Still life, peppermint bottle, 1895 – Paul Cezanne


Still-Life with Yellow Straw Hat by GOGH, Vincent van


The point of constructing a still life set is not to waste your time, but to give you a realistic foundation from which to base your drawing. If you do not have to imagine or guess what light may be falling on your scene or what a background may look like, it’s easier to draw.

Still life drawings in this manner allow you to get the correct perspective, bring out shadows, highlights, and texture, and experiment with compositional elements. All this happens before your pencil even hits the paper! In the end, it saves you time and it’s a fantastic practice you can use to develop your artistic skills.

A3615, GAUGUIN, Still Life with Ham, 1889.jpg
GAUGUIN, Still Life with Ham, 1889
  1. Choose your location. A good directional light source is the key to a strong drawing or painting and a lamp or bright window is perfect.
  2. Adjust the lighting. If the room lighting is diffused, use a board or shadow box to control the light falling on your subject. You might need to be creative and use a reflective material like kitchen foil wrapped over a board to reflect light or blankets and cardboard boxes to block it.
  3. Think about your background. Architectural features such as a window frame or a 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. Decide on a surface. A woodgrain table can look great, but only if you’re confident with handling the detail as taking shortcuts 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 pattern to add a little color without going overboard.
  5. Choose your objects. Beginners should avoid oddly shaped objects that might look ‘wrong’ even when you get 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.
  6. Arrange the group. When arranging, consider compositional elements and avoid bland central positioning 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. It can be as simple as an empty frame cut out of a white or black board. This will block out all distraction and allow you to assess the composition and consider its placement on the paper.
Berthe Morisot. Chrysanthemums or Overturned Basket. 1885.
Mary Cassatt. Lilacs in a Window (Vase de Lilas a la Fenetre). 1880-83


  • If using natural light, take photos to refer to once the light starts to change.
  • Also take photographs if using perishables (especially flowers) or where your work may be disturbed.
  • Transparent and reflective objects, such as bottles and metal objects, can be challenging but are an excellent exercise in detailed observation.
  • Fruit is a great start as the natural shapes are a little more forgiving and give you interesting textures to work with.
Frida Kahlo.  Qué bonita es la vida cuando nos da de sus riquezas (How Beautiful Life is When it Gives Us Its Riches). 1943

This is an article from Thought Co: Lifelong Learning. A few photos were added.