I stumbled upon the still life by accident through the embryonic stages of my drawing practice in the pages of my sketchbook. Where all good art ideas can often start, the sketchbook is a wonderful repository of ideas that can often be sparked into clear artistic purpose.
Have you ever wanted to push your drawing skill further and onto another level?
The process of creating in the pages of a sketchbook often lead me to explore what the purpose of drawing is over and above my sketchbook. I spend a lot of time thinking about this subject. In a world dominated by everything having a purpose where does the very private act of scribbling in a daily sketchbook fit? All drawing is creating. All creating has a definitive purpose even if as simple as bringing you personal pleasure. For if it did not, none of us would be doing it!
The still life is one such eventual purpose to drawing. I found myself painting them within a year of keeping a sketchbook. You can see a selection of what I painted from the pages of my sketchbook here.
For those of you who like to draw with the end in mind, it logically follows that the still life format is a great outcome for all of those sketchbook drawings and can give you a structure to developing your drawing habit.
What makes still life painting great is that you can keep them relatively small as you start to learn to draw and paint. They are a perfect form of study. Often they don’t shift or move, and can be made up of items scattered from around your home. They incur no great outlay or cost and most of all they refine every single aspect of drawing, appreciating tones and shapes, right through to painting!
Just as I teach you to really think and take your time looking as you draw, the same applies to the process of putting an actual still life together or any art work for that matter.
Planning the logical sequence of steps you need to take before you get started will give you a boost in your confidence and ensure that you can pause at each relevant step and assess progress in a structured way. Not a slap dash one which we can sometimes normally take when we start to paint.
How to draw and paint a still life can be strategically summarised into 3 core steps.
Table of Contents
Step 1. Planning your still life.
Before you even start to draw have a think about the arrangement of objects you might like to use for your still life. You may want to set up your own still life using an arrangement of objects.
If you are working live make sure you take into account a few elements;
The optimal lighting you like. Make sure you work at certain times of the day if you are putting your still life together using natural daylight. Or…create the lit environment in a space that cannot be moved or changed for the time in which it takes you to paint. Make sure you take lots of photographs too so that you can work on your sketches and think through elements of light.
Working small may mean you can work relatively quickly in putting together a still life.
Think through composition. By composition I mean the arrangement of your objects on the page.
In my Scratch to Sketchbook Course I spend a whole section exploring composition and have a variety of different compositional techniques to hand.
There are 5 of them.
The image as a vertical (portrait) arrangement
As a horizontal (landscape) arrangement
As a close up – you zoom in on what you are drawing in greater detail
At a distance – where your image is aligned centrally and in complete view
Can be broken down into 5 neat shapes.
Make a decision which type of compositional layout you might like to think about using in your still life.
In addition to the composition, I also quickly like to assess where my eye level rests in relation to the painting. Am I looking down, up or to the side? For example, I like to look down in order to capture the shadows for dramatic impact.
As you have seen from the illustrated examples above, I LOVE filling my sketchbook with practice outlines of my final piece. This is an opportunity to practice my drawing skills, to rough in some colour but also to think about what I want the final piece to look like. Creating series of thumbnail sketches, sometimes of the same thing over and over again from different angles, shades and tones or sizes is a great way to refine your thinking process step by step.
In fact, my sketchbook is a huge repository of ideas. My paintings started life in them in incredibly embryonic stages and I have used further studies to refine and practice what I finally produce.
Quickly drawn kilner jars in my sketchbook,
….to a final watercolour still life.
Step 2. Understanding Values.
Before you even begin painting think about the values of the images you are looking at in your still life.
Values feed into the 4th basic principle of learning to draw. Tone and Shade! If you’re new to the basic principles of drawing, don’t worry, I’ve put together the key components you need to think about here!
This is one of my favourite aspects of putting together a still life because it now determines how much effort I need to exert when thinking about using colour. More importantly, however, this is the aspect of my drawing that brings it to life and 3D realism.
What is a value in the context of a still life? Tones and shades, or light and dark are a great starter description. Where do you see light and dark? Is there shadow? Is the still life overtly bright or dark or a mix of both?
Every single colour has a value which is mapped on a scale of colours ranging from black to white to everything in between. In my workshop on colour I cover the concept of how you put together a value chart based on white and black and the range of tones in-between these two colours.
Ironically, to best scope this out you need to think in black and white. Imagine you have a grid of colours ranging between white and black and you would imagine your still life in black and white too! How would you arrange your drawing using these values?
Take one of your thumbnail sketches and have a practice!
Here is another example of using a value scale to map out your still life.
Step 3. Applying Paint.
The final aspect to putting together your still life is the painting of it! You’d think this is where the majority of the effort now lies. However, if you’ve put together the above steps correctly you will find that the painting will be a matter of executing the colour which you have comfortably mixed and prepared.
Taking your value chart from above mix the different value element of the colours you will need to capture the tonal values. There is a science to this which is reserved for another article for another time. It’s covered in the Sketchbook Guide to Colour if of further interest.
Decide what medium you are going to use and assess what type of layering you might like to do. I’m going to be working in watercolour and want to achieve my effect in 3-4 layers of paint.
To start with, I will lay my basic first wash onto the page. Assess the lights and darks. Leave parts of your page white if light, accentuate the darker areas with more paint. Then build your layers with different levels of intensity and value. Load or dilute paint accordingly.
Mix your paint in reflection to the way in which you work with the layers. Create different spaces on your palette to mix darker and lighter shades.
Work relatively quickly ensuring that your layers dry if need be before moving to the next. Don’t forget to also apply the different types of mark making techniques reflective of what you are drawing. You will see that in the case of drawing and painting a line of oranges I have introduced stippling into my painting technique to convey the slightly bumpy nature of my oranges.
Each of these areas of composing a still life can be expanded broadly when studying the technique however starting by understand how to draw and paint still life in 3 steps as a whole is most useful! Nothing stands in isolation to the next part of the process. Good planning and foundational principles really does and will make a difference to the final quality of the work you produce.
But…..even before you pick up that pencil to draw ALWAYS bear in mind that the key to a successful still life starts before you even begin your drawing. Dedicate some time to thinking and looking at the image in front of you and deciding what you want to create based on the key principles outlined above.