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The Complete Art School Portfolios Guide: Drawing from Life & Reference Photos

Updated September 16, 2020

By Clara LieuAdjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

Drawing from life is rare for most high school students

Drawing from life is hands down the number one, absolutely essential thing to do that essentially all high school students fail to do.

This problem is so prominent, that drawing from direct observation is now the rare exception among high school art students. Just doing this one directive will distinguish your work from the crowd, and put you light years ahead of other students in terms of developing your drawing skills.

Beyond just standing apart from the thousands of other student who are copying from photos, drawing from life is an amazing, enriching experience that will provide the foundation for a strong drawing skills.  Read this article that Prof Lieu wrote about the importance of drawing from direct observation, and about the bad drawing habits that develop as a result of drawing exclusively from photographs.

Self-Portrait Drawing in Crayon
Prof Lieu demonstrates how to set up a mirror to draw a self-portrait from direct observation.

Marker Drawing Techniques
Lauryn shows how to set up your own still life with quirky, unusual items to draw from life. (this is not your vase with peaches still life!)

Drawing from life takes patience and time

Only problem is, when you draw from life, you have to work a lot harder to train your eye, work in less convenient situations,  work at a faster pace, and interpret the image on your own.  Drawing from life requires a lot of patience and willingness to practice regularly.

Progress is generally slow, not very visible, and won’t produce immediate gratification. The fact is, the vast majority of students really are unwilling to invest that kind of time and consideration in their drawings. With drawing, you really do have to simply log the hours drawing, the way an athlete has to spend time exercising every day to maintain their strength and stamina.

It is easy to see why students have only learned to draw from photographs: photographs are much more convenient than drawing from life.  If you want to draw a portrait, you don’t have to ask anyone to pose or sit still for you.  Need to draw an elephant?  Just do a Google Image search and in one second there are hundreds of options to pick from.

Drawing from photographs is a limited experience

It’s rare for a photograph online to have exactly what you’re looking for.  If you are drawing a hand in a specific pose, it’s really unlikely you will find a hand in the exact pose you want in a photograph online. In human figures, it’s usually glaringly obvious when something is off in the anatomy.

It’s not difficult to take a photo of your own hand, or someone else’s hand.  You’ll have total control over the position of the hand and make it exactly what you need for your artwork. Watch this video for tips on shooting your own reference photos.

Consequently, most students either compromise their image or just end up making up the hand up out of their imagination, which never goes well.  There are so few people  who can draw a convincing hand, with good anatomical structure completely out of their heads.

Pen & Ink Wash Illustration
Alex travels to a farm to draw sheep from life as references to create an illustration.

Creature Design
Julie Benbassat draws Prof Lieu’s guinea pigs as a reference for her creature design.

There’s a difference between copying and interpreting what you see

When students draw from photographs, they don’t have to work remotely as hard to get half decent results.  The process is deceiving because you think you’re drawing, but really, the photograph has done all the work for you.

Essentially, you’re looking at an image that is 2D and then transferring that image to a 2D drawing.  Not much has to change in terms of moving from the photograph to your drawing.

When you draw from life, your eye has to work much harder to translate the 3D objects in space in front of you into a 2D drawing.   You have to learn to observe, investigate, and visually analyze what you are seeing.  You have to process what it is that your eye is seeing, and then interpret that raw visual information into a visual statement that is your own.

Copying what  you see is not remotely the same experience as interpreting what you see.  In our pen & ink wash illustration tutorial,  it would have been much, much easier for Teaching Artist Alex Rowe to simply type “sheep” into a Google Image search. Instead, he took the time to visit a farm, which gave him the chance to observe the sheep, see their movement, and to sketch them from life.  This experience with sheep in real life tremendously informed his ability to portray the sheep in his ink wash illustration.

Self-Portrait Cartoons
Casey demonstrates how to draw cartoons entirely from imagination.

How to Draw Imaginary Backgrounds
Julie Benbassat shows how you can draw an imaginary landscape by looking at rocks, branches, potted plants, vegetables, and more.

Learning to draw exclusively from photos has consequences

In addition to making poor portfolio pieces, drawing from photographs causes students to develop terrible drawing habits that will be difficult to get rid of later. Many college freshmen who haven’t drawn from life before have a very tough time making the transition in college because their drawing habits are so bad.

Drawing from imagination doesn’t mean you are a better artist

There’s a common misconception amongst high school students that if you need reference imagery, you are somehow less of an artist. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most professional artists use some form of reference imagery, and if they do create images from their head, the reason why they have that skill set is from years of drawing from life.

