15 July 2013

A fundamental artistic decision...to work from life or from photos?

Amanda, 24x18", charcoal on newsprint; recent 2-hour sketch from life

At the moment I am enjoying a mentorship with Lea Colie Wight.  Lea is a talented artist and teaches at Studio Incamminati.  I set out with lots of goals for this partnership, but the unexpected lessons are what I appreciate most.

One example...thanks to Lea, I see that my recent drawings and paintings are suffering because I'm working too much from photos.  Without realizing it, I developed a photo dependency since leaving art school.  Don't get me wrong, photography has value. But I'm too dependent on it for reference, and it leads to images that look like paintings of photos.   Not good. 

Lea is showing me how to work from life to create larger studio pieces.  Photos are so convenient...that is their tyranny.  But if you commit to working primarily from life, there are plenty of techniques you can adopt to make it possible.

And I like the results.  The always-present time constraint when working from life in any genre, creates a sense of urgency that keeps the results fresh and exciting and intuitive.  Hard to achieve when working from a photo.  And, with few exceptions, photos are a poor substitute for the real thing.  There is just not enough high quality information captured in a photo.

So I have taken a pledge to control my photo habit. I will still use them, but in a more limited and deliberate way.

But where to find live subjects?  If you are a figurative artist like me, there are probably plenty of people around you willing to pose for a small fee or for the sketch you produce of them.  You don't need a pro.  I will be hiring my daughter, Amanda, to work with me for the next year or so.  You've met her before in this blog, here and here.  She holds a pose better than some pros I know.  Nude poses are out, of course...but I'm okay with that. 


  1. Good for you- you will never regret it.

    There are masses and masses of art students graduating every year and it seems we are in an ocean of painters. Few of them, however know how to paint from life.

    It can be daunting at first to take off the training wheel- I was terrified, but it is addicting.

    The important thing is to do as many that way as possible.

    Lovely drawing.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Sharon.

      I know this is a very personal choice, and each artist must work through to find their preferred approach. There are many paths to the top of the mountain.

      For me personally, painting(drawing) from life consistently gives me better results. I want better results, so my choice is clear. Using photos will be my fallback position.

      Thanks for your encouragement. Love your beautiful figures. Very inspiring.

  2. I'm so lucky here in Portland, we have places like "hipbone studio" and of course, Studio 30 (it's closed for the summer--but we have our fingers crossed that it will start up again in the fall). Lots of times some artists will throw in together and hire a model. When there are 4 o 5 artists the fee works out to be only around 10 dollars each. I love this drawing of Amanda--it's very solid looking. I'm tuned in to see more!

    1. I respect your commitment to painting from life often, Celeste. I guess when it comes down to it, if someone wants to use photos 100%, then so be it...that is part of their artistic process. But for me, can't get that "solid look" without something 3 dimensional in front of me. And that sense of urgency makes it so much more fun.

      Thanks, as always, for your comments.

  3. Thank you for your very informative blog. Your studies and growth are inspirational.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your kind comment. It's hard to look at some of that earlier work, but it proves that growth occurs if you stick with it. So much to learn, so little time.