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Art theme: still life

Historically, 'still life' was a category of painting typically featuring objects such as fruit, flowers, insects and/or countless collectables. Some objects were invested with symbolic value, e.g. the flower can be a metaphor of life and death – beautiful in bloom, but quick to fade. Paintings were traditionally small in scale to hang in people's homes rather than in public spaces.

In recent times, still life appears in art in various forms from the abstracted (simplified but still recognisable) to the entirely abstract (not recognisable as anything in reality, but perhaps reduced to its essential shape or basic form). Still life can even be represented in the form of the 'found object' (an actual vase or table, etc.) and assembled and documented to become 'art'.

Contextual background for teachers

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618)
Diego Velázquez (1599–1660)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 100.5 x W 119.5 cm

This painting of everyday people is also a study of still life objects, with a special focus on eggs. In what ways do eggs relate to the everyday? What do the foods we eat say about us?

Velázquez uses light to distinguish between different textures – how many different materials can you find in this painting? How would you describe the mood in this scene and how does colour interact with light to create atmosphere?

Are the colours of the eggs repeated elsewhere? Does this tell us how important they are in the painting?

While we should focus on the utensils and the food in this composition, what do the figures tell us about eating together and generational relationships around cooking?

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

An audio and tactile book of the painting can be borrowed from Living Paintings.

Nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What do you notice about the people in the painting?
  • What are they doing at this moment in time? What are all the objects on display for?
  • By looking at the clues, have you been able to find out anything about the people's personalities or identities?
  • What might you be able to smell if you were transported into the painting?
  • How would you describe the mood of this painting? Why do you think this?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

Use The Superpower of Looking Kit to ask questions about the artwork.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You may like to introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers at this point.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Invite students to draw a food memory. Perhaps someone special cooked their favourite food or it was a happy occasion. How will they make the tasty food the focus on their compositions?
  • Velázquez painted with oil paint, but did you know that eggs have been used to make paint for thousands of years? Follow this guide from the Royal Academy to make your own egg tempera paint.



  • Listen to the sound of eggs frying to set the scene!

  • Listen to Spanish music from the time of Velázquez. This is an organ piece by Francisco Correa de Arauxo, who (like Velázquez) was born and worked in Seville.



  • Feel the textures of the objects in the painting: the wood of the spoon, the onion, the clay and metal of the cooking vessels, and the wicker of the basket.



  • In small groups, create a scene like the one in the painting. Use a torch to experiment with lighting. Which figures and objects in their scene will students spotlight with their torch?
  • Invite students to mime the action of the woman cooking eggs and to mimic her using the different cooking implements – jug, knife, pestle and mortar. Can other students guess which implement they're using?



  • Talking with a partner: what food sounds and smells make you happy?
  • With a partner, can students imagine what conversation the two figures are having? What do students think they are saying?

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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