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  • Writer's pictureKonstantin

Is Drawing From Photographs Bad?

Updated: May 27, 2020

Have you heard about this question just as I have a lot of times? If you're wondering now if it is really bad to draw from photographs let me show you what I found out and share with you my experiences.

Is it bad to copy photographs when drawing?

For a beginner and also advanced drawing artists it can definitely be of advantage using reference pictures for drawing. This enables you to draw things you couldn't draw from life such as wild animals and thanks to its simple execution it is perfectly suited for beginners.

Drawing from reference photos isn't exactly bad but there are certainly some caveats to the question which we'll go through in the following paragraphs. Personally speaking, I would only recommend drawing from photos in some cases.

I. Advantages Of Using Reference Images For Drawing

  1. More Possibilities

  2. Easy Access

  3. Focus On Specifics

  4. Confidence Boost

  5. Perfect For First Practice

1. First of all, you clearly can say that there are a lot more possibilities to draw when you can use reference pictures. When you go outside, sit in a cafe or somewhere in a park are you going to see a polar bear?

Well, I guess unless you live in Canada, Russia or Alaska you probably won't get to draw a polar bear from life. If you look up "polar bear" on the Internet you receive a lot of different pictures of these majestic animals.

This means a lot of possibilities for you to learn how a polar bear exactly looks like and how to draw one.

There are literally no limits in terms of choosing a subject for your drawing sessions. You can choose from any possible subject you can think of thanks to the Internet.

What a time to be alive, right?

2. The previous paragraph leads us directly to the second point which is the ridiculously easy access everyone is granted nowadays.

If you have access to an Internet connection, which you probably have when you're reading this sentence right now, you literally have the possibility to see pictures of everything.

I don't really have to say a lot more explaining this, right? Think of something you would like to draw or observe to understand its structure. Let's just take a dirty horse fly for example.

Go open a new tab, type "horse fly", go to images, find the photo that suits you most and you're ready to go.

One personal tip for you before we continue: Observe at first! Observe the creature carefully before you start drawing it. Use your perception skills to analyze the subject for edges, spaces, relationships, light and shadow, and the whole or gestalt.

If this isn't your first time drawing from a photo I even recommend trying the very last tip I have for you for now. Do the observing thing I mentioned before but then after you feel like you know everything necessary about your subject close or minimize the window and draw the subject fro your memory.

This is a great exercise for a little more advanced pencil enthusiasts. I highly recommend trying it at some point!

3. Photographs grant you as an artist the opportunity to use as much time as you need to pay attention to specifics. If you want to study your subject in its entirety and learn how it's exactly structured, drawing from photos is a great way to do so.

Imagine yourself sitting in a room with a model right in front of you. Your job is to draw that model. Would you take as much time as you want to study the dimensions of your subject? Normally you wouldn't.

Models are always very likely to move during the session and of course, such a drawing session can't take up to 24 hours. This would be unhealthy and not at the pleasure of anyone. Use a picture if your goal is to study something as precisely as possible.

4. Since drawing using reference images is often a lot easier for most aspiring artists than drawing from life, this option can result in a great confidence boost.

By that I mean, that drawing from photos is easier than being in the city and trying to draw consistently moving people around you. So, if you try to copy a photograph using a pencil or charcoal consequently your result will be better than if you tried other ways of drawing such as figure drawing from life.

It is also easier to draw from photos than from still life set-ups because you don't have to observe the scenery that precisely. Mainly for beginners drawing from photos is the better alternative here where you can just draw exactly what you really see.

Summarizing you can say that the uncomplicated procedure of drawing from a photo is boosting the confidence of aspiring artists which is necessary. Especially in the beginning phase drawing can be frustrating and confidence boosts through easier ways to get into the art of drawing are more likely to keep you motivated.

5. Now I've mentioned already several times that using photos to copy them with a pencil on paper is easy and especially for beginners perfectly suited.

When you're just getting started or you want to learn drawing and have no idea where to start, don't listen to all those jaundiced artists who think their answers are the only right ones. This is not true.

The really important step is to take action and just start somewhere!

Pablo Picasso once said, "Good artists copy, great ones steal".

Don't be afraid or let alone ashamed to look for great photos online and copy them as first exercises. When you want to learn drawing from scratch you can still do a lot of things wrong with this but far less than with other options.

If you are on the lookout for some exercises for utter beginners that are really hard to fail at, feel welcome to check out this article (click). I present to you my all-time favorite beginner exercises there that have helped me a lot.

II. Disadvantages Of Drawing From Photos

  1. Copyright

  2. Quality Problems

  3. Too Little Observation Needed

  4. Flatness

  5. Using Less Of Your Potential

1. You may not belive it but yes, copyright does play an important role in this. When you are drawing something from a photo that has been taking from someone else than you and you upload your artwork...

Well, you can already guess, you are violating general copyright rules when you do that.

I personally think this way of thinking is complete non-sense since you are creating your own piece of art. You're not trying to sell the actual image of the photographer as your own, am I right?

Nevertheless, you have to pay attention to copyright. Use photos from the Internet for practicing purposes but don't publish them to avoid conflicts.

