Still life pencil drawing tips

Still life pencil drawing gives us the change to work a picture from 'life' even if we don't have a human model available. It is very different working from a subject in three dimensions, than from a photograph. When working from a photo reference all the hard work of lining up and positioning things has already been done for us. 

There are snags but also a great sense of achievement when we succeed. 

I give below some advice on how to go about your still life exercise and what to avoid, or at least be aware of. Many of these points will also assist you when drawing portraits from life.

Still life pencil drawing basics

To get a good example of the scene or subject in front of us we need to develop some basic skills in looking at the subject and assessing the best format, size and content for our picture.

I will look first at the essentials and give some pointers towards getting the necessary techniques and then go on to look at specific examples. 

1. Picture format

An upright view of a picture is called 'portrait' and is the usual shape for taller subjects - including portraits. 

A wider and shorter view is called 'landscape' as this is the usual format for views of the countryside. 

This is not to say that all portraits are tall and thin and all landscapes are short and fat!

The decision over the shape of the picture depends a lot on what elements we wish to include and how we wish to focus the attention of the viewer.

I don't want to make too big an issue over this, but from the two pictures below you will quickly see that sometimes a 'landscape' looks good in portrait format, and a portrait can look better in a landscape format. 

The way you show the viewer your selected still life pencil drawing will make a huge impact on the success of your work. If you think back to how you take a photograph, you will remember that - in these digital days = you often have the choice to not only take the photo differently by turning the camera around from landscape to portrait view, but also to zoom the lens in and out to include far more of the scene or concentrate on just a detail.

Even if you were to take a wide angle view and include a lot of the scene, you can still crop down the picture later to make a better picture. 

This use of the viewfinder/screen on the camera is a very convenient way of looking at all your picture options. If you don't have a camera available you can make a simple frame to aid your selection of the best view and the most suitable format. You can cut an aperture in a piece of scrap card as shown below. 

2. Composition

  • Is our subject to be a single item?
  • Or a collection of items, so that we can examine the relationship between them?
  • For an apple, should we include a plate?
  • If we do, should it be plain or patterned?
  • Do we want one or two apples or a collection of different fruit?
  • What about the angle from which we view the apple(s)?
  • Is a flat view or a more overhead view the best?

All the answers to these questions are a matter of opinion, but I will look at the options with you, with the help of some examples.

Option 1
Option 2

Option 1 - The apple is a little forlorn sitting on its own near the top of the picture.

Option 2 - This is better, it gives a stronger light  and shade but the apple is too central

option 3
Option 4

Option 3 - This is better still as it has two apples overlapping and the plate has a pattern which matches the background. The cold blue is a good foil for the warm reds and golds of the fruit. The viewpoint is lower so we see more of the side of the fruit.

Option 4 - This compares a single apple on the blue patterned plate from a higher viewpoint.

Option 5 - Here two apples are seen  on the left from the higher viewpoint. 

Option 6 - The reverse  layout with two apples on the right. This could make a suitable subject for a still life pencil drawing. 

3. Viewpoint

We mentioned viewpoint above, but is it important?

Can you make the composition better by moving yourself or some of the subject elements around?

Sometimes it is easier to assess the subject if it is not too close to us. The shape of objects placed very near can change dramatically with just a small change of our seating position - or even just a change in position of our head. 

Your seating position is vital when working on a still life pencil drawing of a small three dimensional object placed fairly close to you. Any major movement of your head will result in the sight line changing and the possibility of confusion in what you should be showing in your picture. 

For a landscape where the subject is some distance away, your head position is not so vital. You would not want to move your seat though!

If you are working on a small still life pencil drawing in a larger studio environment, you may be able to identify the best position to look at your subject and then - without moving your head - make a note of other reference points in the room. If you do have to get up from your seat, you may then find it easier to return your head to the exact spot to continue. 

Are you comfortable? Can you remain in the viewing position for an extended time or can you be sue you can get back to the exact position with your head, if you need to?

Is the subject likely to change? Again, not so much a problem for still life, though if you take too long recording flowers they may fade and die before you finish. With landscape you need to be aware of how the scene will change during the day. The sun's position will change, people and cars will come and go - at the coast the tide will come in and go out. 

A camera image will certainly assist later if you need to compete your picture at home. 

If you are working on a portrait, ensure that your sitter is comfortable and has the chance to relax from time to time and also easily return o the same siting position after a break. 

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

By this I mean that if your sight line from your seat is straight ahead to the subject of the picture, your sight line to the working surface should be the same. If you try working a landscape on a flat table top and have to change your sight line up to the subject to check on details and position, then glance back down to the horizontal work surface your resulting picture may well suffer from major distortions. This is even more likely when doing portraits or still life pencil drawings. 

For this reason, art colleges supply upright easels for studio work so that the students eye line is constant between subject and artwork. There is minimal head movement. 

You will need an easel that will provide a reasonably upright position for the work surface. Table top easels need to be stable and heavy enough to take your working pressure of a pencil or pastel without moving. Many are only suitable for brush work which applies much less pressure to the working surface. 

A sloping drawing board is the very least you should be working on when attempting a still life pencil drawing.

Working a landscape picture flat on a table when the reference subject is vertically in front of you, opens up the possibility that your picture verticals will be distorted when you view the finished drawing on the wall. 

It's not easy to notice distortions in buildings. Your eye and brain will work to ignore messages showing verticals out of line. However when the photo is of a high building the distortion is more obvious.

When you paint or draw a scene you will need to decide whether to show them with vertical perspective - with slides that slope.

