taking art classes through the community ever since, as I learn Still Life painting. I love being able to paint objects that surround me at home. And, I love doing quick studies like painting an apple and spoon (with a 25 minute timer). There are so many wonderful still life artists. Be sure to check out Daniel Keyes, Carol Marine and Qiang Wuang.

  4. I have looked at many paintings over the years, but this is the first time I’ve seen one of a stovetop. Congrats on originality and very good execution as well.

  5. I agree Gateway. Momentary overwhelm does not mean you are not, or shouldn’t be an artist. it has nothing to do with it. Go for it! Thankyou Courtney for the lovely article, and giving all who are stuck or perplexed for a moment a yes! gateway.

  6. Hey Courtney,
    I have recently returned to painting after taking a break from freelance illustration due to a repetitive strain injury – computer art work took its toll! I was delighted to pick up my brushes and begin with a new medium, for me water-soluble oils, I paint in my kitchen, for it has the best light. I am thrilled with the medium and still lifes are quite liberating. No deadline, no pressure, just the pure joy of seeing what is before me and like you say the freedom to experiment, even with the confines of a still life image. I have set a lofty goal of ’49 paintings in my 49th year,’ I’ve begun with still life paintings but they may evolve into something else. Still life painting has indeed been an art-saver for me! Thank you for your post,
    Catherine Martha Holmes

  7. Gateway11 – Yes that instructor was terrible. Actually creative people can be extremely indecisive. I went to art school in the 80s and it wasn’t much better.. I have always been interested in painting, but abstraction was still being stressed. I really wanted to master realism and to paint bold impressionist strokes. I truly enjoy juicy realism. I majored in illustration instead. I sometimes feel that art school was not a positive influence on me.

    Yes starting small to get back into painting is really good advice. I use some of the smaller Raymar panels and set a time limit of about 3 hours. That little bit of success gives me encouragement to keep going.

  8. I just had to comment on your column on still life painting. I recently completed a project – even received a grant from the Community Fund – for the City of Dearborn where I went into restaurants and painted “portraits” of their food on site. It was wonderful (mostly) to have a ready made subject and I certainly grew as an artist in terms of painting unfamiliar subjects such as lamb chops, fried foods, sushi and even raw sausages!

    It certainly stretched me as an artist since I had to think quickly about composition, lighting and speed of paint application. I wasn’t always successful with my choices but that was also a learning experience. And of course being in the middle of a restaurant and conversing with patrons as I painted made me work on my confidence to boot!

    So I believe that still life painting is invaluable for the artist for learning, practice, experimenting, or just plain old fun. Besides, you never know where the experience will lead!

    Janet Kondziela
    Dearborn Paints – Good Food!

    P.S. to gateway11: What a horrible thing for a teacher to say to any student! I’m glad that you have returned to painting. I believe your best years lie ahead. Happy Painting!