Drawing From Photographs

My tenth grade art teacher taught me never to draw from a photograph. I don’t actually recall him telling me why, but I have since realized that it has something to do with the difficulty of producing a convincing image from one that is viewed in two rather than three dimensions. He wasn’t saying that all art must be drawn in “plein air” (outside)—the entire class took place in an indoor studio. But he did want us to learn to see what things look like in real life, the fullness of people, places and objects. Lately I have been thinking about his advice (and all the ways I have ignored it) and I wanted to give my own point of view on the subject.

I agree that it is important to draw from life when possible. While I don’t have any specific proof, I certainly understand the intention behind that concept. BUT I still have a few things to say in favor of drawing from photographs. For one thing, drawing from photographs can greatly expand your subject matter. You can draw things you have never seen in person. Or you can draw things that you have seen in person and were not able to draw at the time, like your cat who won’t sit still for more than a few seconds.

I have recently become a fan of drawing from my own photographs. It’s great if you can use your own pictures (whether or not you are the most stellar photographer) for a few reasons. It allows you to draw what you have actually seen, how you saw it; to choose your own subject matter; and to select your own composition for the piece. Photography is an art in itself, and translating personal photographs—particularly those you took just for this purpose—into drawings seems like a pretty special thing to me.

Below are three examples of photographs I have drawn. I don’t usually display the pictures next to my drawings, mostly out of fear of them not looking enough alike (at least I felt that way when I was 100% into photo-realism. I’ve loosened up a little since then). It’s also nice to leave a little something to the imagination/ style of the artist instead of comparing everything with the reference photo.

 

“Fruit Plate” is from a photo my friend took the morning of my wedding as we got ready. I don’t think she will mind that I used it! While it’s tempting to make critiques and explanations about this one, I will just stick to pointing out that it was my second colored pencil drawing ever, and I didn’t have any Prismacolors then so there was little to no blending occurring. I like how it has kind of an illustration vibe to it, even though that wasn’t what I was initially going for.

 

“Seagull on a Post,” which premiered on the blog in December, was my first Prismacolor drawing, and my first attempt to draw water ever! I could feel and see such a huge difference with the new pencils. This post isn’t about these drawings per se, so I won’t elaborate too much, except to point out that I had some fairly good positioning going on with these drawings, but need to work on color matching.

 

“Monk Trees” was the first photograph I remember taking with a lot of intention (and giving a cool name); I actually drove home to get my digital camera (before smartphones! Whoa!) and capture the scene. I don’t think I intended to draw it at the time, but I did feel a certain unique connection when I did end up drawing it.

 

In conclusion, I think you should draw what you want to draw! Whether you are sitting in a studio (office, bedroom, whatever) or on a bench in the center of town, or a beach, draw a picture. Or take a photo and draw it later. I say there are benefits to both.

 

Note: If you do draw from someone else’s photograph, you have to be careful to use free photos or give credit for/ pay for the ones you used. I don’t know the details about crediting photographers to create your own work of art from theirs, but I am pretty sure that you aren’t supposed to just draw something you found on Google and sell the artwork. (Luckily all of my tenth-grade sketches drawn from Google images are not nice enough to sell.)

 

I would love to hear other points of view in the comments below!

23 Comments

  1. Confession time: I rarely if ever draw from life– mostly because I don’t have much of interest in my surroundings as far as drawing material. (Though perhaps that’s just an excuse) Since I haven’t drawn from life much it’s hard to understand what the fuss is about. I’m planning on finding out. . . later XD
    But as you said, if I only drew from life, I would feel very limited in my subject material, especially as I enjoy drawing wildlife and we don’t have a zoo nearby.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about that before—not having an interest in surroundings. Now that I’m “over” drawing random still lifes of things from my room (which I used to do all the time), I know what you mean. I have been trying to discover more interesting or meaningful subjects, and they don’t always come easy. Photographs expand the possibilities a lot, and can sometimes just literally be more interesting than what’s around you. I’ve drawn still lifes from life, but honestly can’t remember ever really drawing a building or nature scene on site…

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  2. Interesting point about drawing from a photograph someone else took….
    Does anyone know if it is okay as it is your transformed work in a different genre
    and legitimate to sell?

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      1. Maybe the laws are different in different countries. I’d always believed it was okay to be inspired by one image, but to make it your own in a different medium and from a different perspective -ie/ not a copy… But I am not a commercial artist!

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    1. I’m not a lawyer but from what I’ve learned and heard on the topic, you’re not allowed to use someone else’s photograph unless you’re expressly given permission from them. There are sites that offer royalty free reference photos and those you can use. (Pixabay for example) Some artists take a collection of photos reference parts of them all together into something unrecognizable and it becomes their own piece. I’m not sure if it’s technically following copyright laws but it is a common practice. If your piece is even remotely similar to the photo you’re referencing that is technically breaking copyright though. Now, if you’re just referencing them for practice and not making money from it or showing it to anyone, then I believe that’s perfectly okay. (But again I’m not a lawyer so don’t quote me on that)
      If in doubt, it’s good to always ask the photographer before using their photo.

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  3. I like all three of the drawings, but I am especially a fan of the sea gulls. I like the way the water turned out; it’s an appealing piece.

