What is Still Life Drawing: Why Every Artist Should Learn This Skill

A still-life drawing focuses on inanimate objects that is, objects that never move. These typically consists of household vegetables, flowers, or fruits. It also may include deceased animals, especially game animals. You can also use statues, vases, glasses, bowls etc.

What is the history of still life drawing?

Early still-life works, particularly before 1700 often included religious and allegorical symbols. 

The trompe-l’oeil painting that seeks to fool the viewer into thinking the scene is real is a very special form of still life showing normally inanimate and very flat objects.

Still life as a particular style started with Dutch paintings in the 16th and 17th century and the English term still life derives from the Dutch word ‘stilleven’.

Though you will find it hard to find any Dutch still life drawings there are plenty of examples of dutch still life paintings.

The inspiration for this style comes from how these things never move so you can learn about their properties while studying them closely without any fear they will change location.

Why do we draw a still life drawing?

Why even make still life drawings? The ability to produce a successful still life drawing will enhance your entire drawing technique, making you a better artist that can then use those skills across other types of art.

Still life drawings are a great way to learn how to create three-dimensional forms using shading methods and using lighting to develop scenes.

These are all transferable skills that you will use across all art forms.

Who uses still life drawings?

Still Life Drawing is used by lots of different people from artists to scientists to collectors to everyday people for lots of different reasons.

Artists use it to improve their observational skills and learn what makes one object look like another, they also use it as a reference in their own paintings or illustrations.

It’s also important because we can’t always paint what we see or what is in front of us, sometimes what’s real isn’t what looks good to our eyes so being able to draw from a reference can help you paint it better.

Some other less obvious reasons people use still life drawings are: architects and interior designers will often want accurate representations of the things they’re designing for their clients as well as scientific/botanical artists who need detailed illustrations for textbooks or educational purposes.

Still life drawing also provides an interesting challenge because not only do you have to be quick at rendering what you see but there’s another dimension added with shadows that makes it more complex than regular portrait work too.

If you add color to your drawing then that is also another level of complexity, especially when an artist is referring to flowers or plants as part of a botanical study.

What does a typical still life look like?

Different artists choose different styles when their still lifes depending on what kind of style they are trying to achieve.

As mentioned earlier, some artists prefer a more realistic approach while others choose an impressionistic technique for their work.

This is what makes still life drawing so interesting as each artist has their own unique way of tackling it!

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What does the subject matter need?

Still life drawings can be mostly anything inanimate but there’s one major ingredient that will make your scene look complete and that’s lighting and shadows.

The objects you put into the composition should have highlights and cast shadows on other parts of what you’re drawing just like in real-life situations where light sources exist such as windows, lamps, etc.

If this isn’t included then your illustration won’t feel natural enough which means all those hard hours spent perfecting the details of the objects you are drawing for your still life study will be wasted.

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Still life drawings of flowers and plants

When drawing flowers or plants as a subject matter, what you should do is to look at what’s around it and what kind of lighting they are in.

The same goes for other objects so when I say every aspect, I mean everything be it a vase full of flowers or an armchair with the sunlight hitting one side of it.

If you are struggling to compose or arrange flowers and plants, then take a look at how florists arrange their flowers and draw on them for inspiration.

It is also acceptable to follow some of the older works of old masters and learn from them how they composed their still life drawings and paintings.

One thing that you have to keep in mind while drawing your still life compositions is how important light source placement can be which means where exactly will your light come from such as direct sunlight coming through a window than indirect sun rays diffused by cloud cover?

Maybe even spotlights if we’re talking about artificial lights but this topic requires more attention on its own so maybe sometime later I’ll write another post explaining this further.

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Still life drawings of fruits and vegetables

When drawing fruits and vegetables as a subject matter, what you can do is what’s called “value scale” which means to put certain objects against each other to see what’s lighter and what’s darker, what sticks out more than the rest of the shapes.

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Still life drawings of dead animals & insects

When drawing dead animals or insects, it is best to place them on the ground or against the wall to make sure they are supported and won’t collapse.

You can also place it against another subject in the still life drawing such as a vase, or on a plate, or hanging off a hook.

This was a very popular subject matter not too long ago, but people today are a little more squeamish and prefer not to know where meat comes from.

As such, modern still life drawings tend to be more on the flowers, plants, and vegetable side of the equation.

dead animal still life 1
by Frans Snyders

Can still life drawing be realistic or abstract?

Another thing that I have to mention in this post is how there are two main styles when it comes to drawing still life compositions.

One being realistic or naturalistic where objects look exactly like they would in real life but with a slightly artistic flair by adding some elements such as shadows on top of them.

The second style is abstracted realism which takes its inspiration from cubism so everything looks very geometric even fruit pieces get broken down into tiny cubes making these really interesting works for sure!

pablo picasso realistic still life
A well known artist (I can’t mention his name due to copyright restrictions) – Realistic Still Life Drawing
pablo picasso abstract still life
The same well known artist (I can’t mention his name due to copyright restrictions) – Abstract Still Life Drawing

What is the importance of still life drawing and painting?

One of the most important reasons that an artist should learn still life drawing and painting is to help them better understand what they’re going to be painting or drawing before actually doing it.

Benefits of Still Life Drawing

The benefits of learning still life drawing are as follows:

  • Helps you better understand what you’re going to draw before doing it.
  • Teaches the artist how light works on different objects and what kind of shadows they make as well as what kind of textures are created by them.
  • How to compose a drawing such as what is in the foreground and what is in the background.
  • If you’re going to be an artist who’s doing more than just drawing pretty pictures, then this skill becomes even more important for your development.
  • The relationship of an object or objects to their immediate environment, learning scale between objects.
  • Learning how to tell a story using inanimate objects.

How do you make a Still Life Drawing?

