This is a question I find comes up a lot. Is drawing your subject from life really so different from using a photo as reference? Photos are undoubtedly more convenient, but art instructors often recommend using real life as your reference material. So is it better to draw from life or from photos? Well…
It’s all Practice
First of all, everything you draw is practice. Whether you’re drawing from life or from photographs, you’re still working on your skills: muscle memory, accuracy, attention to detail, etc., and that’s a good thing. But there is a big difference between the two.
The skills you develop will heavily rely on the situation in which you do your practice. Drawing from life will help you learn to make faster decisions and naturally helps improve gesture drawing skills; while drawing from photos will invoke a greater focus on details and accuracy. These skills are all valuable to anyone looking to learn how to draw.
But these methods each come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
The Advantage to Drawing from Photographs
For one thing, photos don’t move. This is at once the best and worst thing about them, in my opinion.
The nice thing is that you can really slow down and take your time to get your drawing to a polished state, but since you can spend as much time as you want on it, there is the trap of using up too much time and letting perfectionism stand in your way. When you only have a moment to draw what’s in front of you, there’s no time to second-guess yourself.
I believe the biggest upside to drawing from photos is that you can have at your fingertips access to sights that you may never see in your life; this could be because the moment in the photo took place a long time ago, or in a place that’s very far away. You can draw from other still images, too, especially for things that don’t exist in our world (or do they??), such as dragons, unicorns, and other creatures of myth and legend.
Of course, you can use multiple reference images in order to combine ideas into a single drawing (and this can be an awful lot of fun!); for instance, referencing images of horses and birds to draw a pterippus (like Pegasus), or using photos of humans and snakes as reference to create a naga. There’s no end to the possibilities, and this is one of the most exciting things about drawing!
The Advantage to Drawing from Life
While drawing from photos certainly gives you the advantage of time, the downside is that there’s always a certain amount of context missing from the moment the photo was taken. There’s no way to step back and absorb more information than what’s there in the frame, and this is a huge advantage to drawing from life itself.
When drawing from life, you are recording your interpretation of what’s going on. Even without thinking about it, you’re injecting your personality, mood, and feelings into your creation. You have the opportunity to be there in the moment, to experience it with all your senses. So not only are you recording what you see, but also the smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings of really being there.
A dozen artists can draw the same scene and you will see a dozen different art works afterward. Each individual brings to the table their own melding pot of experience, skills, techniques, thoughts, and expression to their piece.
Using Both Together
Why not go out and draw a nice park background, then add in some people afterward? You can start by getting a good handle on the environment, then head home and find some favourite photos of your friends and family. Alternatively, you might stay a while in a coffee shop sketching people and later put in a different backdrop.
This is a fun way to practice things like perspective and lighting, since you’ll have to match everything up in a believable way. To blend photos and reality together convincingly requires you to consider things such as relative size and distance of your subjects to each other and the environment, how they react to one another, and how they fit together as a whole composition. An interesting challenge, to be sure!
You can also draw from life, and take a photo of the subject so you can finish or polish your drawing when you get home. For example, you might have time for a quick sketch, but once you have a chance to sit down at your desk you can add colour or paint to the drawing, using the photo as reference.
Honestly, a lot of it comes down to personal preference and goals. While drawing from life will undoubtedly provide more opportunities to work on different skills, it really depends on how and what you draw. If you’re a portrait artist who makes drawings of photos for people, it might not matter what’s behind the person in the photo. While I tend to feel like a sense of life is often missing from photos, there’s nothing wrong with copying exactly.
Personally, even if my goal was to copy a photo of a person’s face, I would be more comfortable having several photos, or a short video clip -or better still, having met the person myself- before attempting to capture an authentic likeness. This might be my spiritual side coming through here, but I think this kind of background knowledge makes a noticeable difference in the finished piece -even if you’re copying a photo.
Let me ask you this: If two artists of equal skill copied the same photograph, using the same materials in the same time frame and under the same circumstances, with the goal of copying the photo as closely as possible; if one of the artists knew the portrait subject personally, don’t you think that would affect the finished piece? Food for thought, anyway.
This is one reason why I will always consider drawing from life more accurate and more beneficial than drawing from photos. However, using photo reference is crucial too, chiefly for longer studies and for researching things you don’t see in everyday life. So my recommendation is to draw from life whenever and wherever you can; and to use photos as needed. You can also draw from TV as a great compromise when there’s not much going on around you but you don’t want to draw from a still photo.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you prefer to draw life as it happens or use photos as your reference? Let me know in the comments! 🙂