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How To Set Up A Still Life For Drawing


How To Set Up A Still Life For Drawing

Lush pomegranates in closeup.

(cc) Rick Hawkins
Still life drawing can be really rewarding, but too often we find ourselves struggling with dull arangements that are really difficult to do anything interesting with. Pieces of fruit in a bowl, a bottle of wine - it can easily be the same-old-same old. Here are some tips on putting together a great still life, thinking about lighting and backgrounds as well as componennts. Be sure to check the links for some illustrated still life examples, ideas and projects.
Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: 20 mins

Here's How:

  1. Choose your location: a good, directional light source is the key to a strong drawing or painting. A lamp or bright window is perfect.
  2. If room lighting is diffuse, use a board or shadow box to to control the lighting that falls on your subject. You might need to be creative - blankets draped between chairs (on table!), umbrellas, appliance boxes... a little effort can make a big difference to the fall of light, and allows you to draw what you see instead of using guesswork to try and tweak the drawing.
  3. Think about your background. Architectural features such as a window frame or door can add direction to a composition. A tone that contrasts with the subject is useful. Drapery can be a bit cliche, so use it carefully.
  4. A woodgrain table can look great, but only if you're confident with handling the detail - shortcutting on textures can really weaken a drawing. A beginner might be better using a tablecloth - choose a plain one if you don't want any extra detail, or a broad check or stripe to add color and pattern.
  5. Choose your objects: Beginners should avoid oddly shaped objects that might look 'wrong' even when you've got it 'right'. Machine-made objects demand an accurate rendering of form and perspective. However, a casual or distorted look can work, when handled with confidence. Check out the links below for some ideas!
  6. Arrange the group. When arranging, consider compositional elements, avoiding bland central postitioning and symmetry. Avoid just piling fruit in a bowl - let it spill from a bag, or be half-eaten on a plate. Give flowers a history - tucked in a hat, strewn in the gutter, or by a headstone.
  7. View your arrangement through a viewfinder - an empty slide frame (make one out of card) to assess the composition and consider its placement on the paper.


  1. If using natural light, take photos to refer to once the light starts to change.
  2. Transparent and reflective objects, such as bottles and metal objects, can be challenging but are an excellent exercise in detailed observation.
  3. Fruit is a great start, as the natural shapes are a little more forgiving, and give you interesting textures to work with.
  4. Take photographs if using perishables, especially flowers, or where your work may be disturbed.

What You Need

  • a directional light source
  • a good surface and background
  • interesting objects to draw
  • ideas about composition
  • thoughts about light and shade
  • imagination

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