Photos or Life – which do you prefer and why?

self portrait self portrait

I prefer using photographs for my work as they capture moments and locales which are not easy to replicate in a studio setting or using a model. I do believe it to be very important to learn to draw from Life but would not like to limit myself to just that for my paintings. Take the examples above. If I were to do my self portraits only for life (top right) I would scare the pants of everybody! I find the second one has a more reasonable expression.

Would love to hear how you feel about it. Do leave me a comment if you have a moment.

Self Portrait : charcoal from life, pen & ink from photo ref

22 thoughts on “Photos or Life – which do you prefer and why?

Add yours

  1. I always look pretty scary in my self portraits too! I think it’s the look of concentration… You’ve done a wonderful drawing though. I do prefer the one on the right because it’s more the way I imagine you… Your technique is really taking off!

  2. Different strokes for different folks. I enjoy painting and drawing with photo references. While I admire people who paint from life I don’t enjoy being watched while I work and I find it very difficult to do watercolors outside. Frankly, I find the superior attitude of some plein aire painters to be very annoying. I think stiffness in painting comes from your approach to the actual painting, not from working from a photo. Perhaps it is that some beginners who work that way don’t concern themselves with adjusting composition, lighting and so on. I agree with you, the second portrait is much more relaxed and appealing.

  3. Sherry, I agree! Actually I think anyone who tells someone else what’s right, when it comes to art, is pretty annoying. Both approaches have their merits and satisfactions. (I love painting plein air because I love BEING there, but I think my work is usually not as accomplished or finished looking as my studio work…)

    Ujwala, I like both of them–but having just finished yet another self portrait that looks like a stranger to me, I certainly agree that I can do a better job of catching that likeness from a photo! Not all those thousands of tiny, subtle alternations in pose that make the likeness disappear…

  4. Casey : thank you. the truth is that that’s ( one on the right) the way i see myself too 😀

    Sherry : i too agree with you. since i do portraits and people i find photographs more useful for me. having spent some time sculpting has given me a better idea of form and applying that to people in photos. i am not always successful but i’m learning. at this point i would find using only “life” to be too constraining.

    Kate : yes, i think that was it. i did not like to hear that using photographs (my way) was not ok. for the self portraits from life, i too find that i’m looking at a stranger when I do them. It is like me but yet not me. didnt realise that the alterations in pose were the cause of it. will try and be more aware next time. thank you.

  5. Ujwala,
    First, I like them both. But, since you want a comparison, I would have to pick the charcoal one. The expression appears to be a lot more natural and intriguing. Also, it has the advantage (