Why you shouldn’t draw from photographs

I received some excellent advice today. I posted my drawing of an old man from a few days back to an art-critique forum. And got this back from a user called Indistressionism:

Is this drawn from a photo or from observation? I would guess a photo, if I’m wrong let me know and I can elaborate on why I thought that.

If it is from a photo, don’t get wrong, this is basically a nice little drawing, and skill at reproducing photos is some sort of skill. My eternal general advice though, to anyone who seriously aspires to improve their figure drawing ability is to set aside the photos. Draw your friends, your family, your pets; draw strangers in cafes or class or at the bus stop; hell even if the only model you can find is yourself, and you have to do a great big series of self-portraits:draw from observation.

I’ve heard a lot about this but it hasn’t really clicked in my mind why it’s better to draw from observation than photos… other than maybe you get a better feel for the dimensions and shape of something if you can look around it a little and see how light reflects as your eye-line subtly changes. So I asked if the poster wouldn’t mind elaborating on the specific reasons. I got a reply that was beyond the call of duty in its detail and helpfulness and so I share it here in the hope that it might help others too. All credit to Indistressionism on Reddit:

Ok. In nutshell, the reason to not draw anything—especially figures—from photos is this: a photo has already flattened it’s subject, already distorted it; and when you draw from a photo you aren’t drawing the thing itself, you are drawing a previous reproduction or simulacrum of the thing. Think of it like photocopying a photocopy: which each successive reproduction, or step away from the original subject, more and more information is lost.

That analogy is sort of crude, as obviously a skilled enough draftsmen working with the right materials can attain a certain photographic realism, working only from photographs; but when you have that sort of skill you are usually working from photographs for conceptual reasons (i.e. Chuck Close and other 1970s photorealists). With regards to most averagely-skilled—or especially student artists—what they need to learn is not simply how to copy shapes and lines and compositions, but how to see. They need to learn to notice how lighting falls on a figure, how shadows wrap themselves around forms, i.e. how objects actually exist in space; they need to understand perspective and foreshortening and the effect that atmosphere has on edges and lighting and hues in a way that can only be learned from observing actual things, not already flattened depictions of those things.

Now, this is not to say that photos are never useful; indeed, photos are often very useful, even to the most skilled figure artists. What photos are useful for though, is the study of detail: a mole on someone’s cheek, a stray hair falling across their forehead —not the study of form and movement and space.

Also, if you really want to up your figure drawing skills, momentarily forget about “finishing” each and every drawing you do. In art school, we rarely fully developed our figure drawings. Instead we did seemingly endless series of gesture drawings, contour drawings, and thumbnail sketches. Sometimes the model would change poses every 30 seconds! Now I know that not everyone out there is who trying to get better at drawing has the time and money to actually take art classes, but that doesn’t matter; think about it this way: if a friend or a family member can give you 20 minutes of their time, but that 20 minutes is to make 10 drawings? Well, that seems productive all of a sudden —and possible, right? In a way that trying to make one nice drawing in 20 minutes doesn’t. And then what you do is draw for 20 minutes like this every day. Buy newsprint, and vine charcoal; these materials are very cheap and are good because you are going to throw away 90% of the drawings you make like this. Then eventually you’ll feel more comfortable and confident, and you can try to find a friend or family member who will sit for an hour or so; even here though, you can’t expect you’ll be making a masterpiece, rather you’ll be practicing fully developing a drawing… it will take several such long sessions probably before you’ll get one that you’re really happy with. I firmly believe that anyone can draw well with enough patience and practice, but I won’t lie: it’s a steep, steep, learning curve.

So when you’re at the bus stop and people keep moving, don’t think about that as a bad thing! Just draw them. If they move, oh well, start drawing someone else who isn’t moving. You’ll have pages and pages of starts and weird little doodles that don’t look like much, but you’ll be getting better at seeing, and reacting quickly with your pencil, and at being efficient with your lines. Then eventually you’ll find someone who holds still for 5 minutes and it will feel like you have forever to draw them; you will make the best 5 minute drawing you have ever made in your life!

Afterthought: If you live in or near a big enough city, there will usually be some sort of community art center that offers open figure drawing sessions. Usually these sessions are free, sometimes they’ll cost $5-$10 for a few hours. The models will be clothed, but this is still an incredible opportunity to practice for people that lack the time/money/interest to go for a degree in art. Some universities and community colleges also will have sessions like this that are open to the public!

I’m going to take his words to heart and attempt to draw more still life and maybe some real people too. In the future I may look into life-models in the area or getting friends/family to indulge me for a while.

EDIT: 18/01/2013: Indistressionism was kind enough to expand with some more advice.

1.) When at all possible, draw standing up, on a vertical surface: an easel if you can afford one —paper taped to a wall or something similar if not. There are many reasons for this, they include wanting to be able to draw with your arm and shoulder rather than your wrist (when working at a certain scale at least), and that you will be better able to judge proportion and perspective in your drawing if the plane of your drawing is parallel to the plane of your perception.

2.) if you get to the point where you want to practice fully developing drawings, don’t underestimate the usefulness of the self-portrait. You will always be the easiest model for yourself to find; don’t think of this as a narcissistic thing, think of it as a pragmatic thing.

and 3.) While I am working an MFA and do partially aspire to teach art, I doubt I will ever write a book, on drawing at least. Check out Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain though; it’s language is a little hokey at times, but it’s basically really great instruction and very affordable; it was the book they had us get freshmen year of undergrad, in drawing 100.

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