Drawing only from your head, you are vastly  limiting the depth of what you can draw and your images will lean towards being cliche and generic.  Most people have an idea in their head of what a monkey looks like, and probably could draw an image of a monkey that is recognizable as a monkey.

However, if you take the time to look up a photo of a monkey, you’ll discover that there are so many different species of monkeys, and that each species has distinctive features that you would never have been able to come up with on your own. That specificity of the image is what will make your image unique and informed.

Character Design
Cat demonstrates how to create a character design using reference photos and her imagination.

Drawing from photos does have a place in the artistic process

This is not to say that drawing from a photograph is WRONG and shouldn’t ever be practiced.  Prof Lieu and many of the Teaching Artists here at Art Prof use photographs all the time in their artwork.

So the question is, why is there so much emphasis being put on learning to draw from life, when the professional artists preaching this are drawing from photos themselves?  The short answer is that learning to draw from photographs effectively is a skill that takes lots of time  (years) and experience drawing from life to develop.  Having solid life drawing skills will enable you to eventually draw from photographs successfully.

There are certainly other creative situations where you just cannot work from life.  For example, if you are a freelance illustrator who has been given a job to do an editorial illustration about the Forbidden City in China, there is just no reason to get on a flight to China to sketch the Forbidden City in real life.  That wouldn’t make sense for any professional illustrator in those circumstances.

Portrait Sculpture
Prof Lieu shoots her own reference photos of an artist model and uses these photos to sculpt a portrait.

Figure Sculpture
Prof Lieu shoots her own reference photos of an artist model and uses these photos to sculpt a figure.

Whenever possible, always shoot your own reference photos

If you are sculpting a portrait from clay, a process which can take numerous hours to complete, and you cannot afford to hire an artist model to come pose for you, of course shooting your own photographs of a person makes much more sense.  You can see Prof Lieu show this very scenario in the video tutorials above.

On the flip side of that, it’s absolutely ridiculous to draw something from a photograph that is really easy to access in real life.  We’ve seen students who needed to draw an apple and do a Google image search for “apple.”

Really, is it that difficult to get an apple and draw it from real life?  If you need to draw clouds, is it that hard to look out the window? Get up out of your chair, walk around your neighborhood and snap some photos of the sky! A small amount of effort will go a really long way.

Cat Huang explains how to use reference photos, how to shoot your own, and how to steer clear of copyright violations when using reference photos that are not your own.

I’ve seen students who need a photo of a hand in a particular pose, and will complain that they can’t find a specific point of view that they are looking for through a Google image search.   without smartphone and take several photographs of your own hand or of a friends. You might even come up with a pose that looks even better in the process of taking up a couple of photographs.

Intro to Gouache Painting Techniques
Watch Alex demonstrate how to shoot your own reference photos on site at a graveyard, starting at 01:14 min.

Digital Illustration
Watch Cat demonstrate how to shoot your own reference photos, starting at 08:50 min.

There’s a huge difference between copying a photo and using a photo as a visual reference

Many professional artists shoot their own reference photos by staging the imagery they are looking for:  getting a person to pose a specific way, visiting a location on site, etc.  In the video tutorial above left, Teaching Artist Alex Rowe took the time to visit a church and graveyard in real life so that he could shoot reference photos for this gouache painting. See Alex’s trip to the graveyard and hear about his approach towards shooting reference photos.

Gouache Painting, Alex Rowe

A reference photo is raw visual material that you need to manipulate

The photo an artist shoots themselves, specifically for a piece of artwork is merely a reference, seen as the raw material from which an original image can be generated from. While it’s evident that the image on the left was used as a reference photo for the gouache painting on the right, it’s also clear that a lot changed between the reference photo and the gouache painting. The imagery from the reference photo was heavily manipulated and transformed into an original image.

In the gouache painting above right, Teaching Artist Alex Rowe changed the direction of the light on the church, and the colors are completely different in the gouache painting compared to the reference photo. Yet you can still see the connection from the original reference photo in terms of the architecture and the structure of the church, those are the types of details that are really tough to make up out of your head.

Use and combine several reference photos for a single artwork

Many artists create artwork that uses visual references from multiple photos, grabbing a tree from one photo, placing a person from another to fabricate a new image.  You can see in the gouache painting above right that one reference photo was used to paint the specific shape of the grave stones, while another reference photo was used to paint the church.

