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A set of notes to help those setting out to do a picture  from a three dimensional object.

Many of these points will also assist those doing portraits from life

and the notes take more time to look at the drawing process

STILL LIFE   Drawing basics 1     The PICTURE FORMAT

To get a good example of the scene or subject in front of us, we need to develop some basic skills in looking at the subject and assessing the best format, size, and content for our picture.

I will look first at the essentials and give some pointers towards getting the necessary techniques and  then go on to look at specific examples.


An upright view of the picture                            is called ‘portrait’ and is the usual shape for taller subjects - including portraits !

A wider and shorter view is called ‘landscape’                                   as this is the usual format for

views of the countryside.

This is not to say that all portraits are tall and thin and all landscapes are  short and fat !

The decision over the shape of the picture depends a lot on what elements we wish to include

and how we wish to focus the attention of the viewer

I don’t want to make too big an issue over this,

but from the two pictures seen here you will

quickly see that sometimes a ‘landscape’ looks good

in portrait format, and sometimes a portrait can

look better in a landscape format !

The way you show the viewer your selected scene will make a huge impact on the success of your work.  If you think back to how you take a photograph, you will remember that - these digital days - you often have the choice to not only take the photo differently by turning the camera round from landscape to portrait view, but also to zoom the lens in and out and include far more of the scene or concentrate just on a detail.  

Even if you were to take a wide angle view and include a lot of the scene, you can still crop down the picture later to make a better picture.

This use of the viewfinder /screen on the camera is a very convenient way of looking at all your picture options and if you don’t have a camera available, you can make a simple frame to aid your selection of the best view and the most suitable format.  You can cut an aperture in a piece of scrap card as shown below

It can help if you mark the inside edge of the cut out area into thirds at the top and quarters at the bottom and similarly at the sides.

This identifies the quarters and thirds of your scene, and using the thirds marks enables you to keep your main focus point near one of the the golden section points.

If you want to know more about this, follow the link

STILL LIFE  Drawing basics 4  -  Relative Positions

1.  Assess a critical focus point from which distances across the object will be measured.

2.  Look for shapes within the object

3.  Make sure you keep a constant position so that the eye line remains the same to the subject

4.  Take a digital photo if you can

  How does all this work in practice?

    For example......  select the image such as that seen below and look at it as if

               it was still a collection of separate three dimensional objects

A good point to start might well be the lighter coloured egg

and the edge nearest the centre of the picture where the edge

of the egg meets the diagonal line of shadow in the cloth.

A. Note that the egg is not circular -

the shape is oval - ish and there is a shadow across the top surface

that is not exactly a mirror of the lower edge of the egg seen below it.

A good place to start might be to draw the curved line at the top of

the egg and try to establish the two lower lines.  

Draw them in lightly and use a turquoise pencil for the lines

where the egg meets the satin and a pale grey line for the shadow edge

Make sure that all your initial lines are drawn in lightly - you may need to erase and adjust several times.   

Next we will look at that diagonal shadow.  Consider the angle from vertical - it is about 45 degrees.    The line of darkest shadow meets the left hand egg about centre of the first egg’s left hand side curve.

Now let us see if we can place the next ( left hand ) egg.

The egg is also oval in shape and the axis of the oval follows the red dotted line shown here

The next steps all build on the shapes we are assembling, so we need to keep comparing the shapes we have drawn with the original solid items.

This is why it is essential to keep a constant position - any sideways or up and down head movement will result in errors of placement and shape

Check to see that the gap between the two eggs is correct and that the fold in the material falls at the correct place.

The space between the two eggs is described as a Negative Space and the correct drawing of this will determine whether the two eggs are correctly positioned.

We look at Negative spaces in more detail below in part 5

STILL LIFE  Drawing basics 6    Getting the distances and the angles right

Working with coloured pencil, we have an instant ruler in our hand to check measurements

The pencil itself.

