The Benefits Of Drawing From Life Rather Than Photos

Getting outdoors and sketching is one of the most neglected skills students fail to pick up. Drawing from life is rare when we have a plethora of images at our disposal. I am certainly guilty of it!

I learned to draw using photos because it was much easier than drawing from life. I relied on photographs because the decisions of composition, lighting, value, etc., were already done. So, it made drawing from references so much easier. However, this heavy dependence stunted my art growth.

I avoided drawing from life as it seemed a lot more daunting.

Where do I begin? What should I focus on? What is a good composition of the subject?

The confusion was discouraging!

Have you experienced it too? That may be why you are here.

I encourage you to draw from life more often.

If you want to stand out from thousands of others who draw by copying from photos, get outside and sketch from life.

Drawing away from your desk is an enriching experience. And yet most beginner artists avoid it.

You can smell the quality of air around you as you draw, perhaps feel the warmth of the sun, can see the depth of various objects and notice the light changing and fluctuating.

Drawing from life is challenging.

However, drawing from life is more challenging.

When you sketch outdoors, the sunlight shifts causing the shadows to change quickly, the wind blows, and plants and trees move. People move around even if they are sitting in the same spot.

If you could freeze time and space, you would move. Your head tilt will change as you draw, your gaze shifts, and your body moves positions. Your sketchbook might slant as you draw. Your focus changes with each blink while drawing.

In reality, people don't see the way that cameras do.

Our eyes cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. We have to shift our gaze from one object to another. By focusing our visual field on something, we see it with strong detail, colour and contrast.

However, while we focus on one object in the scene, our peripheral vision is blurry. If you have been unaware of this effect, keep it in mind while drawing because it has a distinct impact on how we create.

When we take a photo, every single bit of the image in the frame is captured in detail. The resulting image lacks depth and discretion in how the human eye sees things.

Photos lack discrimination in the depiction of details. In the image below, each grass blade is visible. Trees and hills don't appear three-dimensional. They look like shapes with patterns. Our eyesight cannot capture every detail in a millisecond the same way a camera can.

photography vs drawing from life

I am not saying that you shouldn’t draw from photos. Use it as one of many tools available to artists.

Getting attached to working only from photos or being overly concerned with realistic drawings will kill the life of your art. Learn to draw while adapting to the changes in your environment; your art will seem more vibrant. You'll find more expressiveness in your work and better image memory and recollection.

When sketching outdoors, you will have to train your eye to 'see' better; you work in less convenient situations and have to interpret your location for a drawing.

Drawing from life is dynamic, and you respond to those changes. These challenges are features, not issues that need to be fixed. Letting your artwork be influenced by life will animate your art in a way that photos can't.


Additionally, we don't need to worry about copyright issues when we draw from life. If we want to sketch from a photograph, we must first determine who took it and whether copyright is attached to it or not. When we copy photos, we risk being sued since it is considered intellectual theft unless the image is royalty-free.

copying photos can lead to copyright issues.

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Drawing from life is more fun!

On warm days I go to the river and try to draw the birds, animals, people, trees and landscapes. I get to enjoy the benefits of spending time in nature and drawing. It doesn't get better than that!

Drawing from life is more rewarding and relaxing than drawing at your desk. It is important to try and balance sketching from observation vs. the time spent drawing from photos.

However, there are days when it is too cold and rainy to draw outside or find the ideal subject. At such times it might be necessary to find a photo reference instead.

Sometimes the subject you want to draw might not be available in your city. Then, drawing from photos might be the only option.

Naturally, drawing from photos does have its place.

Want to learn to use references appropriately? Find the answer to these questions and more in this article.

Pros and Cons of using references

If you need some inspiration on how to get started drawing from life, I have a few ideas for you.

Examples of life drawing you should try

Fruit and vegetables: Beginners can attempt drawing from life by finding things around the house. Drawing fruit and vegetables can be as challenging or easy as you like. You can start with one fruit and add more when you feel more confident. This exercise will also train your ability to see shapes and forms in simple objects.

Bottles, vases, pots and boxes: You can find more inspiration around your house by drawing the things you use daily. These simple objects are a level up from sketching fruit; they are a great way to learn simple perspectives and how things appear closer and further to us.

Flowers and leaves: Drawing flowers and leaves is a beginner to intermediate challenge. They are also easily available as subjects to study.

flowers & pet sketches

Tools: Drawing tools can be challenging depending on the complexity of the item. So pick what you want to draw based on your level of expertise. Tools are a fun way to practice your perspective and form.

Museums: Once you are ready to uplevel your life drawing, you can try going to museums. There are many wonderful things to study; you will be spoiled for choice.

People: Drawing people from life can be challenging. But it's a fun way to study how humans move. There are many local figure-drawing groups in my city; I am sure you will find some in yours too. It's also a great way to practice your anatomy skills.

figure drawing

Urban sketching: Draw your love for the places you live and travel in - one drawing at a time. Share your culture, styles, backgrounds, buildings and locations that are a part of your life.

Animals: Draw your pets, animals in a zoo, and the birds in your locality. Animals and birds move a lot, so this might be something you work towards. Perhaps start by drawing a pet sleeping and then try capturing its gestures as it moves.

Urban sketching

The images above are examples of my attempts at life drawing. I hope these suggestions give you plenty of ideas to draw from life. 

In conclusion, if you only use photographs, you risk mimicking a camera's perspective of the world rather than your unique human view. Although artists commonly use picture references, they cannot replace how we see the world. Consider working from life to produce nuanced, authentic, and unique works of art.

So, consider drawing what you see rather than pulling out your phone and taking a photo. Will you observe the world differently if you sketched what caught your attention?

"Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

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