Art UK has updated its cookies policy. By using this website you are agreeing to the use of cookies. To find out more read our updated Use of Cookies policy and our updated Privacy policy.

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

Pumpkin (2018)
Yayoi Kusama (b.1929)

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama confesses to having an obsession with pumpkins that began in early childhood. She is drawn to their form (shape), colour and feel. She has abstracted (simplified) the basic elements of the pumpkin in this work to give it a rather humorous quality. But does she still manage to represent the pumpkin-ness of a pumpkin?

Growing up, the artist was surrounded by pumpkins on her family's seed farm, and she recalls dreamlike visions of them covered in dots. Kusama has spoken openly about her mental health and there is a strong association between her repetitive use of dots as a form of art therapy. She has covered pumpkins, rooms and even buildings in polka dots.

The dot motif characterises her work and the idea of repetition feeds into the concept of mindfulness which is increasingly valued for improved wellbeing. The endless repetition of dots is said to relate to big ideas about infinity and the cosmos. In this sense, her humble pumpkin could be understood in both micro terms – insofar as it relates to aspects of her personal life – and macro terms, insofar as it relates to some of the biggest ideas human beings ponder.

How do you think that the repetitive action of drawing dots could help with how a person is feeling? How could dots relate to infinity and space? Would the pumpkin be less interesting or successful if it was multi-coloured and/or modelled to look more realistic?

Look, describe and discuss

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

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

Pumpkin (2018)

Pumpkin (2018)

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.

Nudge questions

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

  • Does the pumpkin look realistic? Why or why not?
  • If the banana-ness of a banana was that it was long and curved and yellow, what would the pumpkin-ness of a pumpkin be?
  • What do the patterns remind you of?
  • Why are the dots different sizes across the pumpkin?

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.


  • Create a dotty viewfinder to see the world in dots like Yayoi Kusama using this activity idea from Tate.

  • Students could draw a fruit or vegetable of their choice and cover the surface of the fruit or vegetable with a repeated pattern of dots. Like Kusama, try using different sizes of dots to give the drawing a 3D effect.



  • Feel pumpkins, squashes and other fruits and vegetables. What textures and patterns do students discover?
  • Experiment by pressing objects with interesting textures into clay or plasticene to create a repeat pattern (e.g. pinecone, bubble wrap). How do the patterns feel when students run their hands over the clay?



  • Kusama is inspired by nature when creating art. Head outside and explore your school grounds in search of your own inspiration. Can students find dots or other patterns in the natural world like Kusama does?



  • Many people use repetitive mark making, like Kusama, for practising mindfulness. Discussion with a partner: why do you think drawing repeat patterns might help you if you're feeling sad?
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'pumpkin'.

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.

Do you know someone who would love this resource?
Tell them about it...

More The Superpower of Looking resources

See all