Things to Draw: Objects and Still Life

Ideas for Still Life Drawings, From Traditional to Contemporary

a lake with green foliage reflected
Aliraza Khatri's Photography / Getty Images

Are you having trouble figuring out what to draw? Finding a subject isn't always easy, but ideas are all around you. One of the best options is a drawing of simple objects, which are typically known as still life drawings.

Interesting objects are all around you. From the basic apple in your kitchen to a small scene you've set up using common objects. Still life drawing is both fun and challenging. It's a fabulous way to develop your technical skills and practice drawing techniques. It also allows you to explore your ideas through art.

There are many ways to use an object or still life to tell a story or evoke a feeling through your drawing. Whether you are drawing a simple, single object or a complicated object, this kind of drawing allows you complete control of your subject.

Let's see if we can't spur a few ideas for your next sketch.

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The Simplicity of the Still Life

drawing of a group of snake eggs

ilbusca / Getty Images

A single object is all about simplicity. The entire focus is on that object, the surface on which it sits, the fall of light and shadow, its surface decoration, and composition.

Consider a very simple exercise - draw an egg or a piece of fruit, using a single light source to practice shading. Think about form, volume, weight, texture, contrast, line, detail, and surface.

When composing a drawing with a single object, the position on the page is important: think about the distance of its edges from the 'frame' of the page. Whether you crop in closely or leave plenty of white space changes the feel of the drawing.

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The Traditional Still Life

Still Life With Fruit

ilbusca / Getty Images

The traditional set-up of a still life -- draped fabric, a bowl of fruit, jug, a bottle of wine, or a vase of flowers -- usually combines a variety of textures, patterns, and shapes to allow the artist to show off their technique and to delight the viewer.

The biggest challenge is getting a pleasing arrangement. It's really easy for a traditional still life to look boring, so you need to really examine your set before putting pencil to paper.

The most common mistake is flat lighting, though the consequences of that depend on how you handle the picture.

A shadow box or dark background combined with a single light source does much to create interest. You can also heighten the color and look for an interesting viewpoint, as in this antique illustration of classic food.

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The Contemporary Still Life

contemporary drawing

 SireAnko/ Getty Images

'Contemporary' is a broad-ranging term these days, but in this context, we're looking for new materials with crisp design and clean, hard lighting.

Forget vintage, heirloom or traditional. Go for modern clean-cut looks (skip the postmodern cultural eclecticism), urban grungy metal, or sterile plastic with fluorescent light. Arrange a few stainless steel utensils on a black background, and do a tonal study in graphite pencil, or look for plastic objects with interesting cut-outs and molding.

Machine-made objects can be tricky - a flexicurve ruler makes smooth curved lines easier to draw. The look is hard-edged, clean, crisp, and unromantic.

While this style of still life can be quite a challenge, the results can be spectacular.

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The Vintage Still Life

charcoal drawing of high heels

fmajor / Getty Images 

If you're looking for a project that mixes traditional and modern, turn to the vintage still life. This gives you the opportunity to work with older objects, employ modern composition, and play with interesting drawing techniques to make the drawing look as old as the object.

Create an arrangement of antique wooden kid's toys (or the like) and old storybooks. Rocking chairs, old kettles, a ball of yarn and knitting pins have visual interest as well. A single object cropped in close or a group on a window-sill can look great.

Add pattern with checked fabrics or floral if you have the patience for it. Look for worn surfaces, rust, and peeling paint.

Try a charcoal or pastel drawing. Create a permanent 'coffee stain' by 'stamping' with a coffee mug and sepia ink, and splatter some over the paper. Add some crumples.

Cream colored paper and sepia ink or pencils, or a muted palette, can all add to a vintage feel. Alternatively, try cream or off-white paper with the just-faded brights reminiscent of vintage magazines and posters.

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Still Life for Narrative or Illustration

Illustration of a two hands holding a clump of dirt with a plant sprouting from it.

 Radius Images / Getty Images

Many forms of art have a strong narrative tradition. The artist arranges the subject so that the viewer has the feeling of walking in on a story - one that is in progress, has just happened or is about to happen.

A bloody knife, a broken object, historical items, and photographs, clothes on a chair - objects can be loaded with meaning.

A traditional narrative painting will usually be full of figures with dramatic gestures and action. In still life, the objects need to communicate the story for you. Imagine that the protagonist in your 'story' has just left the room - perhaps in a great hurry! What is left behind?

The most successful examples are when you manage to hint to the viewer without being too obvious or illustrative.

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Tell a Story Through a Bigger Project

woman making a charcoal drawing

 RoBeDeRo / Getty Images

Tell the story of an object's life through a series of drawings.

For example, a mug in brown wrapping tied with string as if it were a gift. Draw it steaming on a cozy table alongside a beloved's teacup; sitting alone on a draining board; sitting on a desk full of pencils, with a torn photograph; broken in pieces in the wastebasket. What does this tell you? Is it a story of heartbreak or loss?

You might tell the story of a beloved teddy, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of wine, or a dollar bill. Need a challenge? Look for the most mundane object you can think of and create a story for it.

Contemporary objects - such as a mobile phone - can be difficult, because we have no artistic tradition to refer to when representing them. Instead, think about using something that most viewers have a long history with and can spark emotion.