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DFH: Still Life Drawing

26 Apr. ' 20

( 'Pot and Soup Tureen' by Paul Cézanne)


If you're at home without a model to draw and are casting around for something to sketch, still life is a very accessible subject to study. There are always interesting and varied objects in our homes to work with and it provides an excellent opportunity for practising many different areas of observational and constructive drawing, such as proportion, negative space, form, and tone.

We have full control over our still life set ups. This gives us the opportunity to show a bit more of our individual voice or tastes, from the choice of objects, to how they are arranged. We can also select objects that will help us practise specific skills;  including a variety of different organic volumes could be a good way to practise drawing form, for instance. Take care to select subjects you like, and arrange them in ways you find visually pleasing. Having an appealing subject will help you maintain interest over longer efforts. A still life can be simple, consisting of one or two objects, or much more complex. If you are newer to drawing, it is fine to start simple by practising with individual objects. Even if you are more comfortable with the subject matter, finding ways to compose a single object in an interesting way is a challenge.


('Conus Marmoreus' by Rembrandt. This study of a shell is deceptively simple, but on closer inspection, uses careful shadow placement to lead the eye around the image. Even single objects can benefit from composition!)



Setting Up a Still Life


When setting up your still life, take your time, and take care with it. This is a good time to fiddle! Keep rearranging objects, adding and removing items, experiment with the lighting, whatever you can change about your set up. It may help to look at your composition through a frame. 


Here are a few general tips to help generate more interesting compositions:


  • Have a definite light source – a lamp is really handy, as you can change the light direction. Try experimenting with different lighting.
  • Avoid symmetry. Symmetric compositions tend to look static, so find ways to arrange the items in an asymmetric, but balanced way.
  • Include objects of different heights.
  • Let the objects sit in front of one another. This creates overlaps and a sense of depth.
  • Include a backdrop, like some fabric, or bare wall. Backgrounds are important, as they help you compare tonal values.
  • Avoid pointing 'out' of the composition. Some objects, like teapots, or anything with a face, point in a certain direction. A general rule of thumb is to point the eye back into the picture, not out of it.


('Fur Double Muff' by Wenceslas Hollar. This still life shows a focus on texture, thanks to its unusual subject matter.)


When selecting your subjects, think about what you might find interesting to draw. A stereotypical still life usually  involves some fruit, vases and flowers – which are perfectly good subjects – but the scope of objects is massive! Fabric can be an important ingredient in a still life. You can let it create a flat background, but it can be twisted or folded to help generate interesting shadows or compositional leads. Fabric can be a still life subject in itself.


('Study of Drapery' by Hans Brosamer)



Over to You - Drawing a Still Life


As we have seen from the earlier examples, still life can be a good opportunity to try new things, so you may want to try a different process or materials than the one below. As we can control the set up, there is no pressure to produce something good –  you can reproduce it on another day. (Assuming nothing expires or dies, in the case of fruit and flowers.) If you want to reconstruct a still life, make sure to photograph it from multiple angles, including an overhead view.


(This drawing of a primula plant was created with children's felt pens. This was a fun experience to play with mark-making, and figure out ways to make the colour relationships work.)



1.     Arrangement

The first step in creating your still life isn't drawing, but finding a good arrangement for your subject. At this stage you might want to draw thumbnails to help you as well. Here I have picked a variety of objects of different shapes and sizes. In arranging them, I have considered how they balance (imagining the centre of the frame as a seesaw pivot is a handy trick), and have tried to avoid anything lining up horizontally – this creates more visual movement by implying diagonals.


2.     Lay Out Proportions

To start my drawing, I fixed roughly mark out where the objects are to be placed. Often I will find the height and width of my set up, then block in the overall shape of the extremities of the objects – you can faintly see these lines coming from the top of the jug. From there I can chip down to the shapes of individual objects. At this shape, try to work light, and don't worry about your shapes being quite crude. You can refine them later.


3.     Construct 3D Shapes

At this point, I use 3D construction to help add solidity to my shapes, and fix any upcoming perspective issues. Be especially mindful of ellipses! The long side of an ellipse should be perpendicular to the length of the object, so take care not to draw them wonky. The 3D construction lines in this drawing have been indicated a bit darker than I would usually draw them.


4.     Define Contours

Here I have gone in a more observational direction and have defined all the contours of the objects. Part of this involves just taking care to follow the edges, and marry them to the 3D shapes constructed in the previous step. 

Another useful observational tool is negative shape; the shape created in between objects. This is particularly important in objects like the jug, which has a lot of precise curves and complex refraction effects.  Here I have marked in blue a couple of negative shapes; as I drew, I focused on these shapes instead of the actual subject.


5.     Build Up Broad Shadow Shapes

Using the side of my pencil, I have shaded the objects with their approximate tonal values. This gives me a base to work on later. It is important to push the darker objects early on, as this helps generate tonal contrast across the image as a whole. 


6.     Surface Marks

In this stage I have gone through the whole image and added directional surface marks. These marks sculpt the volumes from step 3 out, and incorporate more of the surface details as well. Avoid scribbling at this stage. Pay attention to the direction you make your marks in and be patient as you build them up. 


7.     Final Details 

It is a good idea to do a final pass over your image to see where you can improve things. Here I have gone through and made the edges of high-contrast tonal areas sharper. This helped especially around the draped fabric and squash. Extra details have been added to the glass jug. The final touch is picking out the brightest highlights, such as on the jug and onions, erasing them to white and tightening their edges.

This is the seventh of our weekly 'Drawing From Home' blog posts, commissioned during lockdown to help you draw more at home. Please do share your drawings with us, as we would love to see what everyone is up! Just tag us with @Draw_Brighton on social media or use the #DrawingFromHome #DrawBrighton hastags.

Published by Lancelot Richardson on 26 Apr. ' 20

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