In this way, the artist creates a “collage” of reference photos to piece together the visual information they need to construct their own original image.

Graphite Drawing, Clara Lieu

Your drawing shouldn’t be a verbatim copy of the photo

When reference photos are used, the images are manipulated and transformed so dramatically that the final drawing does not look exactly like the original reference photo. One sign that you haven’t done that enough is if your reference photo looks better than the artwork itself.

An artist who successfully uses a reference photo should end up with a drawing that is significantly more engaging than the original reference photo.

Your drawing should look dramatically different, and better than the reference photo

Above is a comparison of a reference photo that Prof Lieu shot herself of an artist model  (left image) versus the graphite drawing she created from that reference photo.  You can see that while it’s apparent that Prof Lieu observed the reference photo to create the structure and details of the skin, the graphite drawing is significantly different in appearance than the reference photo.

Watch Prof Lieu’s drawing process for creating the drawings from this series in the videos below.

Watch Prof Lieu demonstrate her graphite drawing technique, using reference photos of a model she shot.

Watch Prof Lieu demonstrate her graphite drawing technique, using reference photos of a model she shot.

Shooting your own reference photos makes a gigantic difference in your results

For a demonstration of how to shoot your own reference photos, watch the above video starting at 08:50 min. Cat and Prof Lieu go over strategies as well as how to sift through and organize the best photos for Cat’s illustration.

Learning how to draw successfully from a reference photo truly is a skill in itself

Unfortunately, most high school students are not provided the instruction they need to be able to use reference photos successfully.  The process seems simply in theory, but actually implementing the process and getting effective results takes a lot of experience, trial and error, and troubleshooting.

The default way to use a photo in high school for drawing is to copy it verbatim, with the exact same composition as the photo, where a perfect replica of the drawing in pencil is considered to be a successful outcome.

In some cases, we’ve seen teachers who go through all the trouble to set up a still life in a classroom, but then instruct the students to take a photo of the still life, and draw from that! For something like a still life which is practical and easy to set up in real life, there’s really no excuse for using a photo.

How can you tell a drawing was copied from a photo?

Many students ask how an admissions officer can spot that a drawing has been copied from a photograph. Generally speaking, the qualities that indicate that a drawing has been copied from a photograph are:

Extreme, hyper focused detail in the drawing; this level of detail is generally not achievable when drawing from life, especially if it’s a portrait. There is no model who can pose for a portrait for 40 hours. Neither are you going to find a bird in the middle of flying in the sky who is going to stay still long enough for you to spend time drawing every line on every single feather.

In the artwork on the left below, there is a tremendous amount of detail in the wrinkles around the eye, the folds in the shirt, the skin folds on the hand.  This amount of detail would not be possible from a live model who is posing for a portrait drawing.  The folds in the shirt would have to change every single time the model broke the pose, so this level of detail in the folds wouldn’t be possible.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Colored Pencil Drawing
Amy Hollshwandner, gesture drawing

A figure in a pose that would be impossible for a real person to hold over a long period of time is another sign that an artwork was copied from a photo.  The artwork above shows a figure who is painting.  The way this figure has their right hand raised, holding up a paint brush would be impossible for a real person to hold long enough for the artist to achieve the amount of detail in the artwork.

The one exception here is if the pose is very dynamic and the drawing is a 2-5 minute gesture drawing, as seen in the above right image.  Any figure drawing that is drawn from life that has been worked on for several hours has to show a model in a pose that would be comfortable for a person to hold for a while. Usually, it’s very obvious when a drawing is a gesture drawing, it can capture the essential structure of the figure, but details like finger nails and eye lashes won’t be present.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Scratchboard Drawing

In the scratch board drawing above of an elephant, there are tons of minute details, and yet it would be impossible for a person to get that close to an elephant, and have the elephant stay still enough to provide enough time for an artist to create this drawing in real life. Plus, who has access to an elephant for that level of study?

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Gwynne McMaster

You can tell if the image of a subject is one that the vast majority of people will never experience in real life: 2 helicopters flying in the air, a hyper realistic drawing of 10 flamingos in their natural habitat, the tarmac of an airport with 3 airplanes, etc.

If the shadows in the drawing look really flat that’s another indication that a reference photo has been copied.  If the shadows are filled in straight black, with no nuance in the tone, and they have very flat crisp edges, chances are that a photo has been used.

In real life, you can see slight shifts in value within even a seemingly flat cast shadow. In a photo, those shifts of value are too subtle to be picked up by a camera and therefore fall into a single, flat value.

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