Assignment 1: A personal still life

The assignment

Assemble a group of objects that have some personal significance to form interesting shapes and shadows. Create a still life using a range of drawing tools. Write a paragraph about why you picked the objects you picked and what the objects say about you. Reflect on the process and review your work using the assessment criteria of the course.


I have to admit that the idea of creating a drawing that somehow reflected something of my character threw me a little. I got a bit hung up on deciding what personal objects to use, spending at least a week whirling possibilities around in my head. In the end I opted for objects representing parts of my story rather than being inherently precious to me, after all, the most precious things in my life are not inanimate.

My Personal Still Life

The wooden horse was a present from my parents. I love its sleek elegant lines and it’s slightly exaggerated form. If I had to rescue one inanimate object from my house this would probably be it. Including it here reminds me of the hours I spent as a child trying to copy a picture of a horse’s head that I had, over and over again (not with any great success I should add!). The skull is that of a wallaby and is part of an extensive skull and bone collection that I have collected over the years. It represents my love of the natural world, especially old bones, and also my Australian heritage. For me at least it is also the point at which art meets science: form meets function. The book is Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro (1889) by Alfred Russel Wallace. It represents my role as a teacher in facilitating learning, my scientific background as well as my love to travel. I am by nature a bit of a drifter. The garlic represents my love for both cooking and for growing vegetables both of which require a nurturing process not dissimilar to that required of me as a mother. So as odd as it may seem, the garlic also represents my lovely family. Last but not least, the pestle and mortar was chosen for many reasons. I have spent most of my working-life considering the forces involved in locomotion and the pestle and mortar is a simple, well-designed machine powered by human muscle. I wouldn’t be without it in the kitchen where I use it to grind spices, releasing their pungent, dusky aromas: I am the daughter of a Spice Trader and its in my blood! Finally, I just love the heavy, assured solidity of the pestle and mortar juxtaposed with their sleek, smooth surfaces. It just felt right to include it!!


I had a small table next to a north facing window on which I could set up and leave my composition. I was hoping to use the natural light, however I found that the shadows were not very distinct in this set up (there are trees outside that block out a fair bit of light) so I ended up shutting the curtain and shining a light from the opposite side (high up and from an acute angle) in order to create some interesting shadows and tones. Once the curtain was shut the yellow ochre tones, which were very distinct in the skull and (less so) in the horse, were reflected in the pestle and mortar, book and garlic. Originally I had positioned a lemon with the garlic but its bright yellow tones looked out of place and so I removed it.

composition 1
Pencil on brown paper A rather boring composition!
The final composition Charcoal on paper

I played around with the composition of the objects and tried sketching relationships. Two things became evident: firstly, the skull was most interesting in this study when presented face on and secondly, the horse was very tall compared to the other objects.. By standing the pestle and mortar on the book some height was gained in the mid-ground which helped balance the tallness of the horse. The book could then be used to prop up the skull face on, so that the nose sloped projected out the furthest providing a gradation of height from back to front.

Drawing materials

I have never really tried to mix drawing tools in one drawing before and so needed to think carefully how I was going to fulfil this criteria. I was concerned that I would find the skull the most difficult object to draw (oh how wrong!) and so concentrated my efforts of experimenting in different media by drawing this. I tried pencil, drawing pen and compressed charcoal (a fox’s skull as I didn’t have the wallaby with me at that moment). I found it quite difficult to manipulate the tones with the compressed charcoal – it didn’t lift out or smudge in the way charcoal does and I  ended up with rather a greasy mess on the page! Pencil was ok to use but made it look like the biological specimen that it was. I was trying to find something that would capture the essence of what a skull was rather than specific detail.

My drawing-pen sketches were more successul but I wasn’t confident that I could use this in a final drawing. I did a tonal study in drawing pen and conte crayon to see how I would get on (this was done whilst the lemon was still on the table).

