Still life drawing

This is an in depth introduction to drawing from life, looking at different ways of seeing a still life, with the thumb measuring technique explained. For beginners and advanced levels alike. Come and try for yourself using this tutorial as a guide.

Drawing equipment

You will need a soft pencil (HB2 – HB4), lots of plain size A4 or bigger, 100g clean paper, a drawing board or hard back book for leaning on, a good rubber and a pencil sharpener. Then again, you can just use what ever you have to hand, paper and pencil wise. Make yourself comfortable in a chair, this could take a while.

Choosing objects to draw

Look at the inanimate objects around you and pick at least one with an optical ellipse to draw. Choose two or three items, which you love or really want to draw or things you like the look of. The porcelain breakfast jug with a few other things from breakfast left on the table, a clock, a statue or a simple toy could be the subject matter for example. Arrange your group of objects together in good light.

Ways of seeing

Ignore the texture and colour for now. Try and see your chosen objects as a bunch of 2D shapes. Look at the shape the whole group of objects make together. See how each shape compares to it’s surrounding shapes. Look at the negative shapes between the objects as well as the positive shapes your objects make. Really study your still life by looking at it in all the different ways you can. See the outlines and facets of each shape. Get up and move around to see from other angles. Decide upon the angle you’d like to draw from and position yourself accordingly.


You can take measurements by using the thumb and pencil method to get the correct proportions of each of your objects and to help you get your perspective right. Keep you feet at the same distance from your still life. Place your thumb on your pencil, with one eye closed and your arm extended out straight, using the same arm and position for each measurement. See how the pencil looks when placed over the ellipse in the photo?

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Keeping your thumb on the same place on the pencil, now place the pencil onto your paper. Make some marks and see how it compares to the still life.

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Make a comparison measurement with another object. For example, measure the centre of an ellipse, from top to bottom and from side to side. See how the measurements compare with what your eyes see. Choose one object which you have measured in your drawing and use it as a reference for measuring all the other objects. Keep the reference marks for this object in mind whilst plotting out your whole drawing, go back to it, see if what you are measuring next, appears larger or smaller than the reference objects marks. Keep extending your arm out and using your thumb and pencil to make all your points of reference. With this method you can also see foreshortening easily.


Stick to drawing exactly what you see in front of you, even if what you draw doesn’t look quite right on paper at first. With the regular practice of drawing things from life, your eye hand co-ordination will develop and thus you will start to be able to draw things how you want them to be and you will create more and more realistic renditions as you go along.

Without getting into any details yet, you are going to give everything you have chosen to draw equal importance. Lightly sketch over all your reference marks by making light, gentle strokes of your pencil to describe the outer shape of the things in your still life. Try starting in the middle of your page and work your way outwards. Consider the composition (how the objects are grouped), the balance (where your eye is lead) and the placement on the paper (is your drawing over to one side, too big or too small on the paper?) If you find yourself over working a piece of paper, with too many corrections, then start again on a new piece.

Keeping to the same view point and spending no longer than five minutes on each sketch, make several quick drawings of the same still life. This way you will stop becoming trapped in details and become confident at drawing this one picture because you will become familiar with what it should look like on paper. You can embellish each drawing as you go along, until you feel ready to make a longer sketch of the same still life. Then work on one drawing for say half an hour or so.

Constantly look at the still life in front of you and also look at what you are drawing, noting the inter-relationship between each object. Once you have a general loose sketch which you are happy with, you can begin looking at the dark and light areas of your still life. You can press harder on the pencil in the darker areas and start rubbing back with your rubber in the lighter areas. Break up solid outlines, so that there is just a suggestion left in the highlighted areas. Keep measuring, adjusting and amending your drawing as you go along. Remember we are not looking for photo realism in a drawing or a finished work of art. We are looking to accept the unique character of our own creativity. With regular drawing, you will start to understand how objects translate from the 3D world onto a piece of 2D paper.


