There's a lot more to painting than still life

I am not a bad still-life artist myself, having spent two years going to art vening classes

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An artist friend who has just started a new venture hosting painting holidays at her home in Cape Town for £1,000 a week, excluding air fare, will be delighted but not surprised by the news that this year's Turner Prize shortlist includes someone who paints traditional still life pictures in oils.

An artist friend who has just started a new venture hosting painting holidays at her home in Cape Town for £1,000 a week, excluding air fare, will be delighted but not surprised by the news that this year's Turner Prize shortlist includes someone who paints traditional still life pictures in oils.

Hazel has been painting more or less traditional still life pictures in oils, acrylic, watercolours, pastel, charcoal, lipstick, anything you like with great success ever since I've known her, which basically means ever since she left art school.

Her first big break came when Marks & Spencer opened their home furnishing department and bought four of Hazel's paintings of ornamental chairs and mass produced them as a set of four soft furnishing prints.

Needless to say this enraged a lot of her fellow members at the Chelsea Arts Club who still cleave to the opinion that artists can be true artists only if they are struggling, shivering and preferably starving in a garret. Not, of course, a Chelsea garret. Those have all been turned into sophisticated pieds-à-terre for Goldman Sachs bankers

I remember having lunch with Hazel just after she had been commissioned to do 20 paintings for the new Hilton Hotel in Chelsea Harbour. They wanted typical Chelsea scenes and she sketched some of her ideas on the back of her napkin. There was a bicycle leaning against iron railings in Cheyne Walk, shop awnings in Chelsea Green, a table in a King's Road restaurant, the top of a No 19 bus going over Albert Bridge in the golden days before Albert Bridge was declared unsafe for heavy vehicles. They were charming and I said as much to another artist friend, a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, who dismissed them savagely as commercial kitsch.

If selling pictures is a touchstone of success, my portrait painting friend, whom I shall call Tom, was not a successful artist. At one point he was so broke he had to sign up with an agent who regularly takes half a dozen RPs, or members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, to America to do portraits of rich people's kids. Americans will pay big bucks to have their children painted by artists with RP after their names.

It was a gruelling sweatshop exercise. Some days they would visit posh private schools where they were expected to churn out half a dozen pen and ink portraits before dinner. But at least Tom made enough in three weeks to pay off all his bills.

This may be the moment to tell you that I am not a bad still-life artist myself, having spent two years going to art evening classes. It wasn't my idea. My best friend's husband had just run off with a sports physiotherapist and she begged me to go to evening classes with her. She had just read in Cosmopolitan that they were better than dating agencies for finding a mate.

We started with car maintenance, which we reckoned would be full of men but funnily enough wasn't. Men already know about maintaining cars; it's only women that have to learn it. On that basis we moved swiftly on to cookery, which was full of men and very good-looking men too, but alas they were all gay. Try art, someone suggested, so we did and bingo we were quids in.

The place was brimming with men, dark brooding Van Gogh lookalikes, some even wearing artists' smocks, sitting astride those curious stools called donkeys with an easel at one end and a shelf for their artists' materials. This is the deal, said our teacher. We could either do our own imaginative thing or we could paint the still life of mixed veg and fruit salad that she would provide for us every week.

Beginners, she advised, were recommended to choose the still life; there was huge satisfaction to be gained from mastering the art of reproducing the shine on an apple, the bloom on a peach, the crisp texture of onion skin.

With few exceptions the men chose the still life, leaving the women to their fantasy compositions of fairies or the market place in Addis Ababa. I still have some of my fruit and veg pictures, less shiny, blooming and crisp than I might have wished but satisfying enough. As for my best friend Alex - in the two years that we went to art evening class she had no shortage of partners, the only problem being that all they were interested in talking about was their frustrated ambitions to be artists like Cézanne and Monet rather than actuaries, bank managers and driving instructors. "Too much still life and not enough real life if you ask me," complained Alex.

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