2. Often photographs that you find online lack quality. If you find pictures that are blurry for example you won't be able to draw the subjects properly.

Unfortunately, most pictures you can find on the Internet aren't optimal to draw from due to this mentioned lack of quality. Many times they're just not good but all photos have one huge disadvantage in common.

Photos depict reality in one single way and there is not a single opportunity you have to change this circumstance. In a picture you have the light coming from exactly one direction, you have exactly one single angle to look at the subject from.

Some photos are made with flash which is even worse. You may never use such a photo that has been taken with flash. This has a tremendous effect on the light and shadow of the objects being captured.

The flash completely manipulates natural light effects and adds his own very unnatural ones. If you try to copy such an image exactly chances are you will be very unsatisfied with the result you get out of it.

It's terrible trying to create a good drawing from such a photograph. Please do yourself a favor and just don't do it...

3. In the first section, I have mentioned the little observation that is needed to draw from photos as an advantage. Yes, it definitely is a huge advantage for utter beginners to make the first steps, get a feeling for pencils and create first artworks.

Nevertheless, when you're serious about drawing and learning that skill in its entirety you can't rely on copying reference images forever. You need to learn your perception skills and use them to observe and understand your subjects completely.

If you continue to simply copy the lines and shapes seen in a picture taken by someone else you will never be perfecting your observation, which is a skill mandatory for drawing.

Observation makes at least 50% of drawing in general!

4. Due to the fact that photos only depict a scene in one single way and often from too far away or with additional effects it makes the subject become somewhat flat.

When you're merely drawing from photos and never from life you can't learn the process of perceiving distances between objects accurately for instance. Also, the objects' masses and relationships can only be fully grasped when you're drawing something from life. If you choose still life or figure drawing doesn't matter.

In photos, these specifics are basically not included any more because a photograph is a flat recreation of the "real life". As a drawing artist, however, you want to show not only detail but also depth and three-dimensional, real looks, right? At least that's the goal.

This all makes it hard for the artist to fully understand a subject's form, its dimensions, and structure. The artist only gets one view at the subject and that's it, whereas in reality when you're drawing something actually from life is very different.

Drawing from life is an opportunity that grants you various views on one object. This technique grants you as an artist the chance to totally comprehend your subject's dimensions.

5. All these already mentioned facts keep your potential locked up. By drawing from photos you are massively restricted to the dimensions, relationships, edges, and spaces the photo is providing for you.

I have said above that I think copying pictures to get into drawing isn't a bad thing and for beginners perfectly fine. Nevertheless, you will be surprised at how much you're actually capable of creating when you try drawing from life and try to understand your surroundings.

I'm still drawing from reference pictures because I'm far from being a professional but let me tell you one thing I've already learned. Not until you start drawing from life, like still life drawing or figure drawing you won't be able to use your entire potential.

Unleash your full potential by starting to draw from life. It will surprise you how much this accelerates your progress!

III. More Reference Drawing Or More Drawing From Life

Everyone has their own opinion on this topic in general, but I want to give you my very personal advice on how much you should exert of which and what to start with.

I've indicated this a few times in the previous sections here but let me state it very clearly for once now:

Reference Drawing is a great opportunity for drawing beginners.

I personally have started with drawing from references. Not only have I used photographs but I've also studied other people's artworks and especially drawings of course.

I think everyone who is interested in learning how to draw should start by drawing from reference pictures to see where you are. If you are already getting satisfying results from your reference drawings, you can definitely stick to that for a little bit of time and then move on after a couple of weeks.

If you don't get these satisfying results you should go over the beginner exercises that are hard to fail and confidence building. When you're comfortable with those, move on to reference pictures to draw from.

When you're now also being very comfortable with drawing from other photos I recommend moving on to still life drawing and after that to figure drawing. For these practices, you will definitely need to be aware of the five basic perception skills.

I'll be honest with you. I haven't reached the point of being satisfied with my figure drawings yet but this is my next goal and I am convinced that this is the way everyone should go who wants to learn drawing.

Try it yourself that way or get into drawing as I have with my favorite beginner drawing technique called Zentangle, I teach you in my free drawing course. When you join the mailing list I will send you emails sharing exclusive tips, tricks, and motivational videos.

There is definitely no right or wrong and you probably want to start with whatever you feel comfortable most.

After that, I think it is time to take action. Let's dive into our next drawing together right away, right now. Choose one of the beginner exercises from this article (click) or just take anything that is on your mind right now. Let's go!

IV. Related Questions

1. Is Tracing Still Drawing?

Drawing is a skill on which everyone has to work to achieve it. Tracing is not a skill you need to acquire. Everyone is able to trace an image, so it is not considered drawing. Nevertheless, you can learn a thing or two from tracing for your actual drawings.

2. Can I Paint A Picture Of A Celebrity And Sell It?

When you're not stealing another artist's artwork depicting a famous person you don't infringe any copyright law. Anyway, the laws regulating the use of celebrity personality can differ throughout the world.

3. Can Art Be Plagiarized?

Art can be plagiarized by tracing someone else's artworks. Copying it and changing the color is also considered art theft. These mentioned types of stealing art are forms of plagiarism and can be fined.

Will you do as I do and grab a pencil and draw now?

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