How Do I Plan a Still Life?

A word ‘still life’ means painting or drawing inanimate objects (things that are not living).  Still life is often seen as dull, but it is important when you are learning to draw. I think still life is the best place to start if you are a beginner because the items don’t move and you  have some choice of how difficult to make a still life.

There are all sorts of challenges in any still life such as shape, proportions, texture, viewpoints and you can draw from real life.  Therefore still life is really good for developing observational drawing skills.

Still life doesn’t  have to be boring because you can choose the objects yourself and I am sure there are some objects you will find interesting somewhere.  One lady liked teapots in one of my classes and every session she drew a teapot.  You might like to draw fruit, vegetables, flowers, vases, textiles, shoes, there are many subjects.

The history of still life painting is long and interesting, traditionally painters painted skulls, flowers, hourglasses, dead pheasants and partly burnt candles.  There is lots of symbolism in these objects and the message was usually triumph over death. Modern still life is a bit more diverse and includes pretty much anything.

Step One – Finding the Objects 

The first thing I do when I am planning a still life is to think about the theme of the piece.  I might have a domestic theme (pots, pans, knife and fork) or a outdoors theme with wellington boots and binoculars.  The idea of a theme is that you group together several items to tell a story.

I quite like using brightly coloured vegetables in my painting classes because they introduce the topic of colour.  Most vegetables are fairly simple shapes so they are not too challenging to paint for beginners.

You could start with fruit and vegetables
You could start with fruit and vegetables

Alternatively attractive plants, interesting sculptures, shells and cups all make good still life material.  If you are a complete beginner steer away from anything glass, shiny or reflective objects as these will be more challenging.

Step  Two – Composition 

The next step is to have a play with the arrangement (composition) of the objects to see what works best.  You don’t of course have to have an arrangement for still life you can draw things just as they are.  For example I am looking at my desk at the moment and I can see an empty cup, a camera and a pen that would make a very ‘real’ looking still life.

Alternatively if you would like an arranged still life you can move objects and put them together in different combinations.  Remember still lives can be as simple or as complex as you make them.  I would have three objects for a simple still life because it is a number that tends to look balanced.  Different shapes, patterns, sizes and textures will create the interest, but don’t go crazy and make it too busy. If you are a beginner I wouldn’t have more than five objects.

You could try out several versions and see which composition you like.  If you are unsure what makes a good composition I have written a blog post called What is Composition? for more advice.  Try not to make the still life look too posed, arrange the items but in a casual way.  You could try doing some thumbnail sketches to help you work out which composition would work.  See my post Why Do Thumbnail Sketches? for more advice.

Spend time playing with the arrangement
Spend time playing with the arrangement to get it right

Step 3 – Lighting 

Lighting is very important, be careful not to pick a place where the lighting is poor. If the lighting is dull maybe you could rig up some lamps to put some strong light on the objects.  Try to have one main light source as this will make observing tone much easier.  See my post What is a Tonal Value? for more information about tones and light and dark.

Before you Start 

The last thing to consider might just be taking a photograph of the arrangement as reference.  If you are using fruit and vegetables and it is a longer study, some of the fruit or vegetables may start going brown before the others, you may have to replace items.  A photograph is a good reference if you need to put the items away between sessions.  Don’t be afraid to use both primary and secondary sources to help you with your study.

Check the arrangement works and you are comfortable with it before you start work.  Do some rough sketches, move the objects around, differ the lighting… then take a deep breath and begin!

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