Subject Matter for Beginners

Sometimes it’s important to do certain things before you do others, even if you prefer not to. If you are trying to learn how to draw or paint it is best to begin by working from a still life. Even if you see yourself in the future as an artist successfully creating gigantic landscapes or whimsical caricatures, I’m going to ask you to put those dreams on hold until you develop a certain skill set. I know you’re patient and I know you want to increase your drawing skills, but just in case you are feeling a wee bit rebellious let me tell you why I would like you to stick to still lifes as your educational subject matter. -still life illustration

Why Still Life


What is a still life? A still life is nothing more than an arrangement of inanimate objects. Artists will also casually refer to their artwork itself as a still life if it is derived from such. A still life is a classic subject for artist. If you go to an art museum you will more than likely encounter dozens of them. That is a good thing. While you are learning to draw it is good idea to study other artists whom have been successful working from a still life. When you go to a museum or a high quality art gallery, consider it to be a silent mentorship. You are learning from other artists who have more experience and a higher skill level for creating art than you currently do. Do not be discouraged however; be inspired! You can learn much by looking at other’s artwork.

Creating a drawing by looking at a still life is a great way to learn because the objects are easily acquired and generally don’t move much if at all. You can likely find still life worthy objects stowed around the house. Simply arrange these objects near one another so that they create something interesting to look at. With the exception of living objects such as fruits, vegetables, and flowers, your typical still life object will hang around unchanged indefinitely. That’s a good thing because when you are trying to learn how to draw it can be very frustrating if your still life keeps changing. With that in mind, let’s try to avoid objects that are going to be frustrating to draw. Flowers, while beautiful, are often complex in form and will change over the course of days making you feel rushed and leaving you frustrated. I would avoid flowers initially. The same goes for many fruits and vegetables. I have however, seen carrots sit unchanged for days, oranges for weeks, and onions for months. Use your best judgment when picking objects to draw.

Pick a Theme

If you are like most people you will enjoy looking at things that “go together”. Of course we can make arguments for what goes together based on all kinds of strange narratives but you should keep it simple when starting out. Let me quiz you.

What item does not belong?

a) Kitchen cutting board
b) Head of garlic
c) Loaf of bread
d) Chainsaw

A Culinary still life is not your thing? That’s fine. Let’s try this one:

What item does not belong?

a) Hammer
b) Piece of wood
c) Bottle of perfume
d) Box of nails

Keep it Simple

When starting out your goal is to be able to draw a still life accurately, so choose objects that will help you achieve that goal and ultimately you will feel good about yourself and want to continue drawing and improving your skills. It would be a good idea to minimize your frustrations by choosing objects that you can see yourself drawing to some degree of successfulness. The best objects are ones that resemble basic forms. I will talk at length about forms during later posts, but for now you can pick objects that closely resemble cylinders, spheres, cones, and cubes or are comprised of such in an obvious manner.

Glass, Metal, and Bears Oh My!

Avoid transparent (see through objects) or translucent (semi-see through objects) like glassware, crystal, and some plastics when starting out. Choose solid objects that are not overly textured or patterned. I would also ignore lettering as the text on an object’s surface can merely detract from your still life drawing. An example of this may be the small text written on the spine of a book. An old, thick book makes a great sill life prop but, in most cases, especially when you are a beginner, you are better off ignoring the text. Just leave it out all together. This is the advice I tell all of my drawing students: Unless you can draw the letters with unfaltering precision, leave them out of your drawing.

Beware of complex, highly reflective objects such as polished metals for your first few drawings. A kitchen knife is probably doable but jewelry is definitely not a good idea. In fact, don’t use jewelry as a part of your still life until you are very confident drawing from observation and are capable of creating very realistic drawings. Jewelry is just too small and too detailed to expect quality results when you are just starting out.

Don’t Take it Personally

You are learning; don’t feel bad if you find yourself drawing tools from the garage, athletic equipment from the basement, fake vegetables, or stacks of old books. As your skills progress and your understanding of light and form increases you will be able to successfully draw more complex objects and yes, just maybe one day you will be able to draw an amazing still life that incorporates your great grandmother’s engagement ring.

What was your first decent still life of? Mine was some red onions and an old fashioned coffee grinder! It still hangs in my parent’s house.



  1. Chris Bolton says:

    Hey its Chris from Youtube. I will get a bigger sketch book and I decided after reading this maybe I should slow down because like this artical said I have been trying to draw huge cityscapes and very detailed building and never even considered still lifes. I was looking around my house and was thinking of drawig a lamp… Is this a good place to start or should I find something smaller? I also want to wait until I have gotten better and make sure I am still engaged in art before I buy more supplies… Will a regular #2 pencil and lined paper be fine for now?

    1. John Morfis says:

      A regular #2 pencil should be fine for now, but sooner than later a range of pencils will be a wise investment. I wouldn’t draw on lined paper. It will be distracting and what happens if you create something you really like? You’ll wish you hadn’t drawn it on that lined paper. Drawing a lamp sounds like a good idea provided it’s not excessively complex and you can see the basic forms that make up this lamp…think cylinders, cones, spheres and cubes. Where are they in this lamp? Staying engaged is definitely a problem and where most folks get off the path to success so achieving little wins is the way to go!

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