Grades/Level: High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson

Author: This lesson was adapted by J. Paul Getty Museum Education staff from a curriculum originally published on the Getty's first education website, ArtsEdNet.


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Lesson Plans

Lesson Overview

This is the first lesson in a sequential unit. Students look at and discuss still-life paintings and develop a definition for the genre. They then further their understanding of this type of painting and practice watercolor techniques by painting their own still lifes from direct observation. Art production focuses on the tools used to create the illusion of three-dimensional space and convey texture in watercolors.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• identify and discuss two key elements of European still-life painting: the use of symbols and direct observation from nature.
• use various watercolor techniques.
• create a painting of objects from direct observation.
• use painting techniques to successfully depict the illusion of three-dimensional form and space.
• use new vocabulary specific to watercolors and still-life painting.


• Watercolor paints, paper, brushes, and other selected tools for watercolors (paper towels, sponges, etc.)
• Journals for note taking and sketching
• A still-life arrangement, created from objects such as pottery, glassware, fruit and vegetables, shells, flowers, etc.
• Images of still-life paintings from the Getty Museum's collection. Below are suggested objects for this unit.
Click on thumbnails for brief historical information. Additional research may be added and other works may be substituted.

Lesson Steps

Create a still-life arrangement for students to paint in class. Make sure it is situated so that the class will be able to see you demonstrate techniques. Set up the classroom for watercolor instruction.

1. Discuss the history and characteristics of still-life painting and the idea of painting from direct observation of nature. Show still-life images from the Getty Museum and briefly discuss painting techniques used in these works.

2. Select three to five images for critical evaluation. Use the following prompts during a class discussion of the images:
• Use three adjectives to describe one aspect of each image, then support your word choice with visual evidence. (For example, the Liotard still life looks "messy": teacups are tipped over, and orange peels and used spoons are on the table.)
• What is the subject matter?
• Why do you think the artist chose these particular objects?
• How did the artist arrange the objects?
• Describe how the artist used color.
• Point out the use of different mediums in the paintings. Which images use a transparent medium? Which use an opaque medium?
• Point out all the lines you see and describe what kind of lines they are. (straight, curvy, bent, squiggly, etc.)
• Did the artist create an illusion of three-dimensional space? How did he or she accomplish this?
• Imagine you are standing in the picture. Where are you standing in relation to the objects? (Are they above you? Below you? Close? Far away?)
• Do these paintings look realistic to you? Do you think the artist found these objects lying in this manner, or did he or she arrange them like this?

3. Have the class come up with a definition of still-life painting. Based on the images they just looked at from the Getty Museum, make a list of elements and qualities that still-life paintings can have. Chart student responses for later use.

4. Working from the still-life arrangement you created in the classroom, demonstrate watercolor techniques to your class (transparent medium, wet-on-wet, dry brush, spatter, layering of paint, overlapping of color). Assume that this demonstration is a review, and add some more sophisticated applications. Have students practice the techniques in their journals as you demonstrate.

5. Tell students that they should practice watercolor painting from direct observation by creating studies of the classroom still-life arrangement. Paintings should incorporate the following techniques:
• Create different effects with tools and paint.
• Convey different textures observed in the surface of natural forms.
• Create the illusion of three-dimensional form and space.

6. Circulate among students as they work and engage them in discussion about the challenges posed by this medium and their subject. Have students select their best studies to include in their portfolio.

Still Life / Cézanne
Still Life with Blue Pot, Paul Cézanne, about 1900


Students should be able to do the following:
• Define still-life painting and discuss the criteria they used to arrive at that definition.
• Successfully use various techniques of watercolor painting.
• Convey the illusion of three-dimensional form and space using watercolors.
• Describe, compare, contrast, and analyze art images orally using new vocabulary about watercolor paint and still-life paintings.


Have students write an essay that compares and contrasts two of the still lifes in the Getty's collection that are by artists who lived in different centuries. Students should speculate about the factors that explain differences and similarities in the works. Hypotheses should be supported using information gathered from research on and other sources.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 9–12

Craft and Structure
4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Conventions of Standard English
1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 9–12 Proficient

1.0 Artistic Perception
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.1 Identify and use the principles of design to discuss, analyze, and write about visual aspects in the environment and in works of art, including their own.
1.2 Describe the principles of design as used in works of art, focusing on dominance and subordination. Analyze Art Elements and Principles of Design
1.4 Analyze and describe how the composition of a work of art is affected by the use of a particular principle of design.
Impact of Media Choice
1.5 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work.

2.0 Creative Expression
Skills, Processes, Materials, and Tools
2.1 Solve a visual arts problem that involves the effective use of the elements of art and the principles of design.
2.2 Prepare a portfolio of original two- and three-dimensional works of art that reflects refined craftsmanship and technical skills.
2.4 Review and refine observational drawing skills.

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
Role and Development of the Visual Arts
3.1 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.
Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Derive Meaning
4.1 Articulate how personal beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of the meaning or message in a work of art.
4.2 Compare the ways in which the meaning of a specific work of art has been affected over time because of changes in interpretation and context.
Make Informed Judgments
4.3 Formulate and support a position regarding the aesthetic value of a specific work of art and change or defend that position after considering the views of others.
4.4 Articulate the process and rationale for refining and reworking one of their own works of art.
4.5 Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about works of art.

National Standards for Visual Arts Education

Grades 9–12

1.Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes
a. Apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their artworks.
b. Conceive and create works of visual art that demonstrate an understanding of how the communication of their ideas relates to the media, techniques, and processes they use.

3. Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas
a. Reflect on how artworks differ visually, spatially, temporally, and functionally, and describe how these are related to history and culture.

4. Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
a. Differentiate among a variety of historical and cultural contexts in terms of characteristics and purposes of works of art.
b. Describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.
c. Analyze relationships of works of art to one another in terms of history, aesthetics, and culture, justifying conclusions made in the analysis and using such conclusions to inform their own art making.

5. Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others
a. Identify intentions of those creating artworks, explore the implications of various purposes, and justify their analyses of purposes in particular works.
b. Describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.
c. Reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for understanding and evaluating works of visual art.