Composing a beautiful still life pencil drawing

A still life pencil drawing consists of a group of objects arranged on a flat surface or against a flat background. The objects should convey some meaning or emotion to the observer; as this makes the drawing more interesting and thought provoking than a simple arrangement of objects.

The key to creating a good still life is to study the composition carefully and think carefully about what you are trying to express.

Choose your main subject and ensure that it is clear and that the viewer can easily identify it as the focal point. Choose additional objects that contrast or add to the overall mood. Balance the composition carefully so that it looks aesthetically pleasing and achieves the desired artistic effect. Finally, add key details that will add interest and depth to the drawing.

There is, of course, a bit more to it than that. So let's investigate further.

Graphite pencil still life drawing of shellsPurchased souvenirs of various vacations, collected into a still life that brings back memories

Picture Format

The orientation of the canvas will significantly affect the positioning of the objects in your piece. 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".

Your choice can depend on the elements within your still life. If they are mainly tall then a portrait drawing may work best, for example.

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.

Picking a focal point for your drawing

The most basic element of a good still life composition is balance. Balance can be achieved by establishing a focal point around which all other elements are arranged. Take the time to arrange and then rearrange your objects until you find the most attractive and pleasing composition possible.

A good composition should always make the viewer feel drawn into the drawing and allow them to enjoy looking at the objects as if they were viewing them in real life. To achieve this you must carefully consider what objects and details to include in your composition, as well as what to remove or omit from the drawing.

Beginners often make the mistake of including too many objects in still life drawings, whereas more experienced artists only include a few items that draw together to form an attractive and cohesive whole. The trick is to use the right objects and to ensure that you don't overcrowd your composition or make it look cluttered.

Adding detail in the right places

Make sure that the main subject is clearly defined and that it properly fits within the overall composition. Adding the most detail to the main point of interest of the still life will draw the eye of the viewer and force them to look closer at your subject. Supporting objects can be less well defined.

To create greater depth in the drawing, try placing objects at different angles or at different distances from the viewer. Then experiment with different lighting angles and intensities. Remember that small details such as cracks in an object, dust, reflections and shadows will add depth to the overall composition and will help to create a 3D effect that the viewer can appreciate.

Taking time to carefully study your subject matter will allow you to find interesting contrasts and relationships between objects in your still life pencil drawing. The viewer's eye will be naturally drawn to unusual or fascinating objects and this will add interest and depth to your overall composition.

Your viewpoint

After arranging the elements of your still life you need to consider your own viewpoint. Where will your eyes be positioned in relation to your objects? Will you look down from above, or will you stand or sit in front of the objects? Either technique is fine, but keep in mind that the viewer will also perceive the drawing from whatever viewpoint you choose.

Also consider how far away you place your items; this will change the perspective of the drawing and change the way that your eye perceives the objects within it. A closer view will produce a more intimate and immediate style, whereas sitting further back will produce a more observational and distant effect.

Once you find the ultimate viewpoint you may like to take a photograph to record it for later reference and comparison. This can be helpful if any of the objects are perishable and could fade or go past their best during the drawing process.

As coloured pencil drawings generally take many hours to complete, it is common for artists in this medium to work from photo references.

I chose to look down from a short distance in front for this drawing of ceramics made by my children when they were at school, so that the pebble "footpath" between the houses was visible

Lighting the still life

Your choice of lighting can be as important as your selection of objects and your composition. Lighting that is too bright and overly strong for your subject will overpower it and make it difficult for the viewer to appreciate the finer details that you might want to include in your drawing.

On the other hand, unnaturally dark and shadowy lighting will make your subject hard to pick out and can contribute to a cluttered and confusing composition.

It is usually best to choose a natural light source, such as a window. Experiment with different light sources and positions to see which lighting accentuates your subject and draws out its details the most effectively. However, keep in mind that natural light will change throughout the day, so again a photograph can come in handy as a reference here.

If you are struggling to get a natural looking light, or find that you still can't get the results you want, try using a lightbox to place your objects under instead. This will illuminate your subject matter evenly.

Don't be afraid to experiment with different intensities and strengths of light; this will give the drawing more depth and realism and can help to disguise any areas that you may be struggling with.

Negative space

For drawing purposes, negative space simply refers to the empty areas around your objects or between separate groups of objects.

Although negative space can be an important part of a still life progression, it can make the drawing appear confusing and cluttered if it is excessive or does not contribute to the overall look of the composition. Generally speaking, negative space should be used to draw the eye around the whole composition rather than draw it to a particular area or detail.

Showing volume and shape in a still life pencil drawing

Making sure that your chosen lighting makes your subject stand out clearly is important, but the shadows cast by the light are just as important in making your drawings look realistic and three dimensional.

Shadows in a pencil drawing are usually dark in value and they can have a big impact on the overall appearance and feel of your picture. Shadows can be used to draw the eye to particular objects and add depth and interest to the overall composition. They can also create the illusion of 3D and can add a sense of depth to the overall picture by drawing the viewer's eye to the shadows cast by the light falling on your subject.

For example the shadow on this 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.

The background

An often-overlooked element of a still life pencil drawing is the background!

The background is fundamental to any pencil drawing and it is always worth spending time making sure that the background is attractive and contributes to the overall artistic style of the drawing.

I suggest avoiding busy or distracting patterns or images in the background as this can take attention away from your focal point. A plain coloured or abstract sketchy background is usually best for a still life drawing as this will create a blank canvas on which your objects and details can stand out clearly and which will not detract from the subject matter in any way.

When working on the background, it is worthwhile choosing a background colour that is in keeping with the subject of your still life pencil drawing. Dark or vibrant colours will contrast strongly with white or light coloured objects and can add emphasis and vibrancy to the drawing as a whole.

In the fruit sketch above the blue towel in the background is the complement of the orange colours in the subject, and created in a sketchy style drawing the viewer's eye to the fruit.

If however, your objects are already vibrant or dark in colour, then a muted or neutral background could work well.

You can utilize the colour of your substrate for the background or add it with coloured pencil.

In Summary

Choose your subject matter carefully and then arrange it carefully onto your paper. If the objects are perishable, try photographing them for reference.

Consider your point of view, your composition, your lighting and areas of negative space carefully before you start to draw.

Don't scrimp on the detail - you want your drawing to look realistic so take your time and make sure to include all of the finer features - but only where you want the viewer to focus their attention!

Vary the values and tones to create texture and depth. Then make sure your darks are dark enough.

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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