How to Draw a Still Life Composition
Learning to draw a still life composition is one of the most valuable, basic skills an artist can learn.
If you ever take a sketching or drawing class, still life drawing is usually taught within the first few sessions. Why? It teaches students techniques and skills that are the foundation for creating many types of artwork, whether it’s pencil, colored pencil, charcoal drawings, pastels or paintings.
Still life drawing teaches you how to layout a group of various objects on a piece of paper, how to sketch assorted shapes and how to shade things so they have dimension and life.
It also shows you how to be aware of the way light, dark and shadows affect the objects you’re sketching. Understanding this will help create realistic, life-like sketches and is a skill you’ll need to know if you want to explore other mediums, like paints.
Another benefit of still life drawing is that it can be customized to a particular artist’s skill level. Someone with little or no sketching experience can choose objects that are easier to draw, like round or oval shaped fruits or vegetables. More advanced artists can make an arrangement of objects of any size, shape and detail level to challenge their wider set of skills.
So whether you’ve never sketched before, haven’t sketched in a while or just want a refresher course in creating a still life composition from start to finish, follow the steps and pictures below to learn how to draw a still life composition.
What to Draw?
For the sketch I’m demonstrating in this article, I chose fruit because it’s one of the easiest things for beginning artists to draw. The pineapple and star fruit can be a little tricky for someone brand new to drawing, but you can leave out the fine detail and concentrate just on the shapes if necessary.
You can make an arrangement similar to mine or gather whatever objects you have around your home. You can create a theme or keep it totally random. It’s up to you.
Just remember the more objects you use and the more fine details and textures they have, the more difficult the drawing. If you have little or no sketching experience, you might want to keep it as simple as possible.
How to Arrange Objects for a Still Life Drawing
Set up your objects on a flat surface near a comfortable place to sit for your sketch. A kitchen or dining room table is ideal for this. If you don’t mind sitting on the floor, you can place the objects against a wall and sit in front of them.
Ideally, choose a place with some form of natural light or near a good lamp. If the area isn’t well lit, it will make the drawing more difficult.
The light source doesn’t have to shine directly on the center of your objects. Light coming from one side can make for an interesting sketch too.
Supplies You'll Need
- A sketch or drawing pad that is at least 11”x14”. A larger pad allows you to sketch some objects true-to-size, which can be easier than trying to scale them down to fit your paper.
- An assortment of drawing pencils or charcoal pencils. You can buy these either individually or as a kit in art supply stores. You’ll need a pencil sharpener too, if you don’t already have one.
- Stumps and tortillons. These are sticks made of soft, felt-like paper that you’ll use for the shading techniques shown in this article.
- A set of art erasers. A basic set of art erasers includes a gum eraser and a plastic eraser, which are less likely to damage paper. Plus, gum erasers can molded into any shape which makes it easier to fit in small areas. Erasers can also be used to add hi-lights to your sketch.
A spray fixative. When you’re done with your sketch, a spray fixative can keep it from getting smudged and damaged. Krylon Workable Fixatif Spray is a good one for this purpose.
Start Your Sketch
Use a B or 2B pencil to make a very rough sketch of your objects as you want them to appear on the page. Use light pressure with your pencil so that it’s easy to erase things and move them around.
Don’t worry if you need to turn to a new page and start over a few times.
Forget about all the fine details and shading in this stage.
Just sketch out all the basic shapes, centered nicely on your paper.
After the Shapes are Drawn
Continue to concentrate on the outline of the objects until you’re happy with how they look on your paper.
Then, begin adding some basic details as I did with the pineapple skin and leaves, and the stems on the other pieces of fruit.
Clean-up with a Gum Eraser
Once your entire rough sketch is complete, use a gum eraser to gently clean up the lines of your sketch. Remove any smudges or fingerprints too.
Start by Shading the Dark Areas
Look at your still life arrangement and notice where you see the darkest areas and shadows.
Use a soft pencil (like a 5B or 6B or a charcoal pencil) to begin darkening these places on your paper as I did with the mango in my sketch.
