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Odd Little Lifes: a creative still life exercise

by Assistant Gallery Director Haven Ashley

For our series “Art in your Inbox,” Art League staffers are sharing lighthearted exercises to give you a boost of creative endorphins. Dive into fun and informal, quick projects—an apéritif to your greater artistic pursuits. 

“New Sheriff” by Haven Ashley

My creative exercise, Odd Little Lifes, is an example of “leaning in,” because life feels odd at the moment. Join me in one of these moments to consider the objects that now surround us 24/7, and make a still life out of this odd life. 

Set up your surface and background.

To begin, make your background crisp, white, and unobtrusive; think—rice cracker. You can accomplish this by using a bedsheet, a few pieces of mat board, foam core, or thick white paper. I used a scrap of drywall, which I wouldn’t recommend. (As it threw off the white balance.)

Gather your materials.

Sort through your sundries following my four-part formula:

Something edible

Citrus fruits and bottles of hot sauce always deliver visually, as do canned goods with great packaging. Labels add the graphic interest of text. I choose two jalapeños and a tin of anchovies. Beautiful to look at and, technically, edible.  

Something meaningful

There are lots of options here: family photos, old birthday cards, jewelry. Reference a memento mori by using your child’s baby teeth or something with visible mold. Anything you collect will do: river rocks, sea glass, ticket stubs. If it smacks of an heirloom, use it. My choice was a family photo (Sarasota, circa 1993.

Something colorful

We creatives are always drawn to color. Pick something whose hue alone brings you sheer satisfaction, regardless of its form. A color you’d like to dive into, to bite into. My selection was an old reliable: a vase and a rose.

Something mysterious

What makes an object mysterious? Perhaps it’s the act of taking an object out of its context, removing its purpose, and making it sit pretty. A mysterious object is one that feels nice in the palm; something that would please a pickpocket or a bowerbird. It should reflect light or add texture. Find something that makes you ask yourself, “why do I even have this thing?” I choose a copper marble and a pair of crystal ornaments. When you know, you know. 

Experiment with placements.

When arranging your still life, space objects in varying distances from each other to add depth to the visual plane.  Change the compositions often, swap out different items, scrutinize the lighting. I used this as an opportunity to experiment with photography, but Odd Little Lifes plays well as a subject for drawing and painting. 

Share your Odd Little Lifes.

Please share your experiments with Odd Little Lifes on our Instagram: tag us @theartleague, and use the hashtag #createsomethingmore.


“Sand Babies” by Haven Ashley
“Eastward” by Haven Ashley

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