Drawing From Photos

A lot of people draw from photos.  In fact, a lot of people think the very idea of drawing on location to be too scary to consider.  Some say that drawing from photos is easier than drawing from life because the camera has reduced the image to two dimensions.

So what’s wrong with me?  I love sketching on the street, drawing from life, and interacting with those very people that scare others.  I sort of understand this part because mostly it’s a fear of the unknown that causes others to avoid this form of sketching.  But what about photos?  Why do I find it soooooooo hard to draw from photos.

Not only does drawing photos seem hard for me, it’s also not very much fun.  Instead of drawing and enjoying the process, I feel as though I’m just copying someone else’s vision of the universe, even if I took the photo.  I almost feel numb while doing it, as opposed to the fully-engaged feeling I have when sketching from life.

So I repeat, what’s wrong with me and how do I fix it?  I spend five months of the year where it’s hard (impossible?) to work outdoors.  Drawing from photographs would go a long way towards making the long dark winters of Quebec more bearable.  Is there a pill I can take?

Anyway, I felt the need to draw a building and it’s too cold to do so on location.  I turned to photos, in this case a photo I took this summer of Le Petit Hotel, one of the cutest little hotels in Quebec City.  Done on Stillman & Birn Beta paper with a Namiki Falcon and DeAtramentis Document Black ink.  Then I added some dabs of Daniel Smith watercolors.  I didn’t do it justice.


15 thoughts on “Drawing From Photos

  1. I´m with you, it´s no fun sketching from photos, although I do it sometimes, for different reasons. I know artists who work a lot from photos when doing paintings that represent an inner process or state rather than the real world, and they use photo reference very freely, motivated by their vision. That´s not what I´m after at all, I want to express my experience in the here and now, and sometimes that means taking liberties with the surrounding that I´m in, motivated by the way I interact with that surroundings in the now. There is no way I can do that later from a photo; the drawing – on a good day – records things that I can´t express in words or don´t directly record to memory, like texture and light and temperature and subjective mind processes like curiosity or irritation. As you say, the photo is another vision of the universe, in my experience a more distanced vision, and a less personal one (although there are certainly gifted photographers who can do amazing things).

    However, it is only the artist who can say if the sketch/drawing/painting really is successful in relation to the intentions. I am very happy with some rather ugly sketches no one has said a kind word about, because I managed to express something with them that is precious to me, while I get praise for sketches that are perhaps more technically successful (prettier!), but are not sketches that further my mental growth (which sounds pretentious, but I´ll say it anyway). Perhaps your failed sketch expresses someone elses experience exactly, who knows?

    It might be a rewarding experiment to do a bunch of sketches from photos now during the winter, hide them and list the subjects, then go sketch them in situ in the summer months. The comparisons could be fodder for an interesting blog post in the fall! 😀

    Oh, and I like your sketch of the little hotel, it looks like the kind of quaint place one would love to stay in! I guess only you can say how you didn´t do it justice, or how you didn´t do your relationship to that hotel justice. 😉

    • It’s clear, Victoria, that you’ve thought about this a lot more than I have. I’ve enjoyed reading what you wrote and it’s given me food for thought and maybe the reason why I find drawing from photos so odd. You see, I don’t see myself as producing art at all, for any reason. I just draw stuff and get my enjoyment from doing so. That enjoyment comes from the doing, on location, with people talking to me and with me enjoying whatever space I’m sitting in. In fact, my mentioning that I didn’t do the little hotel justice comes from the fact that the only thing about drawing from a photo is the production of a product, something I never think about. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this. — Larry

  2. I draw a lot from photos, mostly because I don’t have a lot of options as I do mostly everything at night after my daughter goes to bed. I would much rather draw from life if I were able.

    • This is sort of my problem during winter. If I don’t draw from photos I’m forced into coffee shops, which is ok but I want to sketch every day and it gets expensive. So I’ve got to overcome my reluctance to draw from photos. — Larry

  3. I’m one of those scared ones. I find it hard to find a sketching buddy and don’t like to do it on my own. Have you seen Joseph Zbukvic’s approach to painting from a photo where he changes the I age to suit what he wants – here on YouTube https://youtu.be/81w9PBZOmZ8
    Hope that link works.

    • Hi Ros,
      I think there are two things to be afraid of when anticipating sketching on location. The first relates to safety. To get past that one, go to a mall, coffee shop or museum. The other thing is that you’re exposing yourself to criticism while sketching. I think this is the big deal for most people who haven’t done it.

      I’m a 6-foot, 200lb guy so the safety thing was never my issue. But that other one…that was a big deal. The first time I drew outside my house was long before I could draw much of anything so I “knew” people would make fun of me. I went to a mall with a tiny sketchbook. I sat down in front of a store and drew a manikin. I figured she wouldn’t mind and wouldn’t run away 🙂 I held the sketchbook close to my chest so nobody could see and as soon as I finished I got up and walked away.

      Then I realized something. In spite of lots of people walking by, not one person paid any attention to my existence. And so I did it again, and again. And what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t take a lot of drawing skill to impress most people, who are amazed that someone is sitting there drawing. The other thing is that the only people who ever talk to you are people who think what you’re doing is great. I’m sure there are a lot of people who look at what I’m doing and feel sorry for my lack of abiilty but I never hear from them. Because of these two things, those scary people interactions are no longer scary and in fact these have become the favorite part of location sketching for me, particularly the kids. The kids are great. — Larry

      • That is such a great idea going in the shopping centre and sketching a manikin! I live in a small town where old is demolished for new and I hate all the rendered houses! I like heritage. I also rely on photos in magazines because I sketch when the kids go to bed. Least I can take the pram up to the shopping centre and sit outside a shop and sketch 🙂

        • …manikin sketching got me started in location sketching, that’s for sure. Very quickly, though, I realized that there were more and better targets in the food courts 🙂 They had real heads/faces and varied in age a lot more. Sadly, they move but I just target people as they sit down to eat so I know they’ll be there for a while. It’s fun to draw people standing in line to order food too. — Larry

  4. As you know, I’m not a huge fan of sketching from photos, either (and like you, mine is necessitated by weather). But I find I learn different things from sketching from photos, kind of like copying master works.


    • I really like copying other art, particularly sketches done by people I admire. I try to ‘feel’ them making the strokes they made when they do their sketching. I try to think about why they make this mark or that. I even do things like using Google images to do a bunch of quick-sketches, trying different tools or approaches. But to do a sketch that I would post on my blog from a photo is about as blah an experience as I can imagine. — Larry

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