Grade Level



15 classes of 40 minute periods


Gray paper (with some tooth), black charcoal sticks, black charcoal pencils, white charcoal pencils, white charcoal sticks, blending stubs, variety of erasures, drawing boards or easels, working and regular fixative and a view finder. Still life items including white, black, and gray clothes.



Lesson Objectives

For students:
To understand the value of thumbnail sketches in arriving at a good composition.
To understand what makes a good composition.
To be introduce to classic method of drawing on toned paper with white and black charcoal.
To be able to express a full range of values in developing the still life on the toped paper.

Introductory Activity

Expose student’s to still life works by Degas, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and others worked on toned paper. Students will recognize that they are part of an ongoing tradition in art when using this method.
Practice creating a value chart on toned paper. The key here is to start with white opaquely and easing up to let the paper show through until you reach just the bare paper. Then, gradually add the black charcoal pencil lightly building up more opaquely as you go.
I ask student well before starting the project to brain storm ideas for the still life and ask them to bring in items. We have had still life of toys, fashion, and beach themed to name a few. Usually, a few earlier finishers will help me set up the still life.
Go over basic compositional flaws and how to avoid them.
Go over how to use a view finder.
A discussion of how to work with charcoal to avoid a mess is a good idea as well. Standing up or working on a table top easel can be helpful for students. If working on tables discuss using paper under your hand to avoid smearing the charcoal. If tilting a drawing board, ward students about charcoal falling in their lap.

Lesson Process

Students do a mix of vertical and horizontal thumbnail sketches in sketchbook (or copy paper), about 10-15. Use the view finder. Some student love the view finder immediately, others need practice.
Have students ask opinions of classmates for the best thumbnail and then get teachers opinion before selecting one.
Students receive an 18×24 inch grey pastel paper.
Use a pencil and ruler to lightly sketch a vertical and horizontal line to divide the paper. This helps them transfer their composition, allowing students to make sure they are drawing to scale and things land where they should. Students should continue to look at the original still life, not just their thumbnails.
Before student start shading, remind them that they will be leaving much of the paper showing through and to remind student that they will never be mixing the white or black to get a gray but instead allowing the paper to become the gray value.
Develop shading until complete.


value, value scale, composition, toned paper, view finder


7 Compositional Mistakes to Avoid in your Stiil Life Paintings
Compositional Mistakes in Drawing – Will Kemp Art School

Author’s Website/Blog

Supporting Images