Question: Is drawing from life necessary?



  • I can draw from photos or pictures a whole lot better than I can draw from real objects in life, including landscapes. Is this going to be a huge impediment if I want to illustrate or animate? I assume this skill will not only get better with practice, but will also improve as I practice my drawing skills in general. And I do want to improve and plan to work on it, but is working from reference photos and pictures okay? Or is it a whole world away from being able to draw from life?

    Thank you for any replies and your time.


  • Moderator

    I struggle with this, too. I can copy a photo like there's no tomorrow, but copying a model standing in front of me has always been a challenge.

    It has been explained to me that the difference between drawing from real life and drawing from a photograph is something called "parallax". The lens of a camera takes a still image from a single point. One's eyes look at things in real life from two slightly different angles. This helps us see three-dimensionally. So the argument goes that you can literally see more depth with your own eyes than simply relying upon values to determine form in a photograph.

    Drawing from life also makes an artist sort out the imagery one is seeing in different ways than drawing from photos--it's not about copying lines as much as it's about capturing a line that suggests. When drawing from life, apparently one has to make more choices than one has to make when drawing from a photo. The photo has made a lot of decisions for you by capturing the image on a flat surface that you would normally have to make as the artist in real life.

    That being said, it is well known that many MANY famous artists have worked from photos. Norman Rockwell famously hired his own models to pose for him as he wanted so he could emulate them in his paintings. He made adjustments, of course, but he's just one example of an artist working from photos. The debate rages whether the folks we consider Old Masters would have worked from photography if they could. I know many contemporary artists lament their incapacity to be able to work from imagination and feel stuck, incapable of drawing without models or pics. I don't think one approach necessarily makes the transition easier than the other if your goal is to eventually compose work without the necessity of reference.

    But I've also been told all good artists work from reference. So...

    So, you have to decide for yourself if the way your using the photos for your work is detrimental or not. You have to decide if it's a shortcut to your own education or not. Is what you're making a copy (which, honestly, isn't a bad thing to practice), or are you adjusting it and using it for inspiration (which is also a unique challenge that is a completely different skill)?

    There are pros and cons, clearly. But I think it would behoove you to consider doing both. Practice from photos, and then find an artist circle that hires models. Practice folds from photographs, then throw a blanket on a chair and draw that, too. I think both methods exercise different artistic muscles, and you'll find you benefit from both depending on how you're using them.


  • Pro

    A photo is a 2D rendering of something, everything has been flattened out, whereas real life is full 3D. Drawing from photos helps you understand shapes, whereas drawing from life helps you understand volumes better. It's something that's very helpful and can improve your skill set if you practice it - but it's not the only way to learn and you're not forced to do anything.



  • @NessIllustration yeah essentially what ness said. With live drawing you have more freedom to adjust the model or your point of view. One thing you cant do with photos is drawing through when it comes parts of your model that are overlapped in the photo (like if the arm is behind the back) when you have a live model you can get up and go look at that arm and better understand how that arm actually effects the pose or vise versa. You can also adjust your own point of view and exaggerate the perspective of the pose where it’s a lot harder to do on a photo. Ugh another thing is light and quality like if im drawing a building. I can go closer to thay building to see finer details and textures where in a photo you’re limited to whatever quality that photo is. And with live drawing, if you’re drawing outside lets say, there are no intellectual property issues where as if you use a photo you gotta be more careful.



  • @Sorcha Drawing from pictures in and of itself or using them for reference is not bad, but it becomes bad when you use it as a crutch. Drawing from life will cause you to improve drastically and faster than only drawing from pictures ever will. You're beholden to the photographs.

    You'll find that if you do observational drawing then come back to drawing from photos that so much information is lost and so many decisions have been made by the camera on your behalf. With observational experience you can breathe more life into the images. As the artist you want to be able to make those decisions yourself.

    Drawing from life forces you to think differently and really know what you are drawing and why you are drawing it. I use photos for reference all the time, but have done life drawing and can use both to make artistic decisions instead of just relying on my reference. Professionals do/did it all the time too (Rockwell, anyone?)

    Consider also that when you are learning, it's not about making a pretty image. I've seen in my experience that artists who rely only on photos usually want to make something pretty more than they want to learn. Making stuff that doesn't look the best at first when learning is expected until you get a good foundation. If you want to improve the most that you can, I would say that observation is necessary.


  • Moderator

    i believe that it is necessary to draw from life at least occasionally. Having that knowledge of physical form in your skill set will help when you have to use photo reference. If you can take a class or attend live drawing groups on a regular basis for a good chunk of time, I would recommend it.



  • Thanks for your answers. I only have so much time outside of kids, work, etc, so I wanted to know if it was a good skill to spend time on. So far, it appears to be well worth it, so planning on working it into my first phase of study. Am still interested in further answers though if anyone else has an opinion.



