Representational Art: Rachel Ruysch, Claude Heath & Still Here Still Life’s
This week we focused on art that directly represents something in real life. We don’t often talk about art like this in our classes because it can seem scary and embarrassing to students if they feel like they don’t have the skills to replicate an object true to life. However, through looking at three different ways of doing representational art our students learned about representing things accurately but also how to maintain a personal style in their artistic choices.
Our first artist is Rachel Ruysch, a Dutch still life painted who lived from 1664 to 1750. She lived at a time when the professional art world was completely dominated by men so the amount of documentation and surviving paintings still exist from her is astounding.
Her father was a professor of botany and anatomy and Ruysch used his large collection of animal skeletons, bugs, and and botany samples to practice drawing and painting which is how she became so good at representing the natural world with such accuracy.
When she was 15 she was apprenticed to famous flower-painter Willem van Aelst in Amsterdam. She studied with him for four years and also learned how to arrange flowers to make them look more spontaneous and natural and less formally arranged. This became a hallmark of her work — painting the flowers as they really were in the space they were in instead of an idealized version of them.
She was an extremely popular artist in her lifetime, selling paintings for up to $500,000 in today’s money. When she died in 1750 eleven poets wrote poems in her honor because of the beauty of her work. She produced work for the Dusseldorf court, was the first female member of the academic club of artists Confrerie Pictura, and has more than 250 paintings attributed to her. She is considered by many to be the most accomplished and talented still-life artist of all time.
Ruysch’s style is prolific and easily recognizable with dark backgrounds, bright colored flowers, and exquisite detail.
Her work falls under the Rococo movement with its bright colors and energetic and playful composition. Though her pieces are idealized in color, the movement and shape of the flowers, their drooping stems, dropping petals, and the presence of the occasional bug, gives the paintings a sense of naturalism and a true to life feel.
For our Rachel Ruysch art work we made still life’s with oil pastels on black cardstock.
We brought in bouquets of flowers for each table and had the students draw them as they saw them from their angle at the table. This way each still life turned out a little bit different from the others even though they were using the same flowers.
Some of the students were nervous about recreating something that is so detailed and specific so we had them focus on recreating the shapes and colors more than exactly what the flowers looked like. Pastels and paper are great for this activity because they don’t feel as high stakes as paint and a canvas sometimes do and you can smudge them to fix a lot of mistakes or just restart on a new piece of paper.
Some people drew only the flowers floating as Ruysch sometimes does, and some drew them in the vase. Everyone’s looked a little bit different in style, angle, color choice, and where they chose to put the most detail.
Our next artist is Claude Heath, a London-based artist who was born in 1964. He originally attended King’s College London to study philosophy before doing art. Because of his philosophy background his work is often highly conceptual. In 1994 he started drawing blindfolded, never having seen the object, using only touch to understand and discover the object.
In these drawings he tries to see with his fingers, creating a connectedness between the object and resulting image that usually isn’t there since the image is a direct result of touching the physical object.
These drawings were made from feeling life-cast’s of people’s faces.
For our Claude Heath artwork we gave each student a pinecone and had them close their eyes while they drew what they felt. We put a piece of tape at the top of their paper so they could feel where they needed to start their picture each time they were starting back at the top of their object. They also each had three different colors of pen which we switched between every once in a while so they could see the different lines they drew more easily, and to mimic Heath since he always uses a few different colors.
It was a little tricky for them to understand completely, we didn’t actually blindfold them but that might have worked better to make them really draw what they were feeling without seeing it beforehand.
You can also use any object for this task, even things that students know can be tricky to understand once they can only use their hands and a pen to feel and represent it!
It was hard for the students to set aside seeing something or knowing what something looked like and instead focusing only on what they felt — touch is not something that anyone in the class has ever had to rely on to observe something. However, it was a great artistic practice for them to have to think about drawing an object in a different way.
Our last activity was about the instagram account Still Here which gives a weekly still life drawing activity to anyone who wants to participate to show their artistic style. Every Sunday they post a still life photograph with an open call for submissions of art based on it. They then choose a few submissions to feature on their page! You don’t have to be a paid artist or someone with an artist instagram to participate, it is open to everyone.
We went through a few different photograph prompts and the ways different artists interpreted them to show how every artist has a different style and can see the same photograph and recreate it completely differently.
From this photo we looked at two very different interpretations:
Both of these pieces are completely different in execution, they focused on different things and left parts out, changed colors, shapes, and positions. The piece on the left changed the shapes and colors to their simplest point . The piece on the right darkened and muted all the colors and made the shapes wavy and sketchy. They each do a great job of recreating the original photo, but they go about it in completely different ways.
Here are a few interpretations from this prompt:
The piece on the left takes a different approach by changing the perspective and showing what this scene might look like from above, while also rearranging and changing some of the objects completely. It’s not a true to life still life, but they don’t have to be exactly what you see in the picture, or in the arrangement in front of you, to still count as a still life.
The middle drawing simplifies it by making a solid background for the objects. Solid backgrounds are easier because you don’t have to worry about creating perspective with the checkered tablecloth — which could be tricky — and makes it easier to do the shadows on the objects. It also makes the objects themselves pop on the page and show the viewer that they are the most important part of the piece.
The right illustration completely deconstructs the image and shows it as its part. It is a flat illustration, especially compared to the other two examples, it is not trying to make the objects look the way they do in real life. They are rearranged into something completely different and labeled sort of like they are a page in a children’s book.
The instagram is filled with tons of different examples and they are all so fun and give wildly different interpretations of their prompt photo. It’s a great place to look for interesting still life prompts that are well balanced in color and composition if you don’t want to make your own.
For our art project we focused on making still life’s our own, using the instagram as inspiration for changing colors, shapes, and arrangement as each student wanted to.
We gave each student a donut and a selection of items like fruit, flowers, bowls, and cups with which they could arrange at their tables to create and draw, paint, or sketch their still life.
Everyone made their own arrangement but they also got to choose their medium and the way they wanted to portray the items they had.
They used watercolors, colored pencils, and pens as their mediums. Some of them represented their items in more of a true to life fashion and some abstracted them. However, all of them were all excited to eat their donut at the end!
This activity is so easy to do at home — you can use an objects you want to arrange in your house and then use colored pencils, paints, pens, crayons, pastels, anything you have to make your still life representation! Also check on the Still Here instagram for a new photo each Sunday and submit your art for a chance to be featured on their page!
Representational art can feel scary because the still-life’s we see so often are exact replicas of the arrangements and that can be really hard to do for most people. But through these activities the students in our class learned that representing something doesn’t mean it has to look like a photographic copy and that they can always use their own style to show the way they really see or understand the object of their still-life.