Drawing-pen and conte crayon on brown paper
Tonal Study Drawing pen and conte crayon on brown paper
wash practice
Pigment wash with charcoal, watercolour pencil, oil pastel, soft pastel and conte crayon

I like the result as a tonal sketch but I couldn’t see me being able to complete a finished drawing in this medium.  I toyed with the idea of putting a wash on the page and drawing in to it. I used some purple ochre pigment that my son had bought me on a school trip to Clearwell Caves (an ochre mine). Mixing this with water I put on some squares and then drew over them in various materials: charcoal, watercoulour pencil, oil pastel, soft pastel and conte crayon. I liked the vibrancy of the soft blue pastel and the effect produced by putting a wash over the top of a white oil pastel. I think however that my wash was too dark to be very effective for the other materials. The reality is that I have no idea how to do a wash properly and so need to practice this technique before I try to use it.

materials 1
Study of Wallaby Skull Mixed media

I tried drawing the skull in various different media: charcoal and soft yellow pastel (top left);  charcoal and soft yellow pastel overlaid with white conte crayon (top right); charcoal and marker pen (middle right) and fine drawing pen and ink wash (bottom right). I also had a go at drawing the lemon (before I removed it) in charcoal overlaid with yellow oil pastel (middle left). The charcoal and the pastel were the best efforts. These sketches were on brown paper which I liked but it didn’t quite have enough ‘tooth’ for the charcoal so I reverted to charcoal and pastel on lightweight cartridge paper.

Detail of wooden horse
Detail of wooden horse

The horse is wooden and the sculptor has cleverly used the tree rings to emphasis the curves of the flanks. I wanted to depict these rings in my drawing. I used a section of a log to experiment taking some rubbings of tree rings, using a variety of media over a base of charcoal.

I got a bit carried away but the results of this experimentation convinced me that using oil pastel over charcoal gave a nice grain effect. The charcoal collected onto the sticky oil pastel creating dark rings with lighter rings in between.The pattern of rings was too regular and at the wrong angle for me to use this technique directly on my drawing. However, I could emulate the effect by drawing rings on in oil pastel over a charcoal and then rub over the area with my finger to get the powder to stick. I could then work darker areas back in with further charcoal.

The Process

Blocking in tones with charcoal
Blocking in tones with charcoal

I started by blocking in the tones in charcoal. I then had to take the plunge and work in oil pastel to create the wood effect on the horse. Once this was established I could start to add the yellow ochre soft pastel to  tie the whole image together. I took a long time and there was much rubbing out. The freshness of the paper got lost so I ended up having to use a white soft pastel to intensify some of the highlights as lifting out charcoal became more difficult.

wrong shadows
The shadow tones are wrong here

I got the intensity of the shadows all wrong at one point, and had to correct this. The shadows on the table were not as intense as those on the curtains.

Right shadow tones but indistinct curtains
Right shadow tones but indistinct curtains

I thought I may have finished once I had rectified the shadows but coming back to my drawing a day later (and photographing in better light) I realised that the curtains needed to be included in the drawing more forcefully. In this version they are neither there nor not there! The curtains also contained a lot of yellow tone which was linking the objects together. I spent some time reworking the curtains, trying to make a convincing background.

My Final Drawing

'My personal still life' Charcoal, soft pastel and oil pastel on A2 lightweight cartridge paper
‘My personal still life’ Charcoal, soft pastel and oil pastel on A2 lightweight cartridge paper


There is no doubt that I found this task difficult. I struggled at first to choose my objects, then to choose my drawing media, and then finally I struggled in the actual execution of the drawing! However I did learn a lot on the way. I realise that I have to practice with a lot of different drawing media so that not only can I make an informed choice about what to use but am then able to use them with some degree of competence. I had a lot of ideas but ended up resorting to charcoal as a main medium because I felt confident with it.

I wanted to create an emotional drawing. I was very taken by the dark tones used to express emotion in both the Odilon Redon images that I researched as part of this course and also the later 20th Century drawings on show at the Great British Drawing exhibition (see separate blog entry). I also identified with the more dark emotional mark making in one of the very first exercises I had to do for OCA. I didn’t consciously set about choosing a group of dark -toned objects. My first priority was to find things that meant something. However as I looked at my final composition, and began blocking out in charcoal it struck me on how dark a set-up I had ended up with!

I am fairly happy with the overall result but not necessarily because of any drawing acheivement. What I really like about this is that on one level it is a group of objects personal to me, each with its own reason for being thiere. But on another level it is a group of objects that look like they belong in some medieval apothecary or in a witches coven – an ‘eye of newt, and toe of frog‘ (Shakespeare, MacBeth) sort of thing. In the words of a friend, the drawing is ‘beguiling’ and I love that!