If we hold up the pencil in our eyeline ( between eye and subject ) we can assess the first measurement across a critical part of the subject.  Here it could be the first apple and the vertical measurement across the centre of the apple.

Check this by moving the fingers up the pencil so that at a comfortable point between you and the apple ( one that it is easy to go back to ) you can fix the distance from top of the pencil to your fingers as the distance across the apple from north to south.

You can now take this exact measurement to the paper and check your drawn apple size.

This will be the master measurement that will enable you to get all the other measurements correct


The first step in all following measurements will be to check that first length from the artwork to the apple

That makes sure that your hand is exactly the same distance from your eye as when you took the first check.

Now, without changing the distance of pencil to eye, check your next measurement and mark the distance on to your paper.  

By rechecking that North-South length of the first apple at any time you can easily confirm that other distances accurately compare.

You can also use your pencil guide to check angles where there are critical lines within the picture.

For example in this egg picture,

We can easily check that the diagonal

fold is at the correct angle in our

picture by taking the line of the pencil

from the subject and checking it against

our drawing

Is our subject to be a single item ? -

       or a collection of items, so that we can examine the relationship between them ?

For the apple - should we include a plate ?

If we do, should it be plain or patterned ?

Do we want one or two apples  or a collection of different fruit?

What about the angle from which we view the apples ?  Is a flat view or a more overhead view best ?

All the answers to these questions are a matter of opinion, but I will look at the options with you

A is a little forlorn sitting up there on it’s own near the top of the picture.

B is better, it gives stronger light and shade but the apple is too central

C is better still as it has two apples overlapping and the plate has a pattern which matches the background.

The cold blue is a good foil for the warm reds and golds of the fruit.  The viewpoint is lower so we see more of the side of the fruit and I think this is an improvement.

D compares a single apple on the blue plate from a higher viewpoint,

E two apples from the higher viewpoint and

F the reverse layout with two apples.

For the moment we will proceed with version F

and see where it gets us.


for next step to this

part of the topic



Is your VIEWPOINT ideal , Can you make the composition better by moving yourself or some of the subject elements around ?    

Sometimes it is easier to assess the subject if it is not too close to us . The shape of objects placed very near can change dramatically with just a small change of our seating position -

or even just change in position of the head.

Your SITTING POSITION is vital when working a picture of a small three dimensional object placed fairly close to you. Any major movement to your head will result in the sight line changing and the possibility of confusion in what you should be showing in your picture.  

For a landscape where the subject is some distance away, your head position is not so vital.  

You would not want to move your seat though !

If you are working on a small still life in a larger studio enviroment, you may be able to identify the best position to look at your subject and then - without moving your head - make a note of other reference points in the room.  If you do have to get up from your seat, you may then find it easier to return your head to the exact spot to continue after - say - a coffee break.

Are you COMFORTABLE ?  - can you remain in the viewing position for an extended time or can you be sure we can get back to the exact position with your head, if you need to.

Is the SUBJECT likely to change ?  - again, not so much a problem for still life -

though if you take too long recording flowers they may fade and die before you finish.

With Landscape you need to be aware of how the scene will change during the day.

The sun’s position will change, people and cars will come and go, ...... at the seaside, the tide will come in and go out.

A camera image will certainly assist later if you need to complete your picture at home.

If you are working a portrait, ensure that your sitter is comfortable and has the chance to relax from time to time and also easily return to the same sitting position after a break.

How well can you SEE your subject ?

That sight line is vital.

Are you looking at the subject AND the working surface on the same plane ?  

By this I mean that if your sight line from your seat is straight ahead to the subject of the picture, your sight line to the working surface should be the same.

If you try working a landscape on a flat table top and have to change your sight line up to the subject to check on details and position, and then back down to the horizontal work surface, your resulting picture may well suffer from major distortions.  This is even more likely when working portraits and still life subjects.

For this reason art colleges supply upright easels for studio work so that the student’s eye line is constant between subject and artwork. There is minimal head movement.

