Still Life Drawing

An essential furniture design skill

Tom Emmett a student drawing self portraiture

Still life drawing is akin to a form of artistic meditation. You sit and focus all of your attention on the physical qualities of an object – contemplating its curvature, its texture, where the light shines off its surface and how it casts a shadow, the weight it imposes on its surface. As you try to translate these observations into drawings, you come to realise that many of the things you think you see are not actually accurate. Just as in meditation you learn to acknowledge your thoughts as fleeting impressions, you begin to understand that the observations you initially make do not create a drawing in the image of the original. Either you look deeper, or you accept your drawing as just that – an impression, a translation.

When it comes to furniture design drawing, the merits of practising still-life drawing will become evident. Drawing your idea is the first step to materialising it – this is an opportunity to troubleshoot and tweak. Perhaps you realise that a certain element doesn’t work as you had imagined – perhaps you find a creative way to enhance your design. Drawing allows you the time and space to hone your ideas before you commit to the bench.

Once you have learnt to draw, you will no longer be held back by the inability to channel your vision through your pencil. With this skill, the designer’s pencil becomes a juncture to the mind, a hand tool of the simplest order.

This is what our still life drawing classes teach at Rowden Atelier fine furniture making school.


You should be drawing, say, at least four days a week in order to build on your still life skills. Learning to draw is like eating an elephant, do it a bit at a time. Here at Rowden Atelier, we start from a very simple place, drawing what’s in front of you. Do it at a 1:1 scale on a piece of paper sat alongside your still life. I suggest you do this half a dozen times. Each time for about thirty minutes to an hour, maybe a little bit longer if your concentration can take it – build up slowly. You can draw the same object time and time again from a different viewpoint.

For these first few drawings, just concentrate on the outline and focus on comparing the position of each outline and it’s relationship to any nearby outlines. Look at the space in-between the outlines and compare them. Is this space bigger than it should be? Is it in the right position in relation to its neighbours?

As you gain confidence, you can play with the kind of line you use. I suggest that you start off with a relatively soft pencil and rehearse the line without allowing the pencil to touch the paper. When you feel that your arm is moving correctly and the point of the pencil is over the right area you can lower the pencil onto the paper and make the mark. Do this as your arm is moving, this will make the mark seem fresher and more spontaneous. Avoid being tense and tight, your state of mind should be one of relaxed concentration.

As you get more confident you can use a different medium. Try using a different kind of pencil, try using charcoal, and if you’re really feeling good try using a pen. A small ballpoint pen is a great tool, but the pen has the benefit of not being easily erased, so it makes you really focus and concentrate. This alone produces a different kind of drawing.

When you have really got the hang of this, try doing a drawing of the same still life but doing a reduction in size. Keep your paper on the easel but do the same thing this time not life-size but reduced in size. Do this three or four times. If that works, well then, try enlarging the image.

Adding curves to your still life

A still life drawing of several curved objects

The world is not made up of straight lines, it is made up of curves and circles. The sensuality of the curve is profound. If you can’t draw curves then you are very limited in what you can draw. Curves are best expressed with the wrist. It is difficult to talk about and even harder to write about – but it is possible to show you and I made a small video that might help.

Practice making curves and making circles. Firstly, use your fingers to make little tiny circles. Secondly, practice making circles with your wrist, slightly larger circles. Practice swinging the pencil around in this elliptical pattern with a pencil just above the paper. You’re not putting the pencil on paper and then moving it. You ARE moving it, practicing, rehearsing, getting some energy and life into the movement of the pencil before it even touches the paper!

Practice, practice, practice. This is one of those muscle memory moments. It won’t take you 10,000 hours but it might take you a few repetitions to get the hang of and feel really comfortable with still life drawing. It’s certainly about not being tense, but not being relaxed either.

After you have had a few practices, set up a still life with a lot of curves. I would suggest teacups, bowls and plates are all good candidates for this kind of drawing, and they’re likely to be something you have available. Set them up with a white background – a sheet of paper or a bed sheet is fine for this. The next thing is to get down to looking, really looking and swinging that pencil tip. Gauge with the tip of the pencil what it is you’re drawing.

I’ve said this before and I’ll have to keep saying it too – it doesn’t matter what you draw! It does matter, and it matters profoundly, how hard you look.

Applying tone to your work

Still life drawings scattered on a desk

Okay, so now that you have been drawing for a short time, four times a week, begin enlarging, reducing and concentrating on the line. Outlines are a convention, a little bit like perspective; they are not really there in real life. We don’t go around with lines drawn on the edges of everything. Where we see the junction of two planes there is not a separating black line, what we do is we use a black line as a kind of visual shorthand to describe that junction. We don’t really live in a linear world, such a world would look like a cell shaded comic book characters.

But we do live in a tonal world. What is ‘tone’ you may say? Well… tone is a degree of lightness or darkness that the surface is reflecting. A bit like seeing the world as a black-and-white photograph, there is no colour in tone. Just different degrees of darkness or lightness.

Tonal charcoal drawings of cones and spheres

I want you to now draw looking at the tone; look at the lightness or darkness of the relative surfaces. You may well begin the drawing by placing the surfaces you are observing using a line just as you’ve done before. Don’t think of tone as filling in a line drawing, that would be the wrong way to go about it.

What you’re doing now is shading.

A surface will have a value of darkness or lightness that will be of value relative to its neighbour, so the top maybe a lighter value than the side which is nearest to you and that the side that is nearest to you will be darker than the side that is furthest away from you. It’s all relative. Use your eyes to critically judge these values.

Tonal pencil still life drawing of pots and vases

How you shade is up to you. You can use a 4B or 3B pencil both of which are relatively soft and will give nice dark tones. You can smudge the surfaces with your fingers, you can pull out highlights with an eraser, you can even draw lines with an eraser. Use a craft knife to cut the eraser and give it a sharper edge. Watch how you use your wrist to move the pencil to shade an area. Practice this action on scrap paper.

Once you get the feel of this you can try other mediums. Try charcoal which is a soft, crumbly, black and messy medium, great for big drawings and getting dirty fingers that you don’t worry about. Charcoal is wonderful for making a lovely black, dark, dark drawing. Or use Conte crayons, these are harder than charcoal; they make a more precise line and do great deep tones.

Do BIG drawings, and have some fun. Do teeny-weeny drawings made of four small shaded areas, well observed, but done really fast. This shouldn’t be tedious or dull. What matters is that you are drawing; making marks using your eyes and approaching this a step at a time.

If you get bored don’t stop, just move ahead and draw something else or use a different medium. The key, when working in a tonal medium, is to ignore and eliminate colour. Try and see the world in black and white.

Course fee and availability Drawing courses are an integral part of our woodworking school at Rowden. It is essential for you to to draw in order for you to make to a high level. Join us for six months or for a full year.

Course fees for short or long courses are to be found elsewhere on the website. As well as our Woodworking Courses