Drawing From Life vs. Drawing From a Photo: Which Is Better?

Numerous artists work from pictures these days. Since the photography has become very affordable and mainstream, there is an allure to using pictures in art. Contemporary realist artists are strongly divided on this issue. Some love to use images as a reference and others absolutely despise the whole idea of drawing from pictures.

There are definite advantages and drawbacks to drawing from life versus drawing from a photo.

Advantages of drawing from a photo

1. The convenience and ease of use.

There is no doubt that pictures cut on time and money if you draw figures or portraits. It eliminates the need to pay a model for posing for hours, and you are not pressured with time to finish a piece.

2. Unchanging weather conditions. 

Sometimes you just get a lucky shot that can’t be sustained for long when you draw outdoors or using natural light.

weather conditions and reflections

3. Unmoving subjects and reflections.

This is a very strong advantage for artists when drawing reflective surfaces. As the day goes on, the light and its position in relation to the reflective object change. Such fluidity of shapes and colors present in the reflective objects makes it hard to “chase” them drawing from life, especially if you draw in colored pencil.


Classically trained artists despise the use of pictures because of a multitude of problems photographs perpetuate. 

1. The camera selects information for you that affects your perception of reality.

A camera works very differently from our eyes. It can create sharpness or blurs where you wouldn’t see them normally. The artist’s perception of reality is instant, and we respond to it swiftly by mixing the right colors or laying in information without the overthinking. When we paint or draw from pictures, we tend to analyze the same reality a lot more, which is already adjusted by the camera for us.

The solution: Have a strong idea in your mind what you want to capture as an artist and alter the information in your picture accordingly.

2. The camera distorts the linear perspective and anatomy.

This is a very big problem for most cameras including the SLRs. The quality of the lens is extremely important at capturing what you see exactly how you see it. Most distort the linear perspective and lines and shapes become crooked.

perspective distortionEven high-quality lenses and cameras can make shapes slightly crooked, like on the left side of the picture above, which leads to considerable distortion of the whole picture. It’s very noticeable when taking pictures of cityscapes. Above, the lamp is leaning to the right instead of staying straight. 

The solution: Know the rules of linear perspective and correct the lines in your drawing with the ruler.

3. The color almost never matches what’s in front of you.

Another serious constraint. New Nikon and Canon SLRs are pretty good at capturing the correct colors, but if you take pictures with the phone or other lower-quality cameras, they often lack the balance needed to capture everything correctly, especially if it’s a landscape where the sky gets too light. 

The solution: If it’s a still life, keep your objects next to your drawing to reference the colors. If possible, make color notes from life when you take a picture of your subject; then work on the final artwork using both sources. In landscape drawing, it’s important to sketch from life, too, to make mental notes on color and the light that can be added to the photograph to compensate for the unseen.

You can also use the Photoshop or another software to do color correction on your computer by adjusting hues or levels.

4. The values are off.

Values or tones can be captured correctly using a good camera and settings. However, most beginners don’t know how to compensate for strong light or atmospheric conditions.

The solution: I suggest using the HDR option built in many cameras, which automatically shoots several pictures and puts them into one well-balanced image. For example, the sky has just as much information as the land.

5. Copyright and juried exhibitions issue.

Be aware that most serious juried shows don’t accept artwork done from someone else’s  picture even if you have a photographer’s permission. Fan art or pictures taken from movies are typically not allowed either. Of course, if you are simply drawing for practice or your own personal enjoyment (without the intention of selling or showcasing your work professionally), this isn’t a concern.

The solution: Learn to compose your own images. Study good photographs for their use of composition, perspective, color harmony and emotion. Apply their successes to your art. To take better pictures, consider a controlled setup in your studio with a strong directional light. If outdoors, look at the quality of light.

colorful dreams veronica winters colored pencilWhen to use a photo reference

There are a few situations where drawing from a photo is ideal:

  1. Colored pencil is an exceptionally slow medium to work with, so drawing from pictures is almost a necessity.
  2. When you travel and sketching is out of the question. Picture-taking teaches you to become good at balancing the composition, subject, and color.
  3. Drawing children in color — they won’t sit still for long!

When to draw from life

Even if you typically draw from a photo, drawing from life can be a rewarding experience. There are a few times that drawing without a photo reference is the best way to go:

  1. Drawing in graphite or charcoal from life. This is the foundation of your skill, and no pictures can replace your development and understanding how light affects the subject and turns the form.
  2. Drawing people from life to understand the anatomy and muscle structure. 
  • (will not be published)

No Comments