Still life Drawing

Your first few sessions

Tom Emmett a student drawing self portraiture

You should be drawing, say, at least four days a week in order to build on what we’ve been talking about. Learning to draw is like eating an elephant, do it a bit at a time. We start from a very simple place, drawing exactly what’s in front of you. Do it exactly the same size on a piece of paper sat alongside your still life. I suggest you do this half a dozen times. Each time for about thirty minutes to an hour, maybe a little bit longer if your concentration can take it. You can draw the same object time and time again from a different viewpoint.

For these first few drawings just concentrate on the outline and focus on comparing the position of each outline and it’s relationship to any nearby outlines. Look at the space in-between the outlines, try and compare these. Is this space bigger than it should be? Is it in the right position in relation to it’s neighbours?

You can (as you gain confidence) play with the kind of line you use. I suggest that you start off with a relatively soft pencil and rehearse the line without allowing the pencil to touch the paper. When you feel that your arm is moving correctly and the point of the pencil is over the right area you can lower the pencil onto the paper and make the mark. Do this as your arm is moving, this will make the mark seem fresher and more spontaneous. Avoid being tense and tight, your state of mind should be relaxed concentration.

As you get more confident you can use a different medium. Try using a different kind of pencil, try using charcoal, and if you’re really feeling good try using a pen. A small ball point pen is a great tool, but the pen has the benefit of not being easily erased, so it makes you really focus and concentrate. This alone gives a different kind of drawing.

When you have really got the hang of this, try doing a drawing of the same still life but doing a reduction in size. Still have a paper on the easel but do the same thing this time not life-size but reduced in size. Do this three or four times, if that works well then try enlarging the image.

Adding curves to your still life

Adding curves to your drawings

The world is not made up of straight lines, it is made up of curves and circles. The sensuality of the curve is profound. If you can’t draw curves then you are very limited in what you can draw. Curves are best expressed with the wrist. It is difficult to talk about and even harder to write about – but it is possible to show you and I made a small video that might help.

Practice making curves and making circles, firstly with your fingers make little tiny circles. Secondly practice making circles with your wrist, slightly larger circles. Practice swinging the pencil around in this elliptical pattern with a pencil just above the paper. You’re not putting the pencil on paper and then moving it. You ARE moving it, practicing, rehearsing, getting some energy and life into the movement of the pencil before it even touches the paper!

Practice, practice, practice. This is one of those muscle memory moments. It won’t take you 10,000 hours but it might take you a few repetitions to get the hang of and feel really comfortable with. It’s certainly about not being tense, but not being relaxed either.

Set up a still life after you have had a few practices. Set one up with a lot of curves. I would suggest teacups, bowls and plates are all good candidates for this kind of drawing and likely to be something you have available. Set them up with a white background. A sheet of paper or a bed sheet is fine for this. The next thing is to get down to looking, really looking and swinging that pencil tip. Gauge with the tip of the pencil what it is you’re drawing. I’ve said this before and I’ll have to keep saying it too – it doesn’t matter what you draw! It does matter, and it matters profoundly, how hard you look.

Applying tone to your work

Still life drawings

Okay, so now that you have been drawing for a short time, four times a week, enlarging, reducing and concentrating on the line. Outlines are a convention, a little bit like perspective; they really are not there in real life. We don’t go around with lines drawn on the edges of everything. Where we see the junction of two planes there is not a separating black line, what we do is we use a black line as a kind of visual shorthand to describe that junction. We don’t really live in a linear world, such a world would look like a cell shaded comic book characters. But we do live in a tonal world. What is ‘tone’ you may say? Well… tone is a degree of lightness or darkness that the surface is reflecting. A bit like seeing the world as a black-and-white photograph, there is no colour in tone. Just different degrees of darkness or lightness.

Tonal charcoal drawings of geometric shapes

I want you to now draw looking at the tone; look at the lightness or darkness of the relative surfaces. You may well begin the drawing by placing the surfaces you are observing using a line just as you’ve done before. Don’t think of tone as filling in a line drawing, that would be the wrong way to go about it.

What you’re doing now is shading.

A surface will have a value of darkness or lightness that will be of value relative to its neighbour, so the top maybe a lighter value than the side which is nearest to you and that the side that is nearest to you will be darker than the side that is furthest away from you. It’s all relative. Use your eyes to critically judge these values.

Tonal pencil drawing of pots and vases

How you shade is up to you. You can use a 4B or 3B pencil both of which are relatively soft and will give nice dark tones. You can smudge the surfaces with your fingers, you can pull out highlights with an eraser, you can even draw lines with an eraser. Use a craft knife to cut the eraser and give it a sharper edge. Watch how you use your wrist to move the pencil to shade an area. Practice this action on scrap paper.

Once you get the feel of this you can try other mediums. Try charcoal which is a soft, crumbly, black and messy medium, great for big drawings; for getting involved with, getting dirty fingers that you don’t worry about. Charcoal is wonderful for making a lovely black, dark, dark drawing. Use Conte crayons, these are harder than charcoal; they make a more precise line and do great deep tones.

Do BIG drawings, and have some fun. Do teeny-weeny drawings made of four little shaded areas, well observed, but done really fast. This shouldn’t be tedious or dull. What matters is that you are drawing; making marks using your eyes and approaching this a step at a time.

If you get bored don’t stop, just move ahead and draw something else or use a different medium. The key, when working in a tonal medium, is to ignore and eliminate colour. Try and see the world in black and white.

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