    I’m no expert or anything, but I’d have to disagree with your art teacher. I almost exclusively draw from photographs. In fact, I often take photos specifically because I think something would make a good sketch and I want to save it for later. A lot of great scenes happen in life when you don’t have a sketchbook with you, and I’ve pretty much always got my smartphone handy to capture a moment.

    (playing devil’s advocate with myself, I admit it’s possible I draw from photos more than real life because my sketching ability is not at pro levels)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much! I like the way you put it, “great scenes happen in life” when you can’t capture them on paper. I don’t think your sketching ability is necessarily related to what you’re drawing from—check out Graham’s comment below. For the record, I think your sketching is quite good, and continuing to improve as you get more used to working in color.

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      1. Oh also, I wanted to say you have developed a nice style that looks pretty unique. That seems noteworthy to me, as if maybe that’s an artistic milestone – that people familiar with your art could identify new pieces without seeing your name.

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  4. There is a lot of elitism about not painting from photos. I suspect a lot of those elitists actually do exactly this behind closed doors. I dont buy the three/two dimensional representational difference. You are still filtering it through your eyeballs and your brain is making sense of the spatial arrangement.
    I think the two things you should consider are lens distortions where the sides of the photograph curve inwards – most noticeable on fish eye lenses and the way you quickly lose form in the shadows of a photo as it just goes too dark.
    However you may want, as an artist, buildings which curve to the centre and deep dark shade with harsh tonal contrasts. It’s just that these are the two issues which you need to be aware of.
    There is an art school mantra that questions why you would want to copy a photo when a photo gives you a perfectly good image and copying it gets you nowhere .
    Well there are many reasons why you would, skill development being one. Gerhard Richter for instance played around with the distortions of copying with photographs and then photographing the copy and he is a major contemporary artist.
    Dont worry carry on doing what your doing – it’s your painting. Even when I paint from life I still take photos for extra reference.

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    1. Thanks for your informed insight. I never thought about it in terms of the processing of spatial arrangement. I agree that you have to be careful of some photo pitfalls (like over-darkness) but that it’s totally worthwhile to “copy” a photograph, thereby creating your own artwork. It’s interesting to hear that you take photos for additional reference when drawing from life—makes total sense to me that this would be helpful for capturing all aspects of a scene.

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    2. Elitism? I don’t use a photo and I think I can draw, but my paintings get rejected from juried shows because the jurors think like interior decorators and they feel they have to make groupings of paintings that look alike. How can an artist who can’t even get their paintings hung because they don’t conform be called elitist? The elites want to see flat paintings, if you do flat paintings and are a juror maybe you are elitist.

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      1. What I mean is those who shun the use of photos, not only for themselves but for everyone else. Personally I dont care how anyone gets an image to paint or draw and neither should they.
        As for not getting into juried shows. Its all about taste, if they dont like you you wont get in. There are no rights or wrongs – no measurables so no good or bad. If it’s winding you up that much stop doing it. There are plenty of other ways to display your work.

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  5. Drawing from pictures looks interesting. All the pics are awesome. My personal favorite is the Seagull pic. Just wow! I should say this…The water texture is better in your drawing than the photo. Keep going 🙂

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  6. Your teacher was right. My teachers said the difference between great artists and 99.9% of the rest of artists is drawing skill. You don’t really need drawing skill if you just want to have fun painting. You don’t need it to be a successful professional artist. You don’t need it to do modern art, but if you continue to trace photos your drawing won’t progress. Drawing is the most basic skill of an artist. There are a lot of establishment elite artist doing landscapes from photos. They can’t get any sense of atmosphere, depth or volume in their paintings working from a photo and they resent seeing those old master qualities in an amateur’s paintings. When you trace a photo you are only making a coloring book for yourself. A lot of artists don’t like to do the drawing practice time and a lot of artists don’t like a challenge. In the end you will do what you like. I’m not an elitist. I h8 the establishment and will fight it till I die.

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    1. I see where you’re coming from, but I do want to be clear that I am drawing totally free hand and just using the photos as a reference to look at (very rarely, for a large drawing I will use a grid to help me with positioning). I absolutely respect your plein air drawing process but for me it isn’t always feasible or in line with what I want to portray in my work. I basically consider myself to be a hobby artist, though, so in the end I’m just in it for the fun, and hopefully to create something interesting and beautiful from time to time 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. that’s fine. The guy who said there’s elitism in drawing without a photo made me mad. I think they put my comment in the wrong place so he wouldn’t know . Now I have to go to his blog and tell him how elite he is. Making a grid from your own sketch is ok. doing a grid on a photo gets you nowhere unless you want to limit how far you can go with drawing.

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  7. “Monk Trees” is really beautiful! I took a lot of photos of things I thought would be great to draw – but somehow I never was able to capture in the photo what captured my imagination in the first place. As far other people’s photos and artwork, as drawing practice, I agree – draw whatever you want, as long as you aren’t selling copies of someone else’s work or claiming it is your picture. The camera does distort things though – I find my drawings from photos look flat in a way that real life does not. I find for things I find difficult to draw, noses for example, the only way to figure it out was to copy how other people drew them.

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    1. Thank you! That was probably the only photograph I ever captured with “intention”–I’ve taken other visually appealing pictures, but they never had the same impact for me. I don’t think you’re necessarily “copying” how other people draw something, because anything you do will ultimately have your own spin on it just based on your own skill level and style. I think you could call it “learning” from the other artist.

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