You need an easel that will provide a reasonably upright position for the work surface.

Table top easels need to be stable and heavy enough to take your working pressure of pencil or pastel without moving. Many are only suitable for brush work which applies much less pressure to the working surface.

A sloping drawing board is the very least you should be working on.

Working a landscape picture flat on a table when the reference subject is vertically in front of you, opens up the possibility that your picture verticals will be distorted when you view the finished picture on a wall

- of course you may wish to do this to correct the original distortions of a photograph.  You just need to be aware.

STILL LIFE  Drawing basics 3  -  VIEWPOINT

StILL LIFE  Drawing basics 5    NEGATIVE SPACES

When we work from life, we have to be aware that the subject may well comprise a number of elements and the picture is not merely the transfer of those solid parts of our picture to the paper, but also the correct placing of negative spaces - the shapes and sizes of the spaces in between.  The way we see how the parts of the picture go together also helps us in drawing the shapes correctly.  In drawing a group of items, it is often easiest to identify and draw the main negative shape between them.

What do I mean by this ?

When we look at the elements of our picture, our eye goes to the shapes that are defined by clear edges and we tend then to examine the objects within the shapes.

For example, If we look at the fruit in the picture here,

our eye and pencil hand would take a first

check on the fruit themselves.



                                                                                                                 These are positive spaces


When we draw from the actual objects,

we need to be aware of negative spaces

as well, as getting these exact shapes fixed

in our minds enables us to position the

positive parts of the subject in the

correct positions

                             These are Negative Spaces

STILL LIFE   Drawing basics 8  


In order to show a three dimensional object in two dimensions, we need to be aware of the ways in which the viewer’s eye can be convinced of the shape of the items in front of them.  This knowledge helps us select the right articles for our subject and also how they will be displayed

We can do this by using light and shadow and the various stages in between

Let us go back to our apple

The shadow at the lower left of the fruit

contrasts with the lighter area to the top and right

and the bright highlight confirms the roundness

of the subject.

The Apple looks solid even though it is

A photo on a flat surface

If we have a suitable subject, we can use patterns and lines on the surface of the subject which follow the shape and show how it curves.

You can see here how the designs on the vase

take the eye around the shape

and  the perspective of the lower bands

also show the curve in the side view


you can see how the shadows and marks on the carrots

the lines on the onion skins

and the gills on the mushrooms all enable us to

Give volume and shape

to the images  by using pattern and shadows

STILL LIFE   Drawing basics 7    


So if we now have the subject in an ideal position with the right lighting and the shadows as we would wish, We can now look at the paper the artwork is going on to.

I will assume that we have suitable paper for the medium either in pad form or attached to a board.

Is the board comfortable to work on ?

Where do we start and how big is the image to be ?

A good approach is to decide on a picture sited well within the paper edges - keep well away from the edges of the paper, you don’t know when you start exactly where you are going to need to extend your picture.  A still life of an apple may not be a crisis matter if it is too big, but a full length portrait of someone will look a little odd if it finishes up without feet.

Let us go back to our apple picture.

I will select the two apples in this picture to work on

And because it is taller than it is wide, I will select portrait format

I will now do a diagrammatic image to show what I mean about sizing.

Assume the paper is the dotted line rectangle shown below

and I start off with the first apple lined out on the paper ( 1 )

I then add the second line for the second apple  ( 2 )

Then I add the plate outline ( 3 )

I think the word here is ‘ Oops ! ‘  -  the green area of the plate is off the paper

If we had lightly marked out the size of

the outside rectangle frame which we thought

we would need first,

Within the edges of the paper,

We could have completed the image outline

and simply adjusted the frame to suit

It is always best to work well within the outer edges of the paper

It enables you to re-shape the picture later if necessary.

This section completed in 2011

and re-arranged  October 2014

Next Page

STILL LIFE  Drawing basics 2 -  COMPOSITION