Skip to main content

Why Drawing from Life is Important

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I know how to draw, but I can only draw things that I can see. I draw from photographs that I find on the Internet. However, I have difficulty drawing from my imagination, and this bothers me because I want to be able to create images on my own. How can I learn to draw from my imagination?”

To successfully draw from your imagination, you have to be skilled in drawing from direct observation. I am appalled that so few art students draw from life nowadays. Many young artists don’t draw from life because drawing from photographs is extremely convenient, doesn’t require a lot of thought, and gets quicker results. By comparison, drawing from life is much more challenging and time-consuming, but ultimately it is the approach that will provide the necessary skills to draw from any reference.

For an art student, drawing exclusively from photographs is the worst approach to take. As a college professor, I invest a lot of time getting first year students to unlearn bad drawing habits they developed because they only drew from photographs. Frequently, the students who have a lot of drawing experience, but who have bad habits, have a much tougher time than the students who have no drawing background. Drawing exclusively from photographs encourages these poor habits:

lithographic crayon drawing

1) Obsessively laboring one drawing for several weeks.
Consequently, students become accustomed to working at a very slow pace. For anyone who aspires to be a professional artist, this approach is inefficient and unsustainable. Students become precious about every drawing they make, which sets up an impossible expectation that every drawing must be successful. They are so afraid of making a bad drawing that they refuse to try anything new. This severely limits growth and keeps them from expanding their abilities.

2) Being unable to do 2-5 minute gesture drawings.
Gesture drawing is a key principle in all aspects of drawing, it teaches you how to quickly capture the essential spirit of your subject with energy and movement. Drawing from photographs trains people to draw in a very tight manner, which results in drawings that lack vitality.

3) Ignoring fundamental structures and focusing only on details.
The details of a drawing are usually what impress viewers the most; they are the glamorous part of a drawing that seduce and dazzle. However, no amount of detail will compensate for poor compositions and structures. Drawings that invest too much time on details will appear flat and superficial.

Gesture Drawing in pencil

Drawing is about much more than copying an accurate representation of what you see. Throughout history, the most pivotal drawings have been images that a photograph could never make. When an artist draws, they are offering an artistic interpretation of what they have experienced. A drawing copied verbatim from a photograph provides no individual opinion; the process just mechanically replicates what the photograph already said. At that point, there’s no point to making the drawing, you’re just making a bad xerox of the photograph.

Drawing from life is wonderful because you get to fully experience your subject. Compare the difference between drawing from a photograph of a person and drawing that person in real life. If you draw from direct observation, you would get to talk to the person, hear their voice, and learn about their personality. All of these aspects of the person that you experience will vastly influence your drawing process.

Many students aspire to create the illusion of depth within the two-dimensional format of a drawing. It’s counterproductive to try to achieve a convincing three-dimensional illusion in your drawing if your reference is a two-dimensional photograph. You have to directly experience three-dimensional space and form in person. As a student, I studied Gothic cathedrals and looked at slides in class and photographs in textbooks. I eventually traveled to France to see the cathedrals, and was astonished by the vast depth of space. Being physically immersed in the cathedral, I was able to capture the mood of the space in my on site drawings.

You have complete creative control when drawing from direct observation. If you’re drawing a still life, you can arrange the objects any way you want and create a specific lighting situation. With a portrait, you can choose from multiple perspectives or ask the model to sit in a specific position. This allows for much more flexibility and significantly increases all of the visual possibilities.

This is not to say that you should never ever draw from a photograph, as there are instances where using a reference photograph is necessary. In those circumstances, I always shoot my own photographs so that I can control every factor. If I need an image of a gorilla, it means a trip to the zoo. I see all reference photographs as raw material that I will manipulate and transform through my drawing process. The only time I would draw from someone else’s photograph is if I really need an image that is literally impossible for me to photograph on my own. Even then, I only use fragments of the photograph and I mix it in with other references. I would never take someone’s photograph and draw a precise copy of it.

Drawing from life involves a lot of work and patience, but eventually it will reap many rewards. You will gain a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of light and shadow, see how structures are organized, understand how forms interact within a space, learn how to articulate textures, and much more. This knowledge will equip you with the skills you need in order to draw from your imagination. From there, it’s a matter of extensive experimentation and practice to see what works for you.

7 responses on "Why Drawing from Life is Important"

  1. Some of my favorite artist sketch from life wherever they go, and it’s amazing how beautiful they make such simple settings seem beautiful – I’ve seen amazing drawings of everything from an airport terminal to a pile of trash!

    Drawing from life teaches how to lay out a composition, how to create a focal point, how to translate your perspective as an artist to the viewer…all of these things can be taught no matter what you draw! In fact, you can sometimes get a better composition out of a boring setting because you aren’t showing an “exciting” scene – you’re pushing your artist eye to see the beauty even in the seemingly mundane.

  2. What do you think of using a resource such as Croquis Cafe for figure drawing as an alternative to live models, which are not readily available in my area?

    • Hi Stephanie! In my opinion, there is unfortunately simply no video or photo, no matter how high quality that will ever be able to substitute drawing from life. I understand that is very frustrating, as there are many places where people simply don’t have access to live nude models! However, I do think that one can learn to draw people from direct observation in regular, every day situations. I know it’s absolutely not the same thing as drawing someone who is specifically posing for the sole purpose of being drawn, but you really can do very substantial amounts of drawing from real life. I had a friend who used to draw a the beach all the time, another who used to go to college frat parties and draw people there, and another who drew friends when they were watching TV. I had 1 of my classes just sit around draw each other in sketchbooks for 2 hours. I always enjoy sitting at a cafe and drawing there, because people actually don’t really move that much when they are eating! It might sound weird, but I actually really enjoy people not posing, the poses are much more naturalistic, and it doesn’t feel so fake in a way. Also, the flip side of drawing nude models all the time is that when I got out of art school, and started doing portrait commissions, I found drawing clothing really challenging!! So it’s not perfect, but you really can learn a LOT from regular, every day life. Also, heads up that in our video courses queue is a drawing course that will show you exactly how to do gesture drawings in the context of every day life!

    • I would agree with Professor Lieu and encourage you to use everyday opportunities to draw the human figure from life, even if clothed! I used to bring my sketchbook to dinner parties in high school and draw my parents’ friends!

    • Gonna put this out there too, that while access to a nude model is limited and expensive, many artists have used their own body as a resource for drawing material. I’ve drawn myself by looking in the bathroom mirror plenty of times. Obviously this way you can’t do everything, but I’ve found it especially helpful for figuring out how hands and feet will look in a certain pose, or how extreme foreshortening is going to be.

  3. YES!!! I keep trying to convince my art teacher here that he needs to emphasize drawing from life because it helps so greatly with the overall structure. I’ve found that when I set up a drawing, do most of the drawing from observation but when I have to take the piece to school to work on it I take pictures and can never get the exposure right, I’m almost always missing something in the highlights or shadows. Also, when I take pictures, I’m focusing on different things than I would be if I was drawing from life. When drawing from life I can properly play with the shadows from my light source.

Leave a Message

© 2021 ArtProf. All rights reserved. Site Disclaimer.