Painting from Life

All paintings are abstract. Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint. -Robert Bissett

I’ve been wanting to write this post for months, so finally getting to it. For my birthday/christmas present, my ever thoughtful and encouraging husband got me a photography class at the Evanston Art Center that was not too far from where we were living. We had recently sold our house in Chicago and had moved to a suburb (to the doomed rental house) and I had been out of sorts and feeling a bit isolated. (yep, including our recent move, we moved twice in 7 months, hence the new silver strands on my head) My life really revolves around my kids at home or shuttling them to and from school and various activities or I’m holed up in my studio. I think he started seeing that crazed look in my eye and thought it was best that I get some “adult” time with other creative folks. And he was right, but oh, did I fight him on it. First I said, we don’t have time for that! He said we’d figure it out. Then I said, I don’t want to take a photography class. I don’t have time for the assignments. He said, then pick something else, you can probably swap. And then I said, I have two shows to prepare for and no studio time, all my free time needs to go to my work obligations! And he said, I think you really need to do this. And I said, OH, FINE!(What a brat I was being, really! I am so lucky to have a partner who puts up with such stubbornness) I don’t know why I was so resistant. Guilt. Panic. Stress. Who knows. I looked at the catalog offerings and found a painting class and thought, hmmm, I haven’t had a painting class in years. Probably in over 15 years.

A still life oil painting class. A class where I could just sit/stand there, stare, and paint. I didn’t want a class where I had to think, analyze, be “creative”,etc. I wanted something where I am purely in the moment. I wanted to have those 3 hours, once a week, where I could just relax and paint for the pureness of painting. Painting what is before my eyes. No pressure of showing the paintings or doing anything with them. Which ended up being a good thing that I had no plans for them as they ended up being destroyed in the flood. I think one of them was above the flood waters, thankfully.

tools,not mine, but a fellow painter in the class

When I explained exactly that to my instructor on the first night, he gave me a funny look and said, “That’s interesting as most people who come into this class for the first time are absolutely terrified and/or very self-conscious.”
I laughed and said, “I guess I’m an oddball. I’m here to have fun.” But to be completely honest, I was a little nervous. I wondered if after all these years if I would still be able to paint from life. If I remembered how to work with the nuances of light and color. But it’s much like riding a bicycle, I found. You can’t forget, you just have to take a few tumbles and it comes back.


Above is the first painting I did. Being at that easel, classical music playing, the soft murmur of hushed conversations here and there, staring at a bowl of fruit…it felt right and good. With this painting I learned that I have a tendency to be lazy. I just want to hurry to it along or blur things. But when you’re painting from life, you are forced to slow down. Look. Really look. And take your time. I wanted to leave out the blueberries on the table’s edge because I was lazy and I also didn’t want to “ruin” the painting. But seriously if you’re not willing to take a risk while painting, then what’s the point? It’s all risk. It’s not like surgery, it’s a painting! But in the end, I’m glad I stuck it out, as they created movement that the painting lacked beforehand.

This was the next painting I did. The bottle still needs work, I can see. But my biggest lesson in this one was the reflection in the metal vase. When I first began to work on that I remember complaining to Ken that I was dreading it. The thing is though, it’s all about seeing the colors, the shapes and forgetting that you’re trying to paint a reflection. It’s about turning that part of your brain off and just painting what you see.

Wish I had 1 more hour with this one, but alas no more.  We're moving on to the figure next week #stilllife #oilpaint #painting #art
I never got to finish the above painting unfortunately, but I was really happy with how the glass turned out. It was another instance where I was able to shut my brain off and just see colors and values and shapes. And when I stepped back- there was glass.

And then we had a model come in. I hadn’t painted a person in years! Maybe not since high school. Or at least since I was 18.


Ken always had us do a small study before we committed to a composition on a larger canvas. Being the inpatient person that I am, it was hard for me, but a good lesson. It really helped me solve issues of value as well as composition. It was also freeing to paint very loosely knowing that it was just a study.

So sad-last night of my still life/figure painting class. But I did finish the portrait. 3rd sitting. Done in March 2013 #art #painting #oilpaint #portrait

My final portrait, but unfortunately blurry photo. I had forgotten how much I loved painting people. I still see things that aren’t quite right, but that’s alright. I’ve never been a perfectionist in that regard.

What I loved most about my class was discussions with Ken about painting. How when you really get into painting a still life, there is a magic that happens in the light and the shadows. It’s all about relations. How one object relates to another. How one value creates value on another form. Breaking things down to abstract problems. How you need to approach painting as painting as a whole and that you can’t paint in isolation.

He was a great instructor- an easy manner so that he was very approachable and yet he pushed me when he could see me flagging. And his painting skills are phenomenal. It was a treat to watch him paint towards the end of the quarter. If you are able to take a class there, I highly recommend him.

I also learned so much from just watching the other painters in my class and how they attacked their problems. There were some amazing painters in that class. I work alone in my studio and it’s so good to step outside and paint among others. You’ll learn a lot by just watching others. And that creative hum in the air of a collective group painting silently together is great. I love it. It was a really wonderful experience. Hopefully one of these days I can sign up for another still life class just to make myself do it again. The interesting thing was that while I was in this class painting very realistically, back home in my studio, my paintings were getting looser and more abstract.

The Longest Journey, encaustic, March 2013

Wish I had an explanation for that…but haven’t quite figured that out yet. But I think that perhaps it refers back to how we don’t paint in isolation, it’s all about how one thing affects another.

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. – Picasso


  1. What a wonderful husband you have to recognize a need in you and push you towards it. I feel lucky to have such a supportive husband too. Love how the realistic has loosened the abstract . . . like the ying and yang of painting. You have to have one to have the other.

  2. Bridgette,
    I loved the last painting-I can’t even imagine painting glass, but then I’m not a painter. I certainly understand your sense of peace and contentment in that class–I think that’s why I miss the darkroom so much, the quiet and contemplation as well as the camaraderie of other photographers and the chance to see their work and get their feedback.

    1. Thanks Mary. Yes, I agree- it’s the quiet and the contemplation. Being in a room of other people who are also totally in their own world and yet we are all drawing energy from each other. I think I also love the “no-mind” place that I go to when I am painting from life. I get that too when I am painting in general, but this is even more so. It’s an escape, in a sense, from myself! ha!

  3. So much in this post. The first time I went to Penland was because my husband insisted I go – I tried to resist, but then realized what a gift it was. And I find the same reaction to abstract feeding the realistic – and tend to go to abstract to help loosen me up when I need it.
    Your still life paintings are fabulous — that glass is wonderful – not an easy thing to do and your description of getting out of the ‘thinking-space’ and just looking is spot-on.
    Glad you are back blogging and working in your studio.

  4. I took an alla prima class a couple years ago, mostly because I was worried I no longer knew how to “paint the right way.” I was so used to doing my own thing alone in my studio. I’m not a still life painter, but painting still life three hours a week turned out to be such a wonderful thing… and it helped my non-still life painting too! I forgot how much I enjoyed some of the simpler, formal practices, like deconstructing what I’m seeing into values and highlights and color relationships.

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