Still Life Illustrations & Studies > Narrative Still Life Project (Drawing)

Students create individual still lifes that use objects to represent narrative stories about subjects important to them. Students first use dramatic lighting and representational techniques to reinforce observational and technical skills. Next students explore how expressive marks can help evoke deeper concepts.

Project Overview
The magic of a still life is that it can show us a new way of looking at the ordinary objects around us. Once objects are placed into a specific arrangement and then captured in paint, ink, pastel, or any other medium - the objects take on a whole new meaning. They are imbued with a life beyond the ordinary. Their existence becomes recorded in time. The main objective of this project is for students to create personal still life subjects that depict a narrative story or greater symbolic meaning. A still life is an artistic representation of inanimate objects, usually everyday things such as chachkies, fruit, flowers.

Drawing from life allows artists to slow down and carefully observe the world around them. As a beginning art course, this project begins by emphasizing realism to build and reinforce both observational and technical skills. As students become more proficient in translating objects from the real world onto paper, they are encouraged to breakdown representation and dive deeper into conceptualization by using abstraction as a tool. Ask yourself-- can an object represent a deeper meaning, a memory, a feeling? What types of marks and expressive lines can an artist use to evoke these deeper concepts?

Review the Following Artists
-- Audrey Flack
-- Janet Fish
-- Nikki Maloof
-- Ronald Rozencohn
-- Serena Stevens

Part 1: Set up your still life

1. Prep a Cardboard Box
Acquire a cardboard box that is larger than 2' on any side. Cut the top 4 flap off and rest the box on a table on its side so the hole is facing you. This should create a deep shadow box where you can create a whole world inside filled with drapery and personal objects. It's important this box is cardboard so you can cut holes into the top or sides as a space to create controlled dramatic lighting.

2. Collect Personal Objects
Select a minimum of 5 personal objects to arrange in the box that are meaningful to you. Choose just a few objects that you find visually pleasing. Even better if they have something in common, for example, items from the kitchen or the fridge; toys; books, and reading glasses. Above all, look for a variety of shapes, forms, colors, and textures.

3. Hide the interior cardboard walls with drapery (fabric)
Prior to arranging the objects in the box, transform the interior box walls and floor with drapery, patterns, paper, textures, etc. There should be no cardboard visible within the interior. A fairly neutral background color helps to keep it simple and can make the objects pop. However, if the objects are light, a contrasting darker background might work best.

4. Composition: Arrange objects within the box
-- Once you choose your objects, the next step is to arrange them in a pleasing and harmonious way. Take your time to set them up, walk around your composition changing point of view. Often a different angle changes dramatically the composition. Experiment with the following:

-- Try to place objects so that some overlap, showing clearly what’s in front of what.
-- Form connections that lead the eye around the composition.
-- Change the arrangement of the objects looking for the most pleasing one.
-- Take things out, add others in.
-- Walk around and look for different angles, until you find one that satisfies you. Some artists like to use a plastic or cardboard viewfinder to frame the composition, others like to take photos and then compare them on the screen.
-- Try different light setups. Different cast shadows can completely change the composition.

5. Add a dramatic light source
-- Lighting in a still life set up is critical and can enhance or ruin a composition. You will need some type of dramatic lighting.
-- A single source of light, preferably coming from the side, creates a clear pattern of lights and darks that helps define forms and relationships between objects.
-- The cast shadows are also very important in the arrangement as they help create a feeling of depth and three-dimensional space.
-- You may cut a hole somewhere on the top of the box and shine lamplight through the hole.

6. Concept / Narrative Storytelling
Decide on an overall concept/theme that connects the objects within your still life together. How are these objects related to one another? What overall concept are you aiming to communicate?

7. Photography
Photograph your final composition and use this as a reference image

Part 2: Recreate your still life as a painting or drawing
You have the option to make either a painting or a drawing for this assignment. Review the following process tips before starting:

Charcoal Drawing Tips

Step 1: Composition & Contour
-- Contour: arrangement of elements on the page
-- Decide on your favorite composition and in graphite pencil, lightly contour this composition on your large sheet of drawing paper. Consider contours by Ellsworth Kelly and Matisse.
-- Develop hand-eye coordination and practice various sighting methods to depict accurate perspective and proportions of objects within the still life.

Step 2: Introduce Vine Charcoal & Blending Stumps
-- Vine charcoal is a light and airy drawing material that allows you to practice smooth blending techniques.
-- Use your blending stumps to push charcoal pigments around the page.

Step 3: Deal with your background
-- By this point, you should be halfway complete with your drawing.
-- If you haven't already dealt with your background space, this is the time to do so! Let's create an even ground with your vine charcoal-- smoothly blend a medium-dark layer of vine charcoal in your background. Don't worry about loosing some of the detail of your contoured lines, we can go back into those areas later.
-- Once you've darkened the background, take a step back and look at the areas you drew and shaded earlier-- they probably appear fairly light and washed out. By adding this mid-tone in the background, you can now go into previously drawn areas and respond to the change-- add contrast and drama with deep blacks.

Step 4: Use your eraser as a tool
-- Bring back some light and detail by using your eraser! It's not just a tool that "fixes mistakes"! It's also a mark making tool.

Step 5: Search for Darkness: Introduce Compressed Charcoal with Sticks & Pencils
-- Add a deep value range and details with your charcoal pencils.
-- Notice how differently compressed charcoal blends compared to the vine charcoal.

Step 6: Finding Light: Introduce White Chalk
-- Not all white chalk is made equally.
-- Some whites are cooler (blue hue). These are typically made with titanium pigments.
-- Some chalks are warmer (red hue). These are typically made with zinc pigments.
-- Notice what kind of white chalk you're using and add detail into the image-- just be aware of how its warmth may affect the tone of the rest of the drawing.

Painting Tips
-- Use your phone or a view finder to zoom into the still life. Select a view that "spills" out of at least 3 sides of your canvas. The effect creates an open composition.
-- We are not going to draw the still life. Instead, we are going to find form through paint strokes.
-- Begin painting with a neutral ochre (earth-tones) and gestural marks.
-- Continue painting until you find the general and then more precise representation of the composition displayed in front of you.
-- Once you have the objects depicted on your canvas and you feel confident with the overall composition, you're ready to incorporate more colors.
-- Search for detail, model form, add contrast, focus on dramatic light

-- Size: Create an artwork that is at least 16x20"
-- Surface: You may create this on paper, canvas, board, found objects, etc.

Drawing Material Options
-- Charcoal: vine, condensed, sticks, pencils, white chalk, kneaded eraser, blending stumps
-- Colored pencils: I recommend using blending Prismacolor pencils. -- Consider experimenting with solvent blending techniques.
-- Ink drawing: India ink well, bamboo brushes, dip pens, Micron pens, white pens/ink

Painting Material Options
-- Paint: Use either acrylic or oil paint. If you are using oil paint, be sure to prime/gesso your painting surface first so the oils in the paint do not rot the substrate over time.
-- Art brushes: use a variety of sizes and types such as: round, flat, bright, filbert, fan, angle, mop, rigger

What to submit to Canvas
-- Subject Photo Documentation: Take a photo of your reference subject
-- Painting Photo Documentation: Take a high quality .jpeg photos of your completed project
-- Artist/Project Statement: Write a 2 paragraph reflection about the process, concept, and final outcome. Include 3 artists / artworks that inspired your creation. Use active art terminology (10 unique art terms).