Question: Is drawing from life 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 :smiling_face_with_open_mouth: )
    • 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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