Still Life Composition Drawing for Beginners

Updated: 06 Sep 2021

How to draw compositions with pencils

As artists, we like to deliver a memorable experience for the observer.

In this tutorial, I will demonstrate how I plan and place my still life compositions, and why.

I will start by explaining some important drawing terms and then, show how to use them for composition.

Note: All drawings in the composition section are from life. While drawing from images is great in many cases, drawing from direct observation gives us the power to change the scene to our liking or to our angle of sight.

Overlapping

Overlap means an object that covers part of another object.

Overlapping is a typical phenomenon when observing the natural world.

When drawing flowers for example, petals (in most cases) should be overlapping when trying to deliver a realistic result.

Gazania flower front view pencil drawing

In addition, when one object covers part of another object, we assume that it is in front of the object it covers.

Therefore, overlapping attests to depth.

Foreshortening

Foreshortening is a distortion that occurs when looking at objects or planes that are along the line of sight.

In the next example, a circle, while in front of the observer, keeps its shape, no matter how far or close it is.

But, when the angle of sight is changed, the circle is no longer in front of the observer. It is now along the line of sight and its shape is distorted to an ellipse.

In other words, its height becomes much shorter than its width (in this case).

Paper towel cylinder shape foreshortened

So, in many cases, it is more interesting and natural to look at a drawing of a foreshortened object.

Gazania flower pencil drawing, side view

If you like flower drawing, you might like my beginners guide to drawing flowers.

Remember:

When drawing ellipses (or any other shape), the closer you are to the horizon, the more that plane is foreshortened.

How to draw a vase using foreshortened ellipses

Two common mistakes to avoid:

1. Do not draw the bottom of a cylindrical object flat (unless it is exactly on the horizon).

2. Pay attention to the amount of foreshortening for each plane. In the example below, when there is not enough foreshortening, it looks like the top part of the vase is facing the observer.

How to fix foreshortening mistakes

Perspective

Perspective is a set of simple rules that help us draw in a realistic way, especially when drawing from imagination.

Basic perspective drawing example

The use of perspective can produce unnatural results if not done correctly:

The use of vanishing points to draw correctly

Use the power of linear perspective to create quick sketches, and explore different composition ideas.

Curved road sketch in linear perspective

If you are new to perspective, read my article on perspective drawing for beginners, or click the perspective category in my guide for best drawing tutorials on YouTube.

Composition

In art, composition is the way an artist compose a scene and render it.

When it comes to still life, it means how we place objects in an interesting manner.

Since composition is a personal preference, there are no rules on how to create it.

That said, there are some things to avoid.

For a natural composition, it is best to avoid patterns, or anything that looks staged, uniform or symmetrical.

A squarish object, which is in front of the observer, is quite boring. When rotated, two sides of the object are foreshortened.

This results in an interesting composition with a sense of depth:

Composition pencil drawing for dish soap bottle

To learn more about depth, read my article on how to draw with a sense of depth.

Cylindrical Objects:

What about a cylindrical object? Rotating it will not change its form.

While the form does not change, any symbol or text on the object will rotate and create a spontaneous look and therefore, authentic!

Composition pencil drawing of a deodorant stick

In addition, some cylindrical objects do have interesting features that can be rotated.

A view slightly from above is much better than a side view:

Composition pencil drawing for a juice squeezer

Objects Placement:

Placing objects with space between them or ordered by size (or any other pattern) is not interesting:

Objects in a row, pencil sketch

The use of overlap and random placement (not in a row), will render better:

Correct composition drawing for objects

Tip:

Keep your empty containers. You can use them to practice object grouping and placement.

Empty bottles, boxes and other containers

Additionally, you can use any type of objects for composition practice. Even complex ones:

Plastic toy figurines of animals

Thumbnails:

Sometimes, we are not sure how to build our composition.

In such case, we can use thumbnails for quick sketches. This should not be a long process, few minutes for each thumbnail, just to see what works and what does not.

Use of thumbnails to build still life composition

It is beneficial to sketch some thumbnails for different compositions ideas. For example, different object placement or close up vs long shot and so on.

When drawing from imagination, it is almost crucial to use thumbnails, especially for beginners.

That is when perspective has a major role in creating true to life compositions.

Thumbnails sketches for drawing from imagination

On the other hand, when drawing from observation, there is a better way.

Cut a hole on a piece of paper and look through it to find an interesting composition.

Looking through paper hole for good composition

Focal Point Placement

When we want one main object to be the center of attention, we call it a focal point.

We will give it the most contrast and details in order for it to stand out.

In addition, for a pleasant and inviting composition, whether it is a still life or a landscape, we usually want our main subject not to be in the middle.

When we put our focal point in one side, we want to balance it with something on the other side. Something small and gentle (mountains and shadow in this example).

Composition drawing of a tree in desert

If you like drawing trees, visit my guide on how to draw trees.

Composition from Photos

Images you find online are NOT free to use for commercial purpose.

To compose your own, unique drawing from images, use images that are free to use.

Here are several websites that let you download free images:

Unsplash

Pexels

Pixabay

PikWizard (in image description, look for license: FREE)

In the next example, I used 3 images to compose a drawing:

Using photos to create unique composition

Then, it is a personal preference how to compose them.

For example, how big you want the characters to be (they are the focal point in this example), and their location.

Composition drawing of father and son fishing

Tip:

When combining several images for a composition, try to use images with same placement of horizon line.

What Else Can We Compose?

Drawing (or painting) is story telling!

Before we think about object placement and other technical issues, our first step in composition is choosing what to draw (our subject).

We can draw beautiful things like landscapes or the animal kingdom.

Realistic graphite drawings of the animal kingdom

Or, we can create our own stories. Like comics and graphic novels.

My comics drawings from different periods

We can use our drawing skills for a statement, message, protest, or to present (display) an event in our own unique way.

Pencil drawing for the Castellammarese War

With some knowledge in perspective and attention to foreshortening, we can draw from imagination.

For example, draw our own product design.

Patrick from SpongeBob backpack product design

And give it context.

Product design, Patrick backpack

Or, we can draw unique concept art (for the film industry or computer games).

Weapons concept art, drawing from imagination

If you want to create your own concept art or product design, visit my guide on how to draw from imagination.

Rendering

Drawing takes time. In order not to waste valuable time, it is best to plan for a beautiful composition.

While object placement and other subjects covered in this tutorial are very important, the final render should be of a finished artwork.

Here are some tips for creating a final render.

Contrast:

Contrast will help to create a drawing with a presence and with a sense of depth.

To achieve that, we create areas with highlights and shadows.

One way is to illuminate the object/s we draw with a table lamp, at an angle.

Another way is to draw light and shadow from imagination (requires some knowledge and experience).

Pencil drawing funnel with highlights and shadows

Cast Shadow:

In most cases, it is advisable to use cast shadow. Cast shadow helps with a sense of space and three-dimensionality.

Funnel pencil drawing with cast shadow

Pen & Markers:

For a render with well-defined lines, pens for artists can be used.

Colors can add richness to the final render. Here is my review for recommended artist grade markers.

Drawing juice squeezer with pen and markers

Summary

If some drawing terms discussed above are new to you, read my article on how to draw in a realistic style.

For the materials I used in this article, visit my pencil drawing supply guide.