Drawing from Photos or Life

Drawing from Photos or Life

While I was first learning to draw as a kid, I spent a lot of time using both photographs and life. Just naturally, I chose a lot of subjects from life and I tried drawing just about anything. I remember once being trapped in the car on a really long trip. At one point, I got so bored that I started drawing the inside of the car. For awhile after that, I was very familiar with the interior of an ’86 Honda Accord.

As time went on, I spent a lot of time drawing from photographs as well. Reading was a big love of mine and I pored over many books with illustrations. I also had books on dinosaurs, outer space and horses so I painstakingly copied them as well as possible. Going back, I looked at books I liked as a child which were full of illustrations. I studied them and tried to draw those too. As I got older, I started drawing a lot of fan art. When I was about 10 years old, I had a Sega Genesis and LOVED Sonic the Hedgehog (still do!) and I spent many hours drawing Sonic and Tails. Later, I got into Disney stuff and started drawing those characters, leading me to consider animation as a possible career.

It wasn’t until I began taking serious art classes that I started hearing about the importance of drawing originally AND from life as opposed to photographs. At the time I heard this, I was deeply into fan art drawing. I remember feeling both interested and disappointed. I wanted to keep drawing these lovable characters but at the same time, I wanted to expand my drawing skills. As time has gone on, I have realized that drawing from life is very essential to that.

Which is Real Art?

I don’t like getting into “real art” discussions. I tend to think that any way that a person has used to expressed themselves is some form of art. And when people are involved, there are always going to be some that like it and others that do not as much.

But one thing I do tend to agree with when it comes to drawing from photos or from life, is that when you are copying from a photo, technically, you are copying another form of art. Photography is an art, which is real. But a camera, in a way, is actually copying what is real. Drawing exactly what you see in a photograph is then a copy of a copy. You want to train your brain to capture 3D into 2D and a camera has already done this.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. I still use photographs to make art. There are times that a photograph is the only option – maybe even the best option. Perhaps your subject can’t sit for you. Maybe you need a specific lighting that would fade before you could capture it from life. Maybe you are unable to leave the house and have no access to the live version. If you are a photorealism artist, someone who strives to copy something exactly, then a photo is needed to produce this kind of art.

But what makes drawing from life better for expanding your skills, is that it allows you to see the entire subject. You can see exactly how something is put together. You can study proportions and anatomy for better rendering. Colors are also different from what the camera shows you. You can learn volume, depth, mass this way.

If you are copying, you cease to understand the fullness of your subject matter and are simply recreating what it is you see. If you are comfortable with working from photographs or there is something – as I mentioned above- that prevents you from drawing from life, then that’s fine. Continue with your art’s delight. But if you are looking to expand beyond that, such as drawing from imagination, then life is going to be a much better teacher for you.

Creating vs Recreating

The problem with copying from photographs only is that it can keep you from developing your own personal art style. If you do art for you and no one else, then it doesn’t matter. Make whatever you want. But if you are looking to have art that is recognizable as being just yours and no one elses, then simply copying isn’t going to be of much use to you after awhile. It prevents that kind of originality because you are only drawing exactly what you see.

In the beginning, copying can be a very good teacher. It helps you recreate life, to get a feel for how things are structured. You begin to measure distances with your eyes in order to effectively capture it. And again, if you don’t have access to certain things, then photographs are very helpful. Before the camera was invented, you had no choice but to use life. Or if you didn’t have a camera or didn’t want one, again, you had no choice but to use life. Frida Kahlo was often confined because of her health and therefore she drew a lot of self portraits.

Studying more than just a replication, such as colors and anatomy, as it really is, right in front of you, will move you along further in your art studies than only copying. It is easier to copy though, especially from a photo, and that is probably why a lot of people do it. I know that’s why I did it and continue to. Taking it to the next level, developing a style or drawing from imagination then makes the art more YOU. It is a whole other world.

Follow Your Art…

It’s true that I spent a lot of time in this article telling you why working from life is ultimately a better teacher when it comes to expanding your skills. But really, when it comes right down to it, everyone’s journey is different. Everyone has a different situation. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. It might be that working from photographs is a better fit for you. Or like me, a little bit of both.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never be a better artist or that you’ll be stuck forever in one particular level. If you are a portrait artist, asking cats or kids to sit still for hours on end is most likely not going to work. (If you have figured this out, however, please let me know. :D) And take horses, for example. Before the photograph and film was available, artists were not able to see exactly how a horse’s legs work while they are trotting, cantering or galloping. You also can’t study something like texture on something that moves about unless it’s an inanimate object. Life has a lot of change within it. And sometimes, you just want and/or need something to be still!

So, despite my high praise for life, I would overall, recommend following your heart. Because only you know what’s the perfect fit for you. And life is always changing. What works one day may transform into a need for something else. Whatever way you choose, it’s what’s best for you in that moment.



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