Planning a still life pencil drawing
- 8 points to consider

A still life pencil drawing consists of an object or group of objects such as a vase of flowers, a bowl of fruit, or bottles for example.

It is not necessary to work from a photograph of the arrangement, as the objects will not move. However, you will! In this article we will include ways of dealing with this issue, but first let's look at composing still life pencil drawings. 

Even if you are an experienced artist, it can be quite challenging to create a pleasing composition with more than one object, because there are so many things to take into consideration. 

Before we start with the actual drawing part, I would like to give you some general advice about choosing objects for your still life set up. It's important that you choose objects with enough size and shape variation to create an interesting composition. It's also good to choose objects that have an interesting surface texture, as this will add to the overall effect of your drawing.

Once you have chosen your objects, it's time to think about composition. This is one of the most important aspects of any piece of art, and especially so in a still life drawing. You need to think about how you want the objects to be arranged within the frame, what your focal point will be, and also how the elements relate to one another.

One thing to keep in mind is that a great still life composition doesn't have to be symmetrical. In fact, often an asymmetrical composition can provide more visual interest. You may also want to consider using negative space to create a more dynamic drawing.

1. Picture Format

The overall shape of our picture is important. If the longer edge of the paper is vertical, it creates a "portrait format" drawing, whereas if the longer edge is horizontal, then the picture becomes more of a "landscape format". This affects how you place your objects so that they are visible in your composition.

The orientation also largely determines which angle you will view your still life from. With this type of artwork, the most common format is a 3/4 view. This means that you are viewing your objects from slightly above, giving a nice viewpoint of all sides while still allowing the artist to capture the subject in one frame while working on it.

The way you present your selected pencil drawing will have a significant influence on the success of your project. Therefore, it's good to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with your drawing. One way to help decide on your format is to use a viewfinder made from a piece of cardboard with a square, rectangular or circular hole cut out of it. This will help you to frame your composition in the correct proportions.

2. Still life composition basics

Now we're ready to ask ourselves some questions about the basic principles of setting up a still life arrangement.

  • Is our subject to be a single item?
  • Or a collection of items, so that we can examine the relationship between them?
  • Is it necessary to provide a plate for an apple?
  • Should we choose a patterned or plain plate?
  • Do we want one or two apples or a variety of fresh fruits?
  • What if we were to take the apple from a particular perspective??
  • Is it better to look at things from a flat perspective or from a higher vantage point?

These questions have a wide range of answers, but we'll look at the choices with you and provide some examples.

Option 1 - The apple is lonely and forlorn sitting on its own at the top of the picture plane

Option 2 - This option is preferable because of the stronger illumination, but the apple is too central.

Option 3 - This is the best of the three since the plate has a design that matches the background, and there are two apples overlapping. The icy blue works well as a contrast to the warm reds and golds of the fruit. We see more of the side of the fruit because we're looking from a lower angle.

Option 4 - This photograph shows a single apple on the blue-patterned plate from a higher vantage point.

Option 5 - How about two apples on the left, from the higher viewpoint?

Option 6 - A reverse arrangement with two apples on the right. This may be an excellent subject for a still life pencil drawing.

3. Your viewpoint

Can you shift yourself or elements in the picture to improve the perspective or viewpoint of your arrangement?

It's sometimes simpler to evaluate a subject if it isn't too close to us. Moving nearby things can alter their form significantly. If we are further away, small changes are less obvious. 

When creating a still life pencil drawing of a tiny three-dimensional object placed quite close to you, your seating position is critical. Any significant head movement will alter the sightline and cause confusion about what you should display in your picture.

When painting a landscape, where your subject is distant, you don't have to worry about your head position nearly as much.

If you're working on a tiny, still-life pencil drawing in a larger studio setting, try to discover the ideal viewpoint from which to look at your subject and then make a note of other reference points around the room without moving your head.

Are you comfortable? Are you able to gaze for a lengthy period or can you be sure that if you need to, your head will return to the initial posture if you have to stretch your legs occasionally?

Is the subject likely to alter? Although your still life objects will not walk away, they can wilt and fade.

Also, keep in mind that if you are using a natural light source, the highlights and shadows will change over the course of a day.

For this reason, you may like to consider setting up an artificial light arrangement that will give the same illumination each time you sit down to draw. Taking a reference photo for use further down the line may also be wise, although it is better to begin the drawing from the actual still life scene in front of you.

How well can you see your subject? That sightline is vital. Are you looking at the subject AND the working surface on the same plane?

This implies that if your sightline from your seat to the subject of the drawing is straight ahead, your sightline to the working surface should also be straight ahead. If you try to draw on a flat surface and have to shift your view up to the subject to check on details, you risk distorting your artwork.

Because of this, art schools give students upright easels to work on in the studio, so that their eye line is consistent between subject and drawing. There is no head movement at all.

You'll need an easel that can give a reasonably upright working surface. Tabletop easels must be sturdy and heavy enough to support your drawing or pastel working pressure without moving. Many are only suitable for brushwork, which puts far less strain on the working surface than pencil or pastel work.

When attempting still life paintings or drawings, the sloping drawing board is the bare minimum you should work on.

4. Relative positions

The diagram below will illustrate the relative positions of objects within your still life composition. We'll look at the following topics...

