Sketching from real life vs photographs

  • Hello everyone!

    I wanted to have your opinion on real life vs photograph sketching! I have heard so many great art teachers preaching to draw from life as much as possible, and I am trying to do so (and I should probably do more). However, I often feel like I am learning more when I draw from photographs then from real life… I started using three great websites for sketching peoples (links below) and I feel that by drawing from photographs I have more time to really analyse the poses, and I can study things like the folds in the clothings, expressions, etc which I don’t have the time to study with subjects in motion. Also, when I draw people at the coffee shop, or at airports or at the mall, they are pretty much always doing the same thing: reading, Iphoning, typing or standing. I feel I can get more variety from photographs.

    Even for figure drawings, I try to go to live sessions when I can, but there are some amazing videos on YouTube and I feel like I am gaining as much drawing from them as I am drawing from live models (except of course for the social aspect of live drawing classes)

    However, there are probably some advantages to live figure/people sketching that I don’t see! And I would love to ear them (it would probably motivate me to go out more!)

    For people sketching:

    For figure drawings:
    (The Croquis Café)
    (New Masters Academy)

    And here are some sketches I did in ballpoint pen and markers from the Human of New-York website!

    Ballpoint pen
    Sketchs - HONY.jpg

    Sketch - HONY Ink.jpg

  • Hey Noémie,

    I'm in two minds about this and it really depends on what you want to achieve.

    I go to life drawing with a model 6 times a month and get so much more out of it than from photographs. When there's a model in front of you, you can see and feel the gravity and force and to me, the character of the pose is in those things. When I go to figure drawing, I'm not trying to just create piece of fine art (although there's nothing at all wrong with that, it's just not my style), I'm trying to pull the character and idea from that pose to tell a story with. I'll do some quick studies of the pose, then I'll push it a bit until I get where I want it.

    Saying that though, I do still use iamchicago and earthsworld, although I've never used humansofnewyork, but I'm adding it to my bookmarks now, so thanks for that 🙂

    I think the problem with photographs is that people get too attached to what's in front of them because it's there forever and doesn't move or change. When I'm using sites like earthsworld, I try and push the gesture as far as I can and caricature the people to try and get that person's essence rather than copy the photo.

    I've knocked up a couple of quick examples of what I mean from earthsworld and iamchicago. I only had a couple of my daughter's cheapo coloured pencils so did my best haha.


    There's certainly room for both and I don't think one is necessarily better than the other, it's what you get from it and what you want to achieve from it that really dictates. Just try to be loose and use what's in front of you as an outlet to create 🙂

    I definitely don't go for the social element as everybody there is at least 10 times my age. I'm nearly 30 and those people are really defying nature. I'm pretty sure some of them helped with the pyramids lol. They're all talking about the war they were in (the civil war of 1861) and think I'm some kind of gangsta because I wear a hat haha. One of them is the actual Eve from the bible. It's pretty incredible.


  • @Ace-Connell said:

    I definitely don't go for the social element as everybody there is at least 10 times my age. I'm nearly 30 and those people are really defying nature. I'm pretty sure some of them helped with the pyramids lol. They're all talking about the war they were in (the civil war of 1861) and think I'm some kind of gangsta because I wear a hat haha. One of them is the actual Eve from the bible. It's pretty incredible.

    Hahaha! This is funny! Where I go, there are people of all ages. However I still don't go for the social aspect, I go to draw as much as possible. This is definitely one advantage of a figure drawing class, you dedicate 3 - 4 consecutive full hours to drawing, without interruptions. I also agree with the feeling of gravity that is a lot better than with photographs.

    Do you have some figure drawing class sketches to show us ?! Your sketches from photographs are terrific by the way!!!

  • I've seen this kind of discussion come up in other forums I've been to, and I think it usually boils down to drawing from life is the best option if you can get it, but drawing from photographs is a good second; there are trade offs for both.

    Drawing from life gives you the chance to draw, well, from life, and get all the information that comes from it. You are seeing things as they are in three dimensions, which makes for better learning: you're learning how to adapt what is in front of you in 3D onto the 2D plane of your paper. And if you have live models, you can move around and can have the model move or pose. The challenge is that your model can't stay in the pose forever, but that makes you learn to get the essentials quickly, which is a good skill.

    Photographs give you more flexibility in how you work, and can get you access to reference that you couldn't have in person, especially thanks to the Internet and other resources. You can even take photos of the model you're working with in person for later work. The downsides tend to be working from a source that is already in a 2D format (flattened and some slight distortion based on the lens type and aperture) and the risk of losing details based on photo settings (such as losing details due to light balance; i.e. shadows being too dark or light areas being washed out).

    I think many artists use both forms of reference in their works, and you shouldn't limit yourself to one or the other.

  • Somewhat off topic but I think this may be relevant. If you look at the history of Western art from the renaissance to the very early 20th century there was a focus on the perfect replication of nature and the ideal form (the ideal form being mostly from Greek sculptures a very narrow period of between 450-400 BC). This is perhaps best illustrated in the Bargue Gerome drawing course from about 1850 that taught students to copy what they saw as accurately and as carefully as possible. At the time this was considered to be the pinnacle of what an artist should aspire to be and to do. But this type of work led to images that, for all their perfection in detail and rendering, lacked life. And so there was a movement away from this type of rote copying as artists attempted to convey the energy or the emotion of their subject. The flip side to this movement away from the established art trends of the time was to gradually lose the skills of being able to accurately copy the subject.

    The point is that in order to copy what you see takes a lot of time depending on how accurately you want to do it. But the dogged pursuit of accuracy can lead to lifeless images. To avoid that it's important to also focus on capturing the gesture and the best way to learn to do that is by limiting how much time you have to draw the subject. The artists who strove for perfection would learn to draw from casts so that they could spend as much time as they needed on the subject. Drawing from life was reserved for more advanced students and even then the model would hold a studio pose for many hours for the artists to concentrate on accuracy. Later artists would spend less and less time learning to draw from casts and would instead focus on the gesture or expression of the pose.

    So to the question of photos or life? Do both. Photos have the advantage that you can capture much more detail and be as accurate as you like with them where as drawing from life will help you to capture the essence of your subject and will help you build confidence in your line work as you learn to capture a pose in as few strokes as possible. Both have pros and cons and so long as you are aware of the limitations of both then you should be able to benefit from both.

    Anyway that's just my opinion.

  • You all have excellent arguments! I will have to get off my but and go out sketching more often!

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