Beginner Art · Drawing · Painting

Should I Draw from Life or Photographs?

I believe and I am sure most art teachers will tell you that drawing from life is always better than drawing and painting from photographs.  I think particularly if you are learning to draw then drawing from life is essential.

Of course there is nothing wrong with drawing and painting from photographs and while working on illustration commissions I have in the past used many references from photographs an images.  Sometimes it isn’t possible to observe the subject in life.

Sometimes using photographs is necessary

The main disadvantage of drawing and painting from photographs is that they are two-dimensional.  This prevents the observation of volume and space. Observational drawing from life is also advantageous because you are observing light first hand so you can make those connections like where the light is coming from and seeing how it hits an object.

Observational drawing from life doesn’t have to be complicated

My advice is that you can do both, draw from life and from images but try to observe from life as much as possible.  If you are working on a landscape for example, take photos and do some locational sketches, then work from these references rather than working from an image straight off.

If you are a beginner and don’t like drawing from life consider that there is only so much you can learn from copying images.  Some of the hardest lessons and therefore the most progress is made by observational drawing from life.


I advise beginners to start with small objects at first, things that interest them. Careful observational drawing is a skill that needs to be developed and this is best done with real life three-dimensional objects.

Start simple with observational drawing
Start simple with observational drawing

Many of my learners believe it is easier to draw from an image, I am not sure if I entirely believe this is true.  Sometimes copying an image is difficult, particularly if it is not to scale and of poor quality.  There often isn’t the same amount of information in an image that you can get from the real thing because the colours aren’t true to life,  the image too small and you can’t see the detail.  Many learners who like to copy images use very small photographs or print outs to work from.

Squaring up from a photograph for artwork

Having an image to scale or larger than your artwork will make the process a lot easier.  There are transcription methods we can use as artists to help us use photographs and images with more accuracy.  You can scale up a photograph or image with a fairly reliable transcription method often know as ‘squaring up’ or ‘scaling up’, see my post What is Squaring Up? .  This method ensures you plot all the details of the photograph or image to the right co-ordinates.  Artists have been using grids for centuries, dividing the image up into sections gives the artist a guide to work to.

One thought on “Should I Draw from Life or Photographs?

  1. I have two methods I use for my work that produces different results: photographs for layouts and no reference material.

    My current work is done with photographs that are used to layout the image. Then I do the work mostly from memory.

    The other way is complete free-hand. No reference material used, only from memory.

    Both have end results of two completely different styles.

    You can see my work at:

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