Updated: May 15, 2021
Do you like to draw? I sure do, and always have. Over the years, I’ve filled countless sketchbook. I bet you have too. But, how many drawings have you done of a still life you set up? Have you taken any of them to a finish? Well, I can’t say I have too many of those. It’s hard to get the right objects together and then properly light what you’re planning to draw, isn’t it? If that’s what’s keeping you from creating awesome drawings, I’ve got a few tips that’ll help you out.
Before we get into object selection, composition, set up and lighting, let’s have a look at the different drawing papers you can use for your next drawn masterpiece.
Drawing papers come in a variety of sizes, weights, colours and textures. Which one is right for you? It all depends on what you’re going to be doing on your drawing paper.
Here’s a list of different papers and what you can use them for:
Tracing Paper – is a 25 lbs paper. It’s very thin and almost see-through. Sheets of it are available in pads ranging from 9x12” to 19x24” or rolls. This isn’t something you’d use to draw or sketch on but it’s a great tool to use when you’re designing a composition.
Newsprint – is a 30 – 35 lbs paper. It’s a cheap, greyish coloured, low quality paper made from coarse wood pulp that’s used for exactly what you think, newspapers. But, artists have uses for it too. It’s one of the best things for rough, fast sketches like those you’d do when figure drawing gestures, short poses and practice drawings. Newsprint is available in large sheets, pads and rolls.
Light Weight Drawing Paper – is a step up from newsprint but it’s also best used as a practice paper or for experimenting with your drawing materials. This 50 – 60 lbs paper can be used for pencil, charcoal, coloured pencils and pastel drawings. It’s a bit too thin for ink or markers, both of which will bleed through to the sheets underneath the one you’re working on. It’s also not recommended for finished work. You can buy this weight of sketching paper in various sized pads, either spiral or top bound.
You can also get hardcover sketchbooks in this weight of paper. They’re perfect for sketching on-the-go. Soft cover sketchbooks don’t wear well when travelling in a backpack, purse or other bag you carry your art supplies around in, but a hardcover sketchbook holds up to a lot of abuse and keeps your sketches safe inside. These are available as book bound or spiral bound, and in a variety of sizes.
Tip: how do you know you’re buying a good book bound sketchbook? It’ll lay flat on the table when you open it.
Medium Weight Drawing Paper – is available in 70 – 80 lbs pads and sheets. It’s suitable for finished work and you can use just about any drawing medium on it. The best part about getting into drawing papers of this weight is that you have a good variety of colours and textures to choose from that will help you get the drawing effects you’re interested in.
Here's something you may not know: if you pick a mid-toned colour of drawing paper for your drawing, you can focus on your lights and darks much more easily since the paper itself is already giving you the mid-tone in your drawing. Handy, eh?
Artist: Peter Mortimer
Heavy Weight Drawing Paper – is available in weights from 90 – 110 lbs. It’s available in various sizes as single sheets or in paper pads that you can easily remove sheets from. They’re a great addition to the paper supplies in your studio. These papers are heavy enough to be cardstock and stand up to markers, light watercolour paint or pencil work, ink and mixed media.
It’s also available in sketchbooks. Robert Bateman sketchbooks are my fave! The paper in them is 110 lb. This brand is spiral bound so you can open it up flat when you’re drawing. Also, the pages aren’t perforated, which I prefer to pads that are. These kinds of sketchbooks are a kind of diary or record of where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. You don’t want pages accidentally being ripped out of it.
Heavy Papers – are considered those that are 140 lbs and up. These papers are mostly used for painting. They can be found in sketchbooks, pads and are available as single sheets.
Setting Up Your Still Life Drawing
Now that you have a good idea about drawing papers and what your options are, we can get into how you can go about setting up a successful still life to draw.
Let’s start with location. Where are you going to be setting up your still life for drawing? My suggestion is to make sure you pick a spot in your studio where it won’t be disturbed. You may need your set up for days, weeks or even months depending on the scope of your project and how much time you have to work on it. I’d suggest a corner of the room on a solid surface. Whether I’m drawing or painting, I use the top of my paper storage for still life set ups.
Next, determine if you’ll be sitting or standing when you draw. This makes a big difference in perspective and how you’ll be seeing your composition. You may need to raise or lower the surface you set up your objects on.
Also, will you be using natural or artificial light? Keep in mind, natural light changes during the day while artificial light stays consistent. I’d suggest a source of artificial light for a set up that you’ll be using for more than one sitting. Check out the 3T Art Blog post The Artist’s Studio – Part III – Lighting to learn about different kinds of lighting.