  • I think if you can get the opportunity to draw from life you should. Photo reference is great to draw a thing, but while your life drawing may be less technically accurate it can be a better experience in terms of capturing the energy and weight of something as perceived by your own eye, rather than just exactly what it looks like in a photo.


  • SVS OG

    If you have limited time, another option is to compromise by doing live sketching wherever you go (waiting at the mall, sitting in the car waiting for kids, etc.) but before you leave, take a photo and finish it at home. If you take the photo yourself, you are the one making compositional choices, not some other photographer, and because you spent time trying to do it live, you will better understand the form, color, light etc.



  • Pros of using life

    • Life is real, it is alive, and that will show in your drawings of it.
    • You will improve if you keep at it and get good instruction. (self-taught actually means that someone went out and sought after good teachers on their own, not literally that they sat in a room by themselves and it just came to them. That's what the Cavemen did because there weren't teachers yet and all they came up with was stick figures.)
    • Life has volume, you can walk around it and see multiple angles. A picture is just one angle.
    • All the masters studied life, and that is why they are the masters.

    Pros of using Reference

    • There is a ton of it out there.
    • It is easy to find.
    • It is easy to draw a 2-D drawing from 2-D reference. even if you are not literally tracing, the act of drawing from a picture is essentially displaced tracing and therefore pretty easy.
    • Your reference won't move or change so it's a good resource to really study what's happening in your scene and how to render it.

    Cons of using life

    • Can be difficult to get exactly what you need. If you need a model but can't afford it you might have to settle for people watching at a cafe and catching a quick sketch.
    • It is super hard (at first) As I said, seek good instruction.

    Cons of using Reference

    • Your art will feel lifeless.
    • Your art will lack energy
    • If you are referencing other artists, you will run into the problem of laying down lines but you're not sure why because you don't actually know perspective, anatomy, or whatever your subject matter is. you have to know, and that takes time and careful study. (But don't be fooled, you won't ever know everything, but it helps to try 😃 )
    • Using reference for studies is fine, but if you steal someone else's work by copying it and claim it as your own for work or freelance, then you're in trouble.
    • If you plan to study animation you MUST study life, because life moves, photos do not.
    • It is easy. You might think this is a pro, but it really isn't. If you want to be an artist because it is easy, then you picked the wrong career. It is hard and you will only get better if you draw what you can't until you can. It is fun though so keep up the great work and never quit!

    Good Luck



  • Hi Sorcha! such a tough one ! Last year I took a week of intensive school at Cambridge at the Anglia Ruskin University , where they have one of the best Master degree in Children's books. Well, the first 3 month, they had to present nothing else than a project of their choice, based on tons of drawing from observation. They would eat sketchbook after sketchbook. Some of the highly regarded and published illustrators came out of this school, like Marta Altes, Melissa Castrillon, Annuska Allepuz… I think at least at the beginning, it is something we can do specially to develop our own way of framing life and building a visual dictionary in our heads...



  • Is drawing from life necessary? No, not necessarily. You can get by without it. Working from reference photos is just fine.

    Is drawing from life a good idea? Yes. Absolutely. Observing shapes and colours in real life is always beneficial and lets you render things as you see them as opposed to how someone else's camera sees them.

    You don't have to draw from life all the time. But I'd try and do it on a fairly regular (though infrequent if you don't like it) basis 🙂



  • @Sorcha So much great stuff here. I'll just reinforce what others have said.

    You learn way more drawing from life. If your goal is to learn how to draw and paint better, then working from life beats photos hands down.

    For making pictures though, there's absolutely no reason you should be beholden to using a live model. I know some artists who I think take this so far that it becomes an almost religious thing to shun photos, and I think it's can be a big hindrance to their work.

    In the end though, do what keeps you drawing and painting. That's more important than anything. If you get the opportunity to work from life, do it, learn to enjoy it. But if not, don't sweat it.



  • @robgale one thing no one has mentioned is that drawing from life helps you understand value better. You see a depth in shadows that isn't usually captured in photos.



  • Thank you everyone for all your replies. Since I posted my original question, I've had a chance to draw from a photo and from life. I've thought less about what I'm drawing and more about comparing the two and what I get from them. I understand a great deal better the importance of live observation.

    But, I've also discovered photos can give you time to work when you need it and tracing over a 2D image can show you where you're going wrong when translating from life to paper. I've added "build my own photo/video reference library" to my list of not-drawing jobs. I will be working on improving my observation-to-paper skills so I can use either life or photos as a reference when it's appropriate. Thanks again.



  • I think there are some really valuable responses in this thread. What i've been told is that you ultimately want to interpret your point of view of life and then communicate it through your art. I think drawing from life will help you achieve this and really help you make art that is unique to you. That being said, I believe drawing from reference is necessary to make your images believable. Jake and Will explain this very well in their Creative Environment Design class.


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