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Is it passable to use photos for reference?

Is it passable to use photos for reference?

Question from Rayne Sheffer

“How do you learn to stop looking to or copying photos for reference, especially when you are trying to draw something that you cannot see in real life that much, like a wild animal? Do you still use photos and just not copy them, but use them to gain a general idea of the subject?”

Feedback from Vladimir London, Drawing Academy tutor

Dear Rayne,

Many thanks for your question. There are two aspects of using photos for drawing:

1. If you have strong skills of constructive drawing, photos provide a useful reference.

2. If you are still learning, copying photos would do you more harm than good.

Copying skills are different from life drawing skills. By copying, you suppress your ability to see in perspective, understand foreshortening, draw planes of objects, and see tonal values depending on angles of those planes.

When copying, you won’t learn the necessary skills of constructive drawing that enable an artist to draw from memory and imagination. However, you will develop reproduction skills. Such skills may be useful if your goal is to make copies rather than original artworks. Also, you might get into a trap of needing a reference photo to draw anything realistically, should you keep copying for too long.

So, here’s the answer: If you are still learning how to draw, draw from life and practice constructive drawing. After several years of intensive practice, you may start using photos – not to copy but for reference, although you might find that you do not actually need photos as much, because you will develop good visual memory and be able to draw whatever you want from imagination.

Best regards,

Vladimir London
Drawing Academy tutor

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Irene S. says:

    I used to draw from imagination when I was a child, but then I stopped drawing for a while and now cannot draw anything that looks decent without a photo. About three years ago I took an art course that teaches how to copy from photos using different grades of pencils and spent a lot of time making carbon-copies of photographs. The more I copy, the less I like it. It just feels like cheating and not creative. I want to draw what is in my head. I actually don’t think that I’m making art when copy-pasting a photo… Is there a fast way to learn drawing from imagination?

  2. Susan says:

    Irene, it’s good that you understand that copying photos is not a true art, but bad that you did it for so long. I used to trace photos myself and it took me several years to step away from that habit. Re learning is much harder. You did it “fast”, and this time you’d rather do it right.

    Sometimes I’m thinking how much faster I would learn good art techniques should I find this drawing course earlier.

  3. Alessandra says:

    Although agree that photos should not be just copied or transferred and understanding of anatomy and structure are essentials, I do not understand this answer. It is simply not possible to draw an elephant from life for example, even if you go to the zoo. Elephants, unlike humans will not stay still and cannot be drawn for life in the same manner. Should one study the anatomy of elephants if they plan to draw elephants? Yes! Should they use photos…it seems like a more plausible option. For maybe other things, I’d say yes, draw plants from life, draw bananas and people from life as much as you can, but I don’t think you should need years before you look at a photo for reference. It really depends on what you’re doing…

    Now about transferring images, this is why is bad in my humble opinion. On top of not really learning anything useful, there’s a huge problem. Often photos are distorted by lenses so they don’t offer an accurate portrayal anyways. You have to understand proportions and anatomy in order to correct those camera warps. The best thing to do is to draw from life to gather that information.

    • Thomas says:

      Alessandra, what you say just confirms that you have not attended any good art college where they teach real drawing skills, not copying. Elephants are very slow animals, you cad draw them all day long in a zoo without any problems. As for much faster creatures like flying birds, for example, this is what visual memory is for – you observe birds flying and then draw what you remember. This is called drawing from memory and such skills must be developed not to rely on photos.

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