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Creative tips for still life drawing

Published 7 May 2021

As he joins us for the first instalment of our online Saturday Sketch Club, Mark Hampson gives us some practical advice on how to improve your still life drawing.

    • 1. Start with what interests you

      Choose objects to draw that interest YOU, not ones that you think look like historical still life subjects chosen by other artists. Sometimes quoting from these traditional works can be interesting but select a set up with personal significance and individual meaning.

      To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
      And landscape but a background to a torso;
      All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
      For one small Goya or a Daumier.

      W.H. Auden

      Eric Ravilious, The Kitchen Garden in October

      Eric Ravilious, The Kitchen Garden in October.

      Wood-engraving. 198 mm x 128 mm. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond..

    • 2. Explore your object

      “No object is mysterious. The mystery is in the eye.” – Elisabeth Bowman.

      Look for an object’s physical and formal potentials and consider different shapes, scales, surface textures and material qualities to see what they can offer toward making an interesting image you may enjoy.

      You may want to select a variety of objects that create interesting collisions of contrasting information or alternatively related collections of objects that repeat certain properties, rhythms, and themes that sit together in visually satisfying ways.

      Ernest Jackson ARA, Still life and pile of books

      Ernest Jackson ARA, Still life and pile of books.

      Pencil, pen and ink on laid paper.. 319 mm x 215 mm.. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London..

    • 3. What’s your angle?

      Once you’ve decided on a design, begin to think about where you will draw from and experiment with different angles

      Walk around it and look at it from a variety of distances. You may wish to view it from the side at a very acute angle, low down or from a bird’s eye view.

      Consider what these alternative vantage points offer you in terms of composition, dynamism and different ways of seeing.

      Stephen Farthing RA, The Understudy

      Stephen Farthing RA, The Understudy, 1983.

      Oil & beeswax on cottonduck. 1700 x 2412 mm. Photo: R.A./John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

    • 4. Experiment with shadows

      Search out the shadows in your still life and exaggerate them with dramatic and directional lighting.

      The shadows will give your set up vitality and impact. You don’t need to understand the different types of shadows but try and identify the various ways that shadows operate, their colour, density and comparable transparencies.

      Meredith Frampton RA, Still Life

      Meredith Frampton RA, Still Life, 1932.

      Oil on canvas. 123 x 82 cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

    • 5. Look, watch and see!

      Once you’re happy with the setup, the lighting and the compositional angle, really focus on what you are drawing.

      Scrutinise the relationships between the objects that you have chosen, their proximities, overlaps, and comparable proportions.

      Watch how the light affects them and how the shadows move over them. Teach yourself to look at all the facts of the scene as this will allow you to properly see.

      John Armstrong ARA, Still-life

      John Armstrong ARA, Still-life, 1961.

      Part of the RA CollectionOil on canvas. 305 mm x 611 mm x 15 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London.

    • 6. Consider how colour is shown in black and white

      Look at how the colours of the objects affect the drawing’s tonal range.

      Even if you’re drawing in glorious monochromatic pencil, the colours of the objects will affect and inform your decisions. Try squinting at the still life in order to turn down the hues while simultaneously exaggerating the highlights and amplifying the shadows of the objects.

      Jean Cooke RA, Through the Looking Glass

      Jean Cooke RA, Through the Looking Glass, 1960.

      Oil on canvas. 608 mm x 508 mm x 20 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond..

    • 7. Try something new

      “I shut my eyes in order to see.” – Paul Gauguin.

      Although still lives are essentially exercises in observational rendering you can still experiment with other ways of depicting them.

      Practice working blindly, denying the relationship between eyes and hand; work from memory, using alternative physical approaches to create marks and have fun with the facts!

      All of these will result in new artistic discoveries.

      William Scott RA, Still Life with Pears

      William Scott RA, Still Life with Pears, 1957.

      Oil on canvas. 460 mm x 610 mm x 40 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond..

    • 8. Seek out the core shapes

      Getting started on a drawing is often the hardest aspect.

      A good way to begin is to search out the basic forms that best describe the shapes of the objects you are observing. Think of these as building blocks. Look for the core shapes; circles, squares, rectangles and triangles.

      Lightly map these out on your page to create a compositional outline or skeletal structure. Start with the largest shapes and overtime work towards the smaller descriptive forms. By starting with a light sketch this will make it easier for you to correct and adjust anything you want to change.

      Once you have established these initial marks you are free to experiment with confidence and take the drawing on any journey you wish.

      Patrick Symons RA, Still-life with Henbane

      Patrick Symons RA, Still-life with Henbane, ca. 1960.

      Part of the RA CollectionOil and pencil on canvas. 925 mm x 575 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London.

    • 9. Find your own drawing style

      People often ask how to draw. The answer to this question is complicated, subjective and will inevitably divide artistic opinion.

      If you want to learn how to draw in a technical manner or in a traditional academic fashion then there are endless books and online resources and ‘How to’ guides available.

      Perhaps considering how not to draw and how to unlearn technical formulas, and inherited approaches is more interesting. How can you draw in ways that challenge these histories? What can your personal, natural or unique drawing style look like? Experiment to find out!

      Sir George Clausen RA, Still-life sketch of a table top

      Sir George Clausen RA, Still-life sketch of a table top, c. 1915.

      Drawing. 162 mm x 94 mm. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London..

    • 10. Exaggerate, animate and imagine

      As part of your experimentation, think about the imaginative possibilities of the still life and how you can use the information you have in front of you to invent new images and extended compositions.

      Don’t be afraid to exaggerate, animate and imagine what else the objects can be in order to invent new forms, unexpected scenarios and fantastical creatures from strange worlds.

      Cathie Pilkington RA, Still Life

      Cathie Pilkington RA, Still Life, 2020.

      Archival digital print with hand colouring.. 57 x 44 cm.

    • Courses and classes - Saturday morning drawing workshops

      Join our free Saturday Sketch Club

      After a difficult year, we want to celebrate our community. Join Mark Hampson and our other artist tutors live from the Royal Academy for the opportunity to be inspired and get creative, using drawing materials you’ll have at home.

      Each online Saturday morning session will be led by a different artist, and you’re welcome to drop into as many or as few as you’d like. All you’ll need is a pencil and paper, with each session exploring different techniques and styles.