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How to Compose a Still Life

March 16, 2011

by Nolan Clark

Have you ever found yourself sitting in front of a blank canvas / page wondering what to paint or draw next? Why not try your hand at composing a still life?

What is a still life?

A still life is a scene consisting of inanimate objects. It is traditionally a posed scene, but it can also be an inanimate scene you have discovered like a row of pots in the garden.
Today we are going to look at how to compose or stage our own still life. To do this all we need to do is follow a simple 5 step process :

Step 1 : Choose your composition style

The first step in the process is to choose what composition style you are going to use. There are 17 different styles you can use, eg., U-shape, L-shape and Symmetrical. Knowing which composition style you are going to use in advance makes it easier to choose the objects you are going to use in the still life. If you would like to know more about the different composition styles we get, then you can take a look the excellent DVD that Dennis has made called “Composition Made Easy“. The DVD covers all 17 different styles.

For today’s lesson I have chosen the L-shape composition. You can see how this looks below :

L Shape Composition
L Shape Composition

Step 2 : Choose the objects for your still life composition

Next we can choose the objects we want to use in the still life. I prefer to use objects that compliment or are related to each other, eg., groups of kitchen utensils, or groups of toys, or a variety of gardening tools, even your lunch can make a great still life composition.

Choosing the objects for a still life

Even your lunch can make a great still life

There is however no rule that says you have to group similar or complimentary objects together to form your still life. If the objects look good together to you, then that is all that matters.

My favourite place to find objects for a still life is the kitchen as all the objects already compliment each other. For this tutorial a flour tin caught my eye and I discovered a tub of blueberries in the fridge, so the subject for my still life became “Making blueberry muffins”. (You can see I did this tutorial just before lunch 😉 ) After I had found a subject or theme for my still life, it was easy for me to choose the rest of the objects for the still life.

Still Life Objects

The objects I chose for my still life

Step 3 : Arranging the objects in your still life

When arranging the objects you have chosen for your still life, it is important to always keep your chosen composition style in mind. Doing this is key to creating a still life that is pleasing to the eye. Add and remove items to the still life to form the composition style you have chosen.

Don’t be scared to scratch around for extra items, or leave items out that you originally selected in order to create your composition style.

Also choose a background that will show your objects to best effect. I like to use old cutains or pieces of material. When drawing or painting the scene I may change the background completely. The idea here is to find get the contrasts in the scene right. In other words do I need to use a light or dark background, plain or mottled background, etc. for my objects to stand out best against the background.

Wrong Still Life Background

Wrong Still Life Background

Good Still Life Background

Good Still Life Background

Here is what my initial arrangement looked like :

Initial Still Life Arrangement

My Initial Still Life Arrangement

Step 4 : Grouping the objects in your still life composition

Now that we have our still  life mapped out to the composition style, we can improve the grouping of the objects.

There are 3 types of groupings we can use : Overlapping, touching and separated. :

Overlapping Still Life Objects

Overlapping Still Life Objects

Touching Still Life Objects

Touching Still Life Objects

Separated Still Life Objects

Separated Still Life Objects

You would want to use at least two of the three types of groupings in your still life to keep it interesting.

This is what my grouped arrangement looked like :

Grouped Still Life

Grouped Still Life

Step 5 : Maximise the lighting in your still life

In a still life you want a strong light coming from one direction. Head on or blanket lighting will mean you either can’t see the shadows in the scene or there will be little to no shadows in the scene. This doesn’t make a good still life artwork.

Without shadows and contrasts your still life will be lifeless and flat.

Incorrect Still Life Lighting

Incorrect Still Life Lighting

Good Still Life Lighting

Good Still Life Lighting

You can ensure good shadows and contrasts in your scene by ensuring the light is shining from the side. You can even further increase the contrasts by composing your still life inside a box and / or lighting it with a spotlight.

Also try turning the items in the scene to see which direction will give you the best effect.

Now you can transfer the still life to your drawing paper or canvas. The easiest way to do that is to take a photo of the still life, print it out and then use one of the transfer methods (like the grid method) to redraw it.

You could of course draw it freehand too. Doing this is great fun, great practice and when you are done, you feel a great sense of accomplishment.

If you do decide to redraw the scene freehand, don’t stress if the proportions and dimensions aren’t 100% accurate in the beginning. As the drawing progresses and you start to fill in details, you will be able to see which dimensions, etc., are wrong. You can then tweak as you go. By the time you are finished, your drawing will be pretty accurate.

The more you draw freehand, the more accurately you will be able to redraw a scene – and besides most people will only see your final artwork and not the actual still life, so unless your angles and proportions are way out, nobody will ever know the objects didn’t look exactly like you have drawn them.

Have fun composing and drawing / painting your still life. Please post them on the forum so I can see the results. Here is what my still life drawing looks like :

Making Blueberry Muffins Still Life

Making Blueberry Muffins Still Life

PS – If you enjoyed this still life composition tutorial, please Like, Share, Tweet it etc below. Clicking any of the Like type buttons on the page will not send you away from this page.

PPS – You can find more tutorials like this on our Online Art Classes page as well as on the forum.
For more indepth lessons, please take a look at our online art courses.

Cya next time
Nolan Clark

Recommended for You 

Composition Made Easy DVD

Composition Made Easy DVD


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