4. Relative positions

The photo below can be used to illustrate the relative positions of items within your still life pencil drawing. We will study the following points.

  1. Assessing a critical focus point from which distances across the object will be measured
  2. Looking for shapes within the object
  3. Making sure you keep a constant position so that the eye line remains the same
  4. Taking a digital photo, if you can

Begin by looking at the image and seeing it as a collection of separate three dimensional objects. 

A good point to start might well be the lighter coloured egg and the edge nearest the centre of the picture where the edge of the egg meets the diagonal line of shadow in the cloth. 

Note that the egg is not circular - the shape is more oval. Therefore, the shadow line on the surface of the light egg does not mirror the bottom edge of the same egg. 

You might like to start drawing the curved line at the top of that egg and then try to establish the two lower lines (shadow and edge). Draw them in lightly, using a turquoise pencil for the lines where the egg meets the satin and a pale grey line for the shadow edge. You are drawing lightly as you may need to erase and adjust several times. 

Next we will look at that diagonal shadow. If you lay a vertical line beside it you will see that the angle is about 45 degrees. The line of darkest shadow meets the left hand egg about centre of the first egg's lefthand side curve. 

The next steps all build on the shapes we are assembling, so we need to keep comparing shapes in our still life pencil drawing with the original solid items. 

This is why it is essential to keep a constant position - any sideways or up and down head movement will result in errors of placement and shape. 

Now let's see if we can place the next (lefthand) egg. This egg is also oval in shape and the axis of the oval follows the red dotted line shown below. 

Check to see that the gap between the two eggs is correct and that the fold in the material falls at the correct place. 

The space between the two eggs is described as Negative Space and the correct drawing of this will determine whether the two eggs are in the correct relative positions. 

We will move on and look more at negative space below, with a different image. 

5. Negative space

When we work from life, we have to be aware that the subject may well comprise a number of elements.  Drawing the picture is not merely the transfer of those solid parts to the paper, but also the correct placing of negative spaces - the shapes and sizes of the spaces in between.  The way we see how the parts of the picture go together also helps us in drawing the shapes correctly.  In drawing a group of items, it is often easiest to identify and draw the main negative shape between them. What do I mean by this?

When we look at the elements of our picture, our eye goes to the shapes that are defined by clear edges and we tend then to examine the objects within the shapes. 

For example, if we look at the fruit in the picture here, our eye and pencil hand would take a first check on the fruit themselves. 

However, when we draw from the actual objects we need to be aware of negative spaces as well. Getting these exact shapes fixed in our minds enables us to position the positive parts of the subject in the correct positions in our still life pencil drawings. The following photo shows negative spaces outline in white and pointed to by the pink arrow. 

6. Getting the distances and angles correct

When working on a still life pencil drawing we have an instant ruler in our hand to check measurements - the pencil itself. 

If we hold up the pencil in our eye line (between eye and subject) we can assess the first measurement across a critical part of the subject. Try to extend your arm fully so that you can always use the same position when measuring. 

Let us say we want to check the vertical height of an apple. Line the top of the pencil with the top of the apple, then move your fingers up until they reach the spot where the bottom appears to be. 

This will give you the height to draw your apple on the page - mark the paper with a dot at the top and bottom of that section of pencil. 

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. 

You can also use your pencil as a guide for checking angles where there are critical lines within the picture. 

For example in our egg picture, we can easily check that the diagonal fold is at the correct angle in our picture by taking the line of the pencil from the subject and checking it against our drawing. 

7. Getting your drawing the right size for the paper

So if we now have the subject in an ideal position, with the right lighting and the shadows as we would wish, we can now look at the paper the still life pencil drawing is going on to.

I will assume that we have suitable paper for the medium either in pad form or attached to a board. Is the board comfortable to work on?

Where do we start and how big is the image to be ?

A good approach is to decide on a picture sited well within the paper edges - keep well away from the edges of the paper, you don’t know when you start exactly where you are going to need to extend your picture.  A still life of an apple may not be a crisis matter if it is too big, but a full length portrait of someone will look a little odd if it finishes up without feet.

Let us go back to our apple picture. I will select the two apples in this picture to work on and because it is taller than it is wide, I will select portrait format. I will now do a diagrammatic image to show what I mean about sizing.

Assume the paper is the dotted line rectangle shown below and I start off with the first apple lined out on the paper ( 1 ) I then add the second line for the second apple  ( 2 ) Then I add the plate outline ( 3 ) I think the word here is ‘ Oops ! ‘  -  the green area of the plate is off the paper.


If we had lightly marked out the size of the outside rectangle frame which we thought we would need first, within the edges of the paper, we could have completed the image outline and simply adjusted the frame to suit.

It is always best to work well within the outer edges of the paper. It enables you to re-shape your still life pencil drawing later, if necessary.

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

In order to show a three dimensional object in two dimensions, we need to be aware of the ways in which the viewer’s eye can be convinced of the shape of the items in front of them. This knowledge helps us select the right articles for our subject and also how they will be displayed.

We can do this by using light and shadow and the various stages in between.

Let's go back to our apple. The shadow at the lower left of the fruit contrasts with the lighter area to the top and right, and the bright highlight confirms the roundness of the subject. The apple looks solid even though it is a photo on a flat surface.

Some subjects have patterns and lines which help to indicate that the surface is three dimensional.

You can see here how the designs on the vase take the eye around the shape, and the perspective of the lower bands also show the curve in the side view. 

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 enable us to give volume and shape to a still life pencil drawing of the photo below. 


To summarise

The eight main points discussed on this page should help when plotting out any artwork but especially a still life pencil drawing from life instead of a photograph.