|2/21/21 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (photo-inspired)|
I think often about the difference between drawing from photos and drawing from life. You’ve heard me say before that I don’t care for drawing from photos; without engagement with the subject matter on location, it feels like a mechanical copying exercise, even when I have taken the photo myself (and especially if I haven’t). This comes up in my consciousness most acutely whenever I take a class with assignments that rely on drawing from photos. As a teaching tool, it’s practical and convenient, and I understand why instructors must teach that way. So I do it begrudgingly, conceding that to learn by drawing from photos is better than not learning at all.
Instructor Kathleen Moore is an avid plein air painter who prefers working on location to using photos. (The first class I took from her a couple of years ago was all plein air, and what a pleasure it was!) As both a teacher and an artist, however, she sees value in working from photos when working from life isn’t possible. On the last day of her class in drawing trees with graphite, she talked about one important aspect of drawing from photos that hadn’t occurred to me. She reminded us that a photo reference is the inspiration for the work, but at some point, the drawing must take on a life of its own. The goal is not to slavishly replicate the photo but to take from it whatever is useful – then complete the drawing in whatever way makes sense for the drawing.
Maybe this is one way in which my deep native roots as an urban sketcher hinder my use of photos as an art-learning tool: I am so accustomed to being “truthful to the scenes I witness” that I forget that I don’t have to be truthful to a photograph.
With Kathleen’s words of wisdom in my head, I continued looking at the photo of the maple trees I had used to make my last class assignment drawing. Using my graphite drawing as a values study, I pulled out the watercolor pencils I would typically use on location and tried to approach the scene as if I were still there on that neighborhood street last October. Then, at some point, I let the photo go, and I made the sketch (above) truthful to itself.
One more thing on the subject: Whatever the value of drawing from photos in class, I have long believed that I don’t – and can’t – learn as much from drawing from photos as I do from life. Yet that belief comes without experience as a teacher or research; it is mostly an intuitive hunch based on my own learning process. It is also backed up by observations of artists who are extremely adept at drawing from photos, yet have barely mediocre results when drawing on location. If they are so good at copying photos, why can’t they do the same from life?
This article by an art teacher explains why:
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.
I recommend reading the full article. Professor Clara Lieu goes on to list the three bad habits students develop by drawing exclusively from photos.