Still Life

"Every man's work—in literature, music, or pictures—is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear


Before concentrating on creating still life, let's review just what it is. Still lifes are composed of related objects that can't get up and walk off. "Related" refers to an aesthetic relationship created by the artist among items that harmonize visually, but not necessarily with a constant theme such as "My Twine Collection" or "Squashes I Have Known." Rather, as long as the items are inanimate, you can make disparate choices, in as simple or complex, stately or bizarre a still life as your personal taste dictates. If you are drawing several objects, your challenge will be to make them hold together as part of an aesthetic group.

Once again, hunt for "beloved " subject matter that has a strong appeal forjou—but in the case of a still life, choose objects that are pleasing tojou as a group.

Still life is really composed of several individual drawings. The challenge becomes how to make that assembly of drawings hold together effectively, as part of an inseparable group.

Your still life can be as polished or informal as you like. Some beginners love taking a long time to create very detailed, meticulously rendered objects. Others feel comfortable with a direct, spontaneous approach that is not so time-consuming. Neither is better, wrong, nor preferable. Yet, we all have a tendency to eye the working style of someone else and say with a sigh, either, "I wish I had the patience to ..." or "I wish I were more free ..." The best approach is simply to take your still-life projects to whatever level of finish works best for you.

Here's your chance to tap into all the basics you've practiced in the preceding chapters, while reinforcing and adding to them with some expanded techniques.

SUPPLIES FOR THIS CHAPTER 2B, 2H, 6B, 6H pencils vine charcoal newsprint pad 14"-x-17" drawing pad 6"-x-8" drawing pad Pink Pearl eraser clip-on light drawing board

"I saw how tentative I was in my work, and I was so locked into making it 'perfect."'

-student anita st. marie opposite: drawings by student genie bourne

Added Tools for Still Life

Lightest to darkest values are stacked from top row to bottom, using pencils 6H, 2H, 2B, 6B. Each scribble moves horizontally as the value scale of each pencil goes from dark to light.

below: Cast shadows as strong as these can be as important a component of a still-life composition as the objects themselves, drawing by student anne osso porco

If you're working in pencil, broaden your range of values. Along with the 2B and 2H pencils you've used earlier, add the softer 6B and harder 6H, which will enable you to incorporate a more dramatic range of grays. There are places where these expanded options will be an asset. Dark shadows on an eggplant call for 6B; shadows on an egg, 6H. While 2B pencils are fine for shadow values on dark skin tones, a 6B may be best for very dark surfaces. Although obsessed pencil lovers would urge using many more pencils, in my opinion, only the four I've named are needed for the still lifes you'll create.


As shown in my example, make a controlled scribble with each of your four pencils. Exert pressure as you begin each one, then release gradually to create a value scale. Stack the scribbles on top of one another, from lightest to darkest: 6H, 2H, 2B, 6B. You should see a value scale emerge from top to bottom, light to dark, as well as the value scale of each pencil horizontally, from dark to light. Just as you did earlier with your 2H and 2B pencils, use your 6H to smooth out

Value Scale

the 6B texture. Since darker marks are harder to erase, it makes sense to hold back the darkest intensity of the 6B until the final stages. Make a scribble to approximate the value of each object you've chosen for your still life.


No matter which medium you use, when composing a still life, underdrawing is useful. As you learned in Chapter 3, a light sketch provides a foundation, ensuring that effort isn't wasted putting pencil layers on items that are crooked or unintentionally tilting. But your underdrawing must be checked out by viewing it up on a wall to be sure nothing's askew before you develop the work further. Unfortunately, beginners are often in what I call "Art Denial"-and when homework goes up on the wall, they suddenly see for the first time that the wonderfully rendered still lifes they spent so much time on are listing like lunch on the Titanic! With careful preparation, you can avoid that fate.


Think of still-life objects as actors on a stage, each in position relative to the others and to you, the audience/viewer. Some are closer to you, some farther back. Determine those positions in space by using a level. Hold it over your still-life setup and lower it slowly, noting the position of objects according to height. Pick up additional reference information on the way down. Repeat the process from beneath to determine the front-to-back progression in space. The first to touch the level is closest; the second is next-closest, and so on, to the back. Don't make the mistake of drawing all your objects as if they were actors taking their curtain call-lined up straight across the stage.

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Freehand Sketching An Introduction

Freehand Sketching An Introduction

Learn to sketch by working through these quick, simple lessons. This Learn to Sketch course will help you learn to draw what you see and develop your skills.

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