Thursday, July 21, 2022

A Few Thoughts on Drawing from Photos


Readers of this blog know that I have a thing about drawing from photos – not about others doing it, just myself: I don’t like it.

After the pandemic began, I saw a lot of sketchers enjoying “traveling” by drawing from Google map photos. Sometimes I thought about joining them, but if I haven’t seen a place with my own eyes, I feel no connection. I can’t get into it.

If I can use my own photo references of places I’ve seen and experienced, it’s better. At least I feel a personal connection with the location and memories the photos may evoke.

When taking classes, I understand the value (and usually necessity) of drawing from photos, and I’ve certainly learned much from instructors who taught from photo references. Even so, I did it begrudgingly, especially when I was required to use photos of unfamiliar places. It felt like an academic exercise (which I guess it was).

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking I need to get over my “issue” with drawing from photos, if only for practical reasons: Seattle has a limited number of days when it’s possible to sketch on location (even from my car if it’s raining), and my house has a limited number of windows. I’ve been doing a hardy job of mostly avoiding photo sketching all these years, but I could be missing out on learning opportunities.


Last month’s 30-day composition challenge was a prime opportunity to “get over it.” Ian Roberts makes no requirement that the compositional studies must be done from life. In fact, although he is known for his plein air workshops and his own plein air paintings, he often paints and makes compositional studies from photos. I knew I could learn from making studies this way – and I did! I made at least a dozen thumbnails from photos in June.

I think it made a big difference that I had a specific goal in mind each time I made a study from a photo; I wasn’t simply trying to copy the photo. I also always used photos I had taken myself, with one notable exception: A friend had shared a photo of her steps with interesting composition potential. Because the scene was unfamiliar, I found it easier to abstract “things” into values and shapes. I couldn’t really see what they were and didn’t know what they were.

My current Gage class in drawing trees in parks has added a new angle. Since I haven’t been able to finish most drawings on location, I’ve been finishing at home with the help (or not) of photos. When beginning a drawing from life that will have to be finished with photos, instructor Kristin Frost pointed out the importance of getting the forms in place while still on location – for example, the branching structure of a tree. Forms are harder to draw from photos when you can’t walk around to the other side of a tree for a better look. Details and values are easier to fill in later from photo references. In fact, she suggested taking closeups of details like bark texture, which may not be visible in shadows.


In the interest of further coming to terms with drawing from photos, I’ve continued occasionally making composition thumbnails that way. It’s weird, though – when I sketch this way, they don’t feel like “real” sketches. Even though I’m using my own photos, and even when I learn from the thumbnails, they continue to feel academic rather than a connection with my life.

Paper notes: I’ve been using an Ugly Books notebook (review soon) for these thumbnails. I usually find traditional tan toned paper to be too pale as a midtone, so I thought this darker brown would work, but it may be a little too dark. The white pops nicely, but there’s not enough contrast with black. The dark blue colored pencil is interesting, though.





  1. I share your views about drawing from photos and even your struggles while trying to do so. I always feel like I don't have enough information but also the nagging feeling that someone has already done it.

    1. It's kind of a strange feeling, isn't it. I know some people who spend years drawing only from photos, and they say they have a hard time adjusting to drawing from life! I guess it's just a matter of practice.


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