However, you can use natural light for your drawing composition. For instance, if you set up a composition that you intend to photograph and use the photo as your reference to draw from, then natural light is a good option for you. You should still put your set up in a location that you won’t be tripping over as it could take you a few days to get your shot just right.
Once you’ve determined these basic things, it’s time to think about your composition. There are some things you should consider when figuring out how your objects are going to interact with each other. It’s a bit of a puzzle when you first start, but as you go along, moving your objects here and there, you’ll begin to see how they look best together. While you're arranging your objects, think about how much higher one object is then the other and how the negative space looks between them.
Stay flexible. You may have picked too many objects or maybe the colours you’re putting together aren’t quite what you imagined. This is the time to play with your set up. Remove the extras and switch up your colours so they work together instead of fighting each other.
Give yourself time to:
Think about your background
Decide what surface your objects would look best on
Work at overlapping your objects to create depth in your drawing
Rearrange your groupings, then tweak them to make it look even better
Also consider the objects you’ve selected. Are they similar in size and shape? If they are, swap some of them out for larger or smaller objects, or ones that have different shapes. Your composition needs to be interesting, not just for your viewer, but for you too. Staying interested in what you’re working on is the best way to end up with a finished drawing.
I picked some basic, every-day objects for our drawing project, making sure to vary the sizes of the objects. I chose all white objects along with a white surface to sit them on. Why white? You’ll be able to see the values better and understand easier how lighting changes your composition.
Here’s what I started with:
Not very exciting is it? Where’s the drama? Still life set ups need contrast in light and dark to create a mood. Without that it’s all really a bit boring, just like the image above.
The main problem here is I’ve not selected light source. There was one artificial light source on the objects from a clip light above to the right and there was also light coming in from the bay windows on the left. This is why the shadows are so washed out.
You’ll notice too that the creamer and sugar bowl have very little information on them. They look flat. It would be very difficult at this point for you to add values in the right places to give these objects form and the three dimensional effect they’d need in your drawing.
Things began to change once the blinds covering the windows were closed. The darks became a bit more defined but there was still a long way to go.
I still wasn’t at all happy with the composition. I moved the objects around, tried the spoon in different places at the suggestion of my artist friend, finally realizing the problem was with the objects themselves.
It’s always better to have groupings with an uneven number of objects in them. I was working with two objects (sugar bowl, lid and spoon can be considered one object in this case) and they were both similar in size. I needed to add something much smaller and the sugar cubes were the perfect fit in size, colour and theme.
After moving the objects around a bit more, I was finally happy with the new composition. The objects overlapped each other giving the grouping a sense of depth. The negative spaces were good too. I also liked how the objects interacted and that I had lights and darks beside each other which will make it easier when it comes to shading our drawing.
I decided on using artificial lighting from a single source for this project from the start and tried it out in three different locations. I chose this because it’s important to have a consistent light source on your still life. It’s good to have a set up that allows you to be flexible with your time. If you’re like me, and like to work both during the day and at night, it’s the best solution.
1. I used a single light source on my composition from the top right hand side.
You can see this was a good start. There are some good shadows and the lights and darks are beginning to form, but there still isn’t enough information to easily create form for the objects. They’re almost equally mid-toned all around.
2. My second single source lighting location was about midway from where the first light source had been located and where the objects were set up.
The problem with this lighting set up is that it actually blows out the objects too much. You can see that the shadows are more pronounced, but when it comes to finding information about the form of the objects, especially the creamer, it’s mostly light, no mid-tone, and just a slight bit of dark.
We’re on the right track by lowering our light source. If you look at the sugar bowl, you’ll see that it has more information about its form than the previous lighting set up had.
3. So, what do you think will happen if we take our light source right down to the surface that the composition is sitting on? Let’s find out!
With the light source coming from almost under the objects, we end up with what we were looking for. Here’s the drama! The forms are well defined. The shadows are long, so long in fact that they extend to the wall behind the objects. This gives the set up depth and it will help you create three dimensional objects on your flat sheet of paper.
The creamer sits behind the sugar bowl and its lid nicely. There’s quite a bit of reflected light on the objects and you can see a light, mid-tone and dark side on each of the sugar cubes.
We have a winner!
This is the set up and lighting that we’ll be using in the next 3T Art Blog post when we sit down, or stand, to draw our composition.
I’ll show you different ways to approach it, how to measure for accuracy and what drawing pencils to use so you can get the most out of your next still life drawing.
Look forward to seeing you next time!
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