Still Life Composition

compositional study of white and metallic objects, acrylic & pastel on paper

compositional study of white and metallic objects, acrylic & pastel on paper

The still life is an excellent subject for practicing proportion, perspective and composition. This is the demo from my Expressive Drawing class last night, a set up of white cardboard boxes, metal cans and a baseball. The white surfaces and dark greys of the metal create excellent models for practicing value ranges. In setting this up, I purposely mixed up the objects to create a rhythm of darks and lights throughout the set up. Setting up a still life can be thought of as composing in 3-D, if you arrange the objects so there is a balance in the set up, you have a better chance of getting a balance in your drawing.

I always begin with an object that is central to the composition, in this case the can in the front. First I drew that in with a light wash of black acrylic: top ellipse first, center line, bottom ellipse then connect the verticals. Once this object is placed, all the surrounding objects are mapped in the same way, using the first object as a proportional benchmark. I always block in these forms as if they were transparent, in other words draw the whole object even if it is behind another object. These construction lines won’t be noticeable in the finished drawing if you do them lightly and spontanteously, and if they are visible it won’t matter because they will be part of the drawing’s structure.

I think of the objects purely as geometric forms that I can use to divide up the space to create a balance in the composition. Therefore it doesn’t matter to me if some objects run off the page as the tall box in the background does. I also use negative space in the background and shadows to further create balance, the composition is not restricted to the “objects”, instead it encompasses all of the visual elements that fall within its boundaries.

My next step is to begin working with values to create depth and dimension. I start with the darks, then work through the medium and light values. For this piece I used a 1″ flat brush and a 1/4″ wedge, nothing else. Focus on the major value forms and block them in, smaller details go on top of these. For example, the ridges in the cans are implied by highlights and darks placed on top of the larger area of medium values placed earlier.

As with any drawing or painting, work the entire composition to the same level of completion instead of finishing one section (or object) at a time. This will create a more unified, cohesive drawing.

Last of all, and perhaps most important, be confident when placing your lines and forms. Use the side of the charcoal or a flat brush to block in forms. Develop a quick, confident stroke, try not to be tense or tentative. Do some practice warm up exercises before you begin your drawing, gestural studies or repeating forms such as handwriting practice exercises are great for this purpose. Do a series of repeating ellipses to get the rhythm of making a perfect ellipse in one pass, or a series of verticals, etc. This type of practice will loosen your hand and allow you to paint/draw in a more relaxed way. Also, try to remember that this is only practice on a piece of paper, no harm is done if you make a mistake. Try to enjoy the process rather than look at it as a skill to be mastered quickly.

The above techniques will be featured in my upcoming August weekend workshop at the Salmagundi Club of NYC, visit the Workshops & Classes page for details.


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