Detail of horse's flank
Detail of horse’s flank

There are aspects of the drawing process that I felt went well.  I don’t particularly like oil pastels, but I am pleased with the effect I managed to create on the horse. As well as creating grain effects using the point of the oil pastel I also used it on its side to create a wood texture when charcoal was rubbed over it. This is most evident on the horses legs.

Detail of horse's forelegs
Detail of horse’s forelegs

I did spend a lot of time trying to get my initial drawing right which did result in much lifting of charcoal back off the page! In my final drawing the spacing between the horse’s forelegs is not quite right but I got to the point where once I had got a realistic stance I decided to leave them as they were. The negative spaces created by the legs were very pleasing to draw.

detail 4
Detail of wallaby skull and reflection

The aspect I am most happy with is the skull. It has retained the freshness in the drawing that I was hoping for, just enough detail to be clearly a skull without becoming crowded. Perhaps this is a result of me having concentrated my initial sketches on the skull. This level of freshness is mostly lost from the rest of my drawing due to it being overworking in an effort to get it right!

I found distinguishing the different tones on the pestle and mortar very difficult, probably the most difficult thing in the whole composition. The dark granite with patches of lighter stone made it very difficult to tell what was in shadow and what was just dark!

Detail of pestle and mortar
Detail of pestle and mortar

The light was coming down from such an acute angle that for a long time I was thrown by the fact that the back of the mortar bowl was actually in highlight. I am not sure that I have captured the heaviness of the granite mortar because it has become so overworked and smudged but there is, however, some weight to the pestle. The reflection of the back of the skull in the granite is rather satisfying.

I am not at all happy with the curtains! As a backdrop I feel they haven’t’ worked and I would rather have not had them there at all, letting the shadows spill out across a flat surface . My space, however, didn’t allow this. The shadows on the curtains make for a very heavy rightside to the drawing which is not really balanced out to the left. I also haven’t been particularly competent in adding the yellow pastel and the charcoal together. The result is rather a muddy mishmash with little evidence of texture. I was not sure how to fix this as the charcoal and pastel no longer lift off the page effectively. I had to take the decision to stop and leave them as they are. Rather unsatisfactory.

Review using assessment criteria

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I have used mixed drawing media (charcoal, pastel and oil pastel) and tried new techniques (frottage and interesting lighting) in this assignment. I experimented with other media in the preparatory stages. I feel that I have demonstrated some technical and visual skills especially with the design and composition of my drawing although probably not at a particularly high level. I did completely overwork many areas of my drawing, in an attempt to get them plausible rather than in an attempt to add further detail. I did however manage to include some aspects covered in pervious exercises in the course so far, such as depicting reflections, tones and shadows, although I didn’t really manage to use different mark making techniques to achieve these.

Quality of outcome

I hope that I have presented my work in this blog in a coherent manner. I have tried to show the order in which I proceeded with the task, starting with getting the context of the drawing right (making a personal still life), through the exploratory stages of design and finally through the stages of completing the drawing itself. I applied knowledge that I gained in the exploratory stages to my final drawing. In terms of documenting my ‘journey’ I struggle with the photography of my work. Many of the intermediate stages of my final drawing ended up being photographed in artificual light at night leading to poor quality images. Whilst the final drawing was photographed in natural light there is a lack of consistency in the process that shows.

Demonstration of creativity

I certainly tried to experiment out of my comfort zone in the design process although I am very aware that I did fall back on charcoal for the final drawing. I did however find a new way to use charcoal, over oil pastel to create some interesting wood effects. I think my choice of objects demonstrated imagination, and maybe someway towards developing a personal voice. I really do love the idea of there being a darker side to my drawing!!!


I have tried to include ideas from areas of research I have carried out (in this case the idea of conveying emotion). I would hope that I come across as articulate and self aware but whether or not I am thinking and reflecting about the right things remains to be seen! I have noticed that making the move from thinking scientifically to thinking artistically is quite hard! Whilst reflection is useful in any discipline, science is famously dispassionate, unemotional and impersonal. I am having to learn to write about my art work in a very different way.

Assignment 1: A personal still life