(See photos below)
In the darkest areas near the bottom of the fruit, I used more pressure. In the middle and sides, I used much less pressure and more sparse strokes. In the places where the light hit the mango the strongest, I left white spaces.
Don’t worry about getting the tones exactly right now. Just put in the basic shades because you’ll come back to this later as you get closer to a finished sketch.
Work on objects on the left side of the page first if you’re right-handed. This helps avoid smudging what you’ve completed. Work in the opposite direction if you’re left-handed.
Shading and Blending
Once you’ve added some dark and medium tones and shadows to your object, use a stump to gently blend and shade your pencil strokes to make the area look as close to the object you’re sketching as possible.
Refer to your still life arrangement as much as you need. For larger areas, use the largest stump and for small spaces, use a tortillon.
If you need to lighten an area that you shaded too much, use the gum eraser to remove some of the pencil. This is also a great technique for adding some highlights to an object.
Have you ever done a still life?
Use the same shading and blending steps listed above on each of your objects, working left to right. (Or right to left)
Refer to your still life arrangement to capture the dark, medium and light tones of each object and the spaces between objects as accurately as possible.
Don’t forget about the shadows the objects cast on and around the surface beneath them.
How much you blend with the stumps and tortillons is up to you. Some people like seeing distinct pencil or charcoal strokes, others like blending them to give their sketch a smoother look.
For the top of the pineapple, I sketched the leaves using a 3B pencil and then went over the lines with a stump.
To give the leaves dimension, I used a charcoal pencil to shade the darkest areas on the bottom of each leaf.
Next, I began blending the charcoal areas with a stump to fill in the leaves, avoiding any areas where the light hit.
I used the same technique listed above on the pineapple skin to achieve its texture:
1) Sketch the general criss-cross pattern of the skin with a pencil.
2) Outline each circle with a charcoal pencil.
3) Blend each circle with a stump, using lighter pressure toward the center.
Adding Fine Details
Once the pineapple skin was fully shaded, I used an Ebony pencil to add additional detail to the pineapple, as well as to the rest of the fruit.
Small details like stems on the fruit and spots on the banana were added.
When you come close to finishing your sketch, take some time to look back and forth between your still life arrangement and your paper to see how accurate everything looks.
You may find certain areas that need to be darker or lighter or additional details you need to add to bring your objects to life.
There may be more shading or blending you need to do.
Take your time and go object by object until you feel you’ve captured everything you can in your sketch.
Use the gum eraser to remove any smudges on your paper.
To finish my sketch, I darkened certain areas near the bottom of the fruit and in the spaces beneath using a charcoal pencil. Afterward, I blended these areas with a stump.
I used a gum eraser to highlight areas where the light hit the top of the bananas or other fruit. Highlights can help add realism to your drawing.
Tips for Drawing a Still Life
- If you’re using a natural light source, work on your sketch around the same time each day so your lights, darks and shadows stay consistent.
- Use a flex-neck desk lamp to light your objects. Experiment to see how the light hits your objects from various angles.
- When you’re ready to do a still life you plan to mat or frame, use Bristol board, which is a heavier, thicker paper available at art stores.
- When you’ve mastered pencil or charcoal, try drawing a still life in full color with either colored pencils or pastels.
- If you change your sketch after spraying the workable fixative, don’t forget to re-spray it.
What part of a still life drawing do you find most challenging?
Questions & Answers
Can I still shade like this without erasers and stumps?
Yes, you can. You can shade by just using your pencil and creating dark, light and in-between areas with your pencil strokes and varying degrees of pressure.
The pencil strokes will be more prominent and the objects won't have a "smooth" appearance if they're not blended, but this is one way to shade your sketch without the erasers and stumps.
If you don't have or don't want to use erasers and stumps and still want a smooth/blended appearance to your sketch, you can also blend objects using cotton balls, cotton swabs or small pieces of tissue. These can work well except with very small areas that need fine detail shading.
© 2013 carolynkaye