Screw your eyes up, half shut and look at your still life to see it in a simplified way. See your still life in tones of light and dark, black and white. Decide upon which is the darkest area and which is the lightest. Let these two places be your guides as to what all the tones in between will be. One method for shading is to rub your finger over all the darker areas of your drawing to smudge the pencil. Fill in any really dark areas by using the side of your pencil to loosely add graphite to the paper and rub it in and smooth it. There are lots of different methods of shading like cross hatching for example, where you leave the lines visible and build them up in different directions to give the shadows more depth. Look to see where your light source is coming from and notice how the light bounces off and on each object. See how some materials absorb light and others reflect it. Look to see if there are any reflections in your still life. Consider how you will treat these reflections in your tonal decisions.

Advanced drawing lesson

This is an exercise to create a drawing by building up the image by using shading alone. Use scribbles and random mark making instead of conventional lines. Change from pencil to charcoal or other art materials like ink if you want. Think about what your still life will contain, like more complicated items to draw such as a plant, jewelry, open electronic devices, fabrics like lace, flowers, engine parts advancing further into architecture and even whole landscapes.

Once you can draw things accurately from life, you can also start to simplify and stylise the shapes you see, using confident strokes of your pencil.


Self portraits, using a mirror placed just next to your paper, are also quite a good place to advance towards. If you fancy approaching a portrait of someone else, then I find drawing people easier when they are watching a film, because that way they stay still naturally, for longer. Take all the techniques for a still life drawing mentioned in this tutorial and apply them to drawing a face and or hands from life.

Drawing from the imagination

Place your pencil on the paper and let it glide around, follow it rather than pushing it, let it flow and guide you where it wants to go. No hesitations! Go fast and slow, changing directions, pressure and size. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, not everything you do needs to be even seen or become a master piece. Look at your drawing and turn it around, upside down. Add more to it, what do you see? Does it reminds you of anything?  If you feel inspired, enhance it to become something in particular. Make lots of small drawings this way and free up your style. Just see what comes out of you. You might start drawing a narrative which you can tell yourself about after wards, you may have something semi abstract or something completely abstract. Shade it as explained above and even increase the scale of your paper and apply the advanced lesson to this technique if you want to take it further.

Drawing from photos

Drawing from photos is more an exercise of technical drawing. You can place a grid over a photo which is already in 2D and thus it is straight forwards to translate one 2D image into another 2D image. Sometimes the things you want to translate into a drawing are only available in 2D so you have no choice, like film stills, cartoons, comics or an old photo. A photograph is already one step away from nature and so a drawing, that is made from a photo, becomes a second step away from nature. Some of the magic of real life, is lost each time you take a step back from your source. It is more challenging to draw directly from life because day light changes, things get move and so you have to sharpen up your senses to achieve something drawn from life. Take photos by all means but I recommend you use them only as a reference, for a comparison after wards. Your drawings you make from life will be very different from a photo, more exciting, with more character and loose even.

The creative process

When you are deeply immersed in the creative process and nothing else seems to matter at all, you may find that you experience a direct dialogue with your drawing. This is about following the next step which your drawing demands of you. The next step will become clear when you are ready for it, listen and or tune in to your drawing. Make sure you recognise the difference between your creative dialogue and your inner saboteur, who if given half a chance, will suggest you take the opportunity to get some emotion or other off your chest and to scribble hard black lines, madly over your art. Don’t worry if this happens to you, it’s quite natural and happens to everyone now and again. I feel it’s also quite a valuable experience because it expresses blocked emotion in an acceptable way, which is always good. Simply start again calmly with a new piece of paper. Learn when is the right time to stop working on a piece to avoid over or under working it.

Archiving your pictures

I recommend you to keep all your drawings, as although they might be easy to dismiss at first, after a time, you will see their value or not as the case may be. You could keep them all together by either popping them in a folder, portfolio or taping them into a sketch book. This way you can monitor your own progress. I sign and date each piece and make a note of how long I spent on it. Carrying a sketch book with you, is useful for when you are out and about and find yourself with a bit of time on your hands. Making drawings of your surroundings can be a lot more poetic, than taking snap shots, for reminding you of how you felt at certain times in your life.

A frame will always elevate a drawing. Give it a try with your favourite piece. Let the drawing have space around it using a window mount which also protects it from the glass. Choose a light colour frame for a light coloured wall and so a dark colour frame will look better on a darker wall.

A note from the author

I value your comments and feedback here, so please feel free to help me to refine this tutorial into something which is readable, easy to follow and so will help many budding creatives enjoy art.