Lesson: Descriptive Writing with Still Life

  • Grades: 6–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts

Students will learn what a still-life painting is. They will observe and discuss two still lifes and then write a three-paragraph descriptive essay based on their observations. Students will then draw a still life based on their classmates’ descriptive essays. They will then discuss the similarities and differences between their writings, drawings, and the original paintings.


  • Students will write a three-paragraph descriptive essay.
  • Students will create a drawing based on classmates’ essays.
  • Students will compare and contrast their own ideas and understandings with those of the artists in discussion and in writing.

Vocabulary: still life, medium, composition


Still life painting with pitcher, bowls of strawberries, and plate of cheese
Levi W. Prentice, Still Life with Strawberries, c. 1890, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Purchase: Mary Oliver Robinson Fund, bequest to Women’s Committee of the Museum of Art, and Women’s Committee Acquisition Fund © Public Domain

Discuss with the class what a still-life painting is. (The subject matter of a still-life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead.) Give them an example of one to look at. Once the students have a good understanding of what a still life is or can be, divide the class into two groups. Give each group a different painting of still life to observe. For example, Still Life with Brioche (1880) by Edward Manet or Still Life with Strawberries (ca. 1890) by Levi W. Prentice. Make sure that each group of students doesn’t see the other group’s painting.

  1. Have each group create a graphic organizer such as a circle, idea map, or word bank about the still life they were given. Tell them to list everything they see in the still life. For English language learners, you may wish to provide a word bank already containing words that may describe the still life, or you might display real objects that are visible in the still life.

    Have each student write a three-paragraph essay that describes the still life in detail. The essay should provide enough information for someone to draw the still life based solely on the written description.

    The essay should include the following parts:

    • 1st paragraph: Students write an introduction that explains what the artwork depicts, the orientation of the composition (landscape or portrait), and its medium. (Medium can refer both to the type of art—such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing—as well as the materials an artwork is made from, such as pencil, ink, pastels, painting, watercolor, acrylic, oil, film, mixed media, collage.)
    • 2nd paragraph: Students create a detailed inventory of what is included in the composition, using adjectives to identify and describe the objects in the still life.
    • 3rd paragraph: Students describe key details (e.g., colors in foreground and background, details about positive and negative space, size and placement of the objects in relation to each other).

    After students complete their first drafts, have them proofread their essays and revise them as needed.

  2. Tell each student to trade essays with a classmate in the other group. Then pass out white construction paper and drawing pencils. Have each student draw what is described in his or her classmate’s essay. Give them the following instructions:

    • Read the essay thoroughly.
    • Begin sketching out the composition with pencil.
    • Add color to the drawing using pastels, crayons, colored pencils, etc.

  3. Compare and contrast students’ drawings with the works of art created by the original artists. Lead a discussion asking the following questions:

    • How are the works of art similar? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • How are they different? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What could you have written to help your classmate make a more accurate drawing?
    • What could your classmate have written to help you make a more accurate drawing?

    Have students revise their essays based on the class discussion and what is inaccurate in the drawings. Students then complete their final drafts.