art4you Scotland

Still Life – the fun and the challenges

The attraction of still life over landscape – the arrangement of objects, lighting and also the viewpoint is your choice.

If you are ne to the subject of still life, it pas to begin with some simple arrangements. You don’t even have to leave the house to find something suitable to paint. Interesting items can be found in the kitchen, toll shed or garden.

Start with an initial idea and make a number of small design sketches to clarify and solidify the idea. Drawing helps to familiarise yourself with the arrangement, shapes, light and tones. It leaves a footprint and muscle memory which will help during the painting process. Once you are happy with an arrangement, set about drawing the final composition before you start to paint.

Light and Shadows

One of the great benefits of painting still life is the opportunity to study closely the effects of light, especially in areas of shadow. Remember that shadows are not just grey. When light hits an object, such as an orange, some of the colour will be reflected into the shadow. Also keep in mind that bright, direct light creates hard-edged shadows while indirect, soft light will cause the shadows to be more diffused and less obvious.

Contour drawing

Once you are happy with the arrangement, make a contour drawing. Keep the drawing fee by holding the pencil loosely in your hand and keep it moving on the paper without loosing contact – also called one-line-drawing. Standing up whilst drawing gives you a more overall view and allows you to move the entire arm and step back to observe.

Imagine the tip of the pencil tracing the outline of the object as it moves across the paper. Focus on the negative shapes – the spaces you see between objects. Draw what you see not what you think you know. The negative objects are just as important as the physical objects. It helps with the proportion and relations of the objects.


Once you’re happy with the outline, begin to use the paint. Start by focusing on the largest areas, building the painting up in stages. Block in the composition, add lighter areas, create contrast and refine effects.

Towards the final stages of the painting, add the smaller details. This is the stage where most of the damage can be done resist the temptation to overwork the painting.

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