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Drawing Ideas with Objects and Still Life


Are you having trouble figuring out what to draw? Finding a subject isn't always easy.  Here are some ideas for drawing and painting with object or still life. You can use these ideas to develop your technical skills and practice drawing techniques, or to explore your ideas through art. There are many ways to use an object or still life to tell a story or evoke a feeling through your drawing. Whether you are drawing a simple, single object or a complicated object, this kind of drawing allows you complete control of your subject.

1. Simplicity

from photo by P. Edenberg

A single object is all about simplicity. The entire focus is on that object, the surface on which it sits, the fall of light and shadow, and its surface decoration, and composition. Consider very simple exercise - draw an egg - or piece of fruit, using a single light source to practice shading. Think about form, volume, weight, texture, contrast, line, detail and surface.

When composiing a drawing with a single object, the position on the page is important: think about the distances of its edges from the 'frame' of the page. Whether you crop in closely or leave plenty of white space changes the feel of the drawing.


2. Traditional Still Life

(cc) Nico Klopp 1928

The traditional set-up of a still life - draped fabric, a bowl of fruit, jug, bottle of wine, or a vase of flowers, usually combines a variety of textures, patterns and shapes to allow the artist to show off their technique, and to delight the viewer in doing so. Probably the hardest thing is getting a pleasing arrangement! It's really easy for a traditional still life to look boring. Probably the most common mistake is flat lighting, though the conseqences of that depend on how you handle the picture. A shadow box or dark background, combined with a single light source, does much to create interest. Or, you can heighten color and look for an interesting viewpoint, as in this example by Luxembourg post-impressionist Nico Klopp.

3. Contemporary Still Life

(cc) Ed Annink

Contemporary is a pretty broad ranging term these days, but in this context I'm thinking about looking for new materials, crisp design and clean, hard lighting. Forget vintage, heirloom or traditional. Go for modern clean-cut looks (skip the postmodern cultural eclecticism), urban grungy metal or sterile plastic with fluorescent light. Arrange a few stainless steel utensils on a black background, and do a tonal study in graphite pencil, or look for plastic objects with interesting cut-outs and moulding. Machine-made objects can be tricky - a flexicurve ruler makes smooth curved lines easier to draw. The look is hard-edged, clean, crisp and unromantic.

4. Vintage Still Life

Val Gardena doll (cc) by Wolfgan Moroder

Arrange some kid's toys, especially wooden ones, and old storybooks. A single object cropped in close, or a group on a window-sill can look great. Rocking chairs, old kettles, a ball of yarn and knitting pins. Add pattern with checked fabrics - floral if you have the patience for it - and look for worn surfaces, rust and peeling paint. Try a charcoal or pastel drawing. Create a permanent 'coffee stain' by 'stamping' with a coffee mug and sepia ink, and spatter some over the paper. Add some crumples. Cream colored paper and sepia ink or pencils, or a muted palette, can all add to a vintage feel. Alternatively try cream or off-white paper with the just-faded brights reminiscent of vintage magazines and posters.

5. Narrative or Illustration

There is a strong narrative tradition in many forms of art. The artist arranges the subject so that the viewer has the feeling of walking in on a story - one that is in progress, has just happened, or is about to happen. A bloody knife, a broken object, historical items and photographs, clothes on a chair - objects can be loaded with meaning. A traditional narrative painting will usually be full of figures with dramatic gestures and action. In still life, the objects need to communicate for you. Imagine the protagonist in your 'story' has just left the room - perhaps in a great hurry! What is left behind? The most successful examples are when you manage to hint to the viewer without being too obvious or illustrative.

6. Major Project - Telling a Story

(cc) Naama Ym

Tell the story of an object's life through a series of drawings. For example: a mug in brown wrapping tied with string; Steaming on a cosy table with a beloved's teacup alongside; sitting alone on a draining board; sitting on a desk full of pencils, with a torn photograph; broken in pieces in the wastebasket. You might tell the story of a beloved teddy, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of wine, or a dollar bill. Need a challenge? Look for the most mundane object you can think of! Contemporary objects - such as a mobile phone - can be difficult, because we have no artistic tradition to refer to when representing them.

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