Still Life Paintings

The still life painting is a stage set


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The actors on the still life world stage are pieces of cutlery, fruits, vegetables, flowers, pottery and wrinkled tablecloths. The roles they play give voice to dramas ranging from the aftermath of hunting forays as in works by William Harnett, scrupulously arranged eggs and white bottles á la Giorgio Morandi, classical flowers, crockery and fruit in paintings by David Leffel, family memorabilia and kitchen detritus in oils by John Rise to plastics, bubble-wrap and fruit in pastels by Robert Peterson. Still life vividly painted in verdant hues and brimming with visual poetics, occupies a vaunted niche that transcends its humble beginnings.

Still life, once the nearly exclusive province of women painters, has become an important endeavor for artists of both genders. Feminist pioneer Georgia O'Keeffe literally launched still life into the heavens with her monumentally scaled and sky-filled flower and bone murals that were so large that they became abstractions.

"By painting them big . . . I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers . . . when I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes and what I saw through them--particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky . . . ," O'Keeffe wrote in the catalogue for her 1939 "An American Place" solo exhibition in New York.

Leffel Still Life

David A. Leffel
"Silk Brocade with Rose"
Oil, 14" x 16"
Showing at Total Arts Gallery pic Taos
Nedra Matteucci Galleries pic Santa Fe

Taos painter David A. Leffel chose still life early in his career that now includes portraits, figures and an occasional landscape.

"The central attraction for me in the beginning of my painting life was the lack of model fees and the fact that you can only paint so many self-portraits. With still life you just go out and buy some fruit, pick up some vases or hard objects relatively easily. Also I just had a natural feeling towards it compositionally," Leffel said recently. "Still life gave me a lot of insights into all other aspects of painting as well. When you work with a model you're sharing your space with another person. When you work on still life you are completely alone which becomes a much more meditative experience."

Leffel is trying to create movement, portray abstract qualities like light, the play of edges, and variations on compositional structure while remaining true to the overall shapes of what he is seeing.

"I try to establish a strong connection with what I'm painting. There is a relationship between seeing what you are painting without preconceptions and the physical act of picking up paint with your brush. Once you are comfortable at manipulating paint the fear of making a mistake fades away and you are able to concentrate on seeing what is actually in front of you without illusions," Leffel said.

Leffel was born in New York in 1931. He studied at the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York where he taught for 20 years. Leffel moved to Taos in 1992 where he continues to paint and teach.

John Rise of Albuquerque earned a master of arts in printmaking before founding a company that built easels, stretchers and other artist materials. Following the sale of his business Rise devoted full time to painting and recently earned his master's of fine arts degree in painting at the University of New Mexico. "While I was in business still life was the only kind of painting I could work on for an hour or so and come back to a week later," Rise said. "My interest in still life was born while I was working on my masters in printmaking. I was a detective novel buff and read all of Raymond Chandler's works as well as other writers." Rise then incorporated the tools of the fictional detective trade into still life arrangements.

"Those early still life paintings became my best means of expression and the focus of what my art was about. I was inspired by Max Beckmann's self-portraits that were a perfect source for gangster and detective faces but my favorite painters were Rembrandt and Velasquez," Rise said.

During his business career Rise spent many hours in museums studying paintings. His interest in the detailed reality in Velasquez' paintings led Rise to study the trompe-l'oeil paintings of the 1890s.

"My studies led me to consider the differences between masculine and feminine space as well as the masculine and feminine objects that one finds in a composition," Rise said.

For his thesis Rise painted a series of vertical compositions based on the invasion of his bachelor kitchen by his new wife. The vertical structure of these realistically painted images allowed Rise to use multiple vanishing points in his compositions.

Rise Still Life

John Rise
"Ball Jar"
Oil on panel, 12" x 16"

Image Name

Robert Peterson
"Lemons in Plastic Bag"
Pastel, 31.5" x 47.25"
Showing at Klaudia Marr Gallery pic Santa Fe

"When you compose vertically you have to build in certain distortions of space to make the painting appear to be correct when viewed from a distance. I discovered that I had to the divide the picture plane into thirds and have separate vanishing points for each section," Rise said.

Rise uses memories of his late father, tarot cards, books, paint-cans, maps and other fragments of reality to tell personal stories.

Serenity, order and solitude are the hallmarks of master pastel artist Robert Peterson's works on paper. His uncompromising vision turns still life into a strong counterpoint for the world's strife and chaos. Peterson was born in Elmhurst, Illinois in 1943 and now lives in Albuquerque in the silent world of deafness. Peterson said that silence is part of what he works with but gets tired of reading about how people can "see" the silence in his paintings.

"Though I began my career painting landscapes I drifted into still life and it became the focus of my work. When I paint I see the image as being as real as the object. I know that my image is an illusion but I think of it as being real . . . I don't have a final answer that would explain the connection between life and art. I am reminded of what Robert Rauschenberg said about the need to connect life and art. But I don't use mattresses, springs or angora goats with tires around them like he did. I use industrial materials like plastics and bubble wrap because they are transparent forms against the more tangible fruits and vegetables," Peterson said.

The power in Peterson's vision comes from its stark beauty and its ability to convince the viewer of its reality. Peterson is successful in bridging reality and illusion while blurring the distinction between them.

The still life stage is set and the players have found their places while the curtain rises.

Let the drama begin.

Thanks to Wesley Pulkka, artist, critic and arts writer for New Mexico and national publications

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque
— Volume 18

Related Pages

Enduring Inspiration article
Glossary of Painting and Drawing Terms article

Glossary of Prints and Original Graphics Terms article
Magic in the Land of Enchantment article

Collector’s Resources


Concetta D Gallery | 505-243-5066
Tucker Woods Fine Art | 505.306.4770
Weems Galleries | 505-293-6133

Santa Fe

Deborah L Paisner By appointment in Santa Fe | 505-577-0240
Art of Russia Gallery | 505-466-1718
Charles Azbell Gallery | 505-988-1875
Galerie Zuger | 505.984.5099
Gallery 822 | 505-989-1700
Greenberg Fine Art | 505-955-1500
Manitou Galleries | 505-986-0440
McLarry Fine Art | 505-988-1161
Meyer East Gallery | 505-983-1657
Meyer Gallery | 505-983-1434
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum | 505.946.1000
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
Peterson-Cody Gallery LLC rem 130 West Palace Ave | 820-0010
Reflection Gallery | 505-995-9795
Sage Creek Gallery | 505-988-3444
Scarlett's Antique Shop & Gallery | 505.983.7092
Ventana Fine Art | 505-983-8815
Vivo Contemporary rem 725 Canyon Road | 505-982-1320
Wadle Galleries Ltd pic 128 West Palace Ave | 505-983-9219
Bill Watson pic An online service | 505-995-0773
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100


Act I Gallery & Sculpture Garden | 575-758-7831
Mission Gallery | 575-758-2861
Total Arts Gallery | 575-758-4667
Wilder Nightingale Fine Art | 575-758-3255


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