This is a very good question because there are so many different styles out there, but here I’m just going to focus on two main ones which are photorealistic still life drawing and abstract realism both have their benefits for artists.

First up we have the photo-realistic style this style is focused more on getting everything into proportion making sure that what your drawing is what it looks like in real life, this style of drawing can be very challenging for the beginner but if you stick with it and practice I guarantee that your drawings will improve immensely.

Next up we have what’s called abstract realism which focuses more on telling a story using objects meaning that although everything might not be proportionate what you’re trying to do here is show emotion through what you draw rather than focusing too much on proportion and realism.

Materials Needed When Doing Still Life Drawing

I suggest starting your still life drawing journey with either some pencils, charcoal, or pastels/crayons instead of starting with any type of paint.

The reason being that these mediums will let you make mistakes and the mistakes won’t detract from the finished product and they will not discourage you to continue.

Grab any paper you have but if you’re starting with charcoal or crayons then try to use the appropriate paper.

I like to draw on simple sketching paper when starting a still life drawing as I will probably do three to four drawings before I am happy with the final composition and lighting that I want to go with, in my final still life drawing.

A lamp for casting light and shadows. You can diffuse the light by placing it behind a white cloth or translucent paper such as vellum/tracing paper.

A small sketching easel with clips to hold up my paper. I find making a still life drawing with the paper upright is much easier to do than when it is on a flat surface as it allows me to look up at the real-life still life objects as I draw them.

A supply of vases, bottles, plates, cups, and glasses of varying shapes, sizes, and styles. You will be able to use these when needed as a prop and if you collect a large enough range you can adjust the style to your still life drawing.

I buy these for pennies at local thrift stores. You can also buy boxes at garage sales for only a few dollars.

Having an Italian background, I also have a nice collection of vintage Bomboniere that were given to my parents across the years.

They may look tacky now but they make a great prop and talking point in any still life drawing or painting.

I also have a little collection of small statues, crosses, skulls and glass flowers that I can add to a still life drawing when needed.

Also try and collect some interesting looking tablecloths or table runners such as those with embroidery or prints on them that can add to a still life’s interest.

Starting your still life drawing

I suggest working loosely and quickly, the same way you would when doing a life drawing class. Use light lines and draw roughly to start with.

Always look up at your models or still life objects as you go along.

Block on shadows and be aware of where the light hits the still life objects.

Look where shadows are cast on the surface such as ground or walls or other objects in the still life drawing.

Slowly add detail.

Do not get caught up in the detail until you are happy with the composition, shadows, and lighting.

That is pretty much it with still life drawing. To get better you have to repeat this over and over until it becomes second nature.

Keep practicing and you will become a master at still life drawing.

How do you draw a good still life?

You will know you have drawn a good still life when you have most of the following items covered in your still life drawing:

  • You measured your subject. This doesn’t mean you sat there with a ruler but you have roughly ensured your orange is not bigger than a melon.
  • Your subject has a variety of shapes from circles to rectangles to ovals and they all vary in size.
  • Your objects have shadows and these shadows have a relationship with the objects around them. That is, your flowers have shadows, and these cast a shadow on the fruit below, etc.
  • They resemble real objects. That doesn’t mean you have to be realistic. Even if you draw an abstract still life, you can still identify still life objects for what they are.
  • They contain some details that help you identify what you have drawn.
  • When you show your still life drawing to someone, they can identify some of the objects.
  • Your still life drawing is balanced. When you hold a mirror up to your still life drawing, the overall drawing looks balanced and not hard too look at.

Still life drawing ideas for beginners and professionals

I have collated a few still life drawing ideas based on traditional still life drawings and paintings by some well-known artists and I have also collated some still life drawing ideas from contemporary artists as well as some unknown artists.

If you are still struggling to get started maybe you can draw some inspiration from these artists and famous still life drawings and paintings.

Famous Still Life Drawings and Paintings

Pablo Picasso – Still Life with Chair Caning

Paul Cezanne – Still Life with Apples and Peaches, c. 1905

Henri Matisse – Still Life 1924

Giorgio Morandi (July 20, 1890 – June 18, 1964), is perhaps the most well-known still life artist of the 20th century, he specialized in representations of vases, flowers, bowls, and bottles.

He collected a large supply of vases and bottles which he used in his still-life works.

Famous Still Life Artists

I have also listed a few famous still life artists that you can follow up with additional research.

Jacob van Hulsdonck

Salvador Dali

Paul Cezanne

What is Still Life Drawing – What’s next?

By learning how light interacts with objects, what certain textures look like when painted correctly as well as seeing what colors look good together you’ll become a much stronger painter in your future endeavors!

We can also use this knowledge for artwork where we might need some reference images, such as taking photographs.

This will greatly affect our practice at creating art because even though what we are doing is not what the final painting is going to look like, it will give us a better understanding of what actually needs to be painted and what can just be left as an impression.

The most important aspect of learning still life drawing is that you don’t need special skills or expensive materials either!

Get started now with still life drawing, you don’t need much to get started. Go to the kitchen, grabs some fruit and vegetables, strategically place them in a bowl and then ensure they have an interesting light source that brings out some interesting features.

All you need:

  • A pencil (HB works best)
  • Paper (drawing pad/canvas whatever floats your boat!)
  • Pencil sharpener (if needed) As well as some objects around the house such as fruit if there’s nothing else available, cereal boxes work great for practicing shadows too.
  • Some sort of lighting. Preferably bright with even light so no harsh shadows appear but this isn’t important.

I hope I have answered all your questions related to what is a still life drawing plus many more that you probably didn’t know you wanted to ask.

Feel free to share this post with anyone you believe would benefit from wanting to know more about not only what still life drawing is but how to get started and what its benefits are.

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