  1. Assessing a critical focusing point from which we will measure distances throughout the object
  2. Looking for irregular shapes within the object
  3. Making sure you keep a constant position so that the eye line remains the same
  4. Taking a picture with your phone, if you have one handy

As a starting point view the image as a collection of three-dimensional objects. In the following photograph, the lighter-colored egg and the edge nearest to the picture's center, where the egg's border meets the cloth's shadow edge, are two good places to begin.

The egg isn't spherical; it's more oval. As a result, the shadow line on the light egg's surface does not duplicate the bottom edge of the same egg.

You might take this opportunity to draw the curved line at the top of the egg and work your way down (shadow and edge). Use a turquoise pencil to trace over them lightly, with a pale grey line for the shadow edge. You're drawing softly because you may have to erase and change it several times.

Then, on the lower-left corner of the egg, we'll focus on that diagonal shadow. If you place a vertical line beside it, you'll discover that it measures approximately 45 degrees. The line of deepest shadow meets the left-hand egg near the middle of the first egg's lefthand curve.

The next stages all rely on the forms we've already built, so we must keep comparing shapes in our still life pencil drawing with the original physical items. Therefore, maintaining a consistent posture is so important - any sideways or up-and-down head movement will cause mistakes in placement and shape.

Let's try placing the next (lefthand) egg. This egg is also oval in form and has an axis that follows the red dotted line shown below.

Check to see that the space between the two eggs is correct, as well as the fold in the material's position. Negative space surrounds the egg, and if it's drawn correctly, this will show whether you have properly positioned the two eggs.

Let's go on and take a closer look at the negative space beneath the subject using another photo.

5. Negative space

When we work from life, we must remember the subject may contain many elements. The drawing of the picture isn't simply about transferring those solid elements to paper; it's also about adjusting the negative spaces - the shapes and sizes of the gaps between them.

Our eye for how the components of the image fit together helps us create accurate shapes. Identifying and drawing the major negative form between them is frequently simple when drawing a collection of things.

The lines in our illustration are distinct edges which define distinct shapes, and within the shapes are the objects.

If we consider the fruit in the image, for example, our eye and pencil hand would inspect them first. However, we must also consider the spaces between the objects.

Getting these particular forms fixed in our minds enables us to place the correct positions of the subject in the right places in our still life pencil drawings. The pink arrow in the following photo points to the negative spaces, which are outlined in white.

6. Getting the distances and angles correct

When working on a pencil drawing, we have an instant ruler in our hand to verify measurements - the pencil itself. We can check the first measurement across a crucial portion of the subject if we hold up the pencil in our eye line (between eye and subject). When measuring, strive to extend your arm fully so you can employ the same stance every time.

Let's assume we're looking for the vertical height of an apple.

Using your fingers, line the top of the pencil with the top of the apple and move them up until they reach a point where you think the bottom may be. Make a dot at the top and bottom of that section of pencil to indicate where to start. This will enable you to draw your apple on the page.

Still holding the pencil at the same spot, turn it horizontal to see if the apple measures the same across the width. In fact, you can use the apple height measurement as your master to enable you to get all the other measurements correct.

7. Getting the size of your drawing correct

Have you ever started a drawing and reached the edge of the paper before your subject was complete? Or did you decide to add something but didn't have room to fit it in?

A still life of an apple may not be noticeable as a problem, but a full-length portrait without feet will look odd.

Let us go back to our apple picture. I'll choose the two apples in this photo because they're taller than they are wide, so I'll use a portrait format. To convey what I mean about sizing, I'll do a drawing.

Assume the dotted line rectangle on the left is a piece of paper.  My first steps may be ...

  • drawing out the first apple
  • then drawing out the second line for the second apple
  • After that, I add the outline of the plate

Oops - the green area of the plate is not aligned with the paper!

If we had lightly drawn out the size of the outside rectangle frame that we believed we'd need first, within the paper's edges, we might have finished the image outline and simply changed the frame to suit.

8. Showing volume and shape in a still life pencil drawing

We must be conscious of how the viewer's eye trusts in three-dimensional forms ahead of them, in order to project a two-dimensional subject in three dimensions. It is the eye's job to make these projections, and it does so looking for clues in the subject's light and shading. If a form appears ambiguous or flat, our eye will have a hard time making sense of it.

Let's go back to our apple. The shadow that appears at the lower left of the apple contrasts with the light areas to the top and right, and highlights its roundness. The apple looks solid even though it is drawn on a flat surface.

Some elements have patterns and lines that suggest a three-dimensional aspect. You can see how the designs on the vase take the eye around its shape. The perspective of the lower bands also show that it’s a curvy object.

Finally, you can see how the shadows and marks on the carrots, the lines on the onion skins and the gills on the mushrooms, all aid us in creating volume and form to a pencil drawing of this photograph.

In Summary

I hope this article has shown that the best way to plan a still life pencil drawing is by starting with the basics. Think about your viewpoint, relative positions of objects in the composition, negative space and getting accurate distances and angles correct. Keeping these things in mind will help you create volumes and shapes that are recognizable as well as realistic looking. From there, it's all up to your artistic ability!

Ready for some fun? Try out one of our tutorials, like The Fruit Bowl or The Sweet Jar to practice what you have learned.

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