Setting Up a Still Life



60 min

What you need:

Soft Pastel Crayons

Composing a still life gives you a great deal of control over the subject because all the decisions are up to you! You can choose the lighting, the background, the type of objects you want to include, and what textures you want to depict. Try selecting objects with a variety of shapes and sizes, and be sure to overlap the elements to avoid a stagnant composition.

Also keep in mind that it’s easier to control an artificial light source rather than relying on natural light - with artificial light, the shadows will remain constant throughout the painting process. Because careful observation is so important in still life painting, place your  setup slightly below eye level, and stand close to it so you can see the details. For this painting, a number of light sources and arrangements were tested before settling on the most visually interesting setup - a slightly asymmetric arrangement with a strong light source coming from the left.

Step 1

Tone the support with a wash of yellow ochre acrylic. For the initial drawing, use a gray pastel that will be easily covered by the subsequent layers of color. Draw the basic shapes of the bowl, the fruit, and the drape, paying particular attention to the ellipse of the bowl. Also outline some of the shadow shapes and the contours of the objects.

Step 2

Block in the basic shapes, working quickly and using the sides of the sticks so you don’t fill in the tooth of the paper completely. Cover the background with pink, then paint the green apples with light green, the lemon with lemon yellow, and the peaches with layers of cinnamon  and rose. Use light  green for the green pears and a mix of red-violet and cinnamon for the red pear. For the stripes on the bowl, apply  cobalt green in the light areas and cobalt blue in the dark areas. Also block in the cast shadow on the wall with darker gray. Then use carmine to add some dark values in between the fruit and on the shadows.

Step 3

Next block in the drape, using shell pink for the light areas, sky blue for the shadows on the drape and the wall, and gray for the shadows on the fruit. Here use the length of the pastel sticks to apply color, but don’t press very hard; allow the texture and the color of the toned paper to show through.

Step 4

Observe your  setup carefully to determine where each piece of fruit has a form shadow (a shadow on the object itself that helps to define its shape), a core shadow (the darkest part of the form shadow), and a cast shadow (a dark shadow that the object throws onto another surface). Some of the cast shadows fall on other pieces of fruit, and some fall on the drape or on the background. But each one follows and reveals the form of the objects they fall on. When you add the core shadow to each piece of fruit, its reflected light - the light bouncing off another object onto this one - is also revealed.  Use fern green for the core shadow of the lemon, and switch to viridian green for the core shadow and the cast shadow of the green pear.

Step 5

Once you have the forms of each element worked out, begin to focus on the nuances of color and value. Add some light green to the top of the red pear. Then layer the background with light yellow in the center, adding light cobalt green and light gray as you work toward the edges. Here you actually blend by layering, so don’t use your finger to blend at all. Next darken the cast shadows against the wall with burnt umber.

Step 6

Now make some final adjustments to the drape, using a bit of white for the highlights and blending some areas with your finger to soften the transitions. Apply yellow ochre to the center of the bowl, and add some highlights to the fruit with a mixture of white and light Naples yellow. Make sure that the highlights on the shiny fruits are more defined than the highlights on the surface of the fuzzy peaches. Create the stems, and then add burnt umber on the shadowed side of each stem. Finally blend the background a bit with your finger.

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Excerpt from "Pastel Step by Step", published by Walter Foster Publishing, a division of Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc. All rights reserved. Walter Foster is a registered trademark. Artwork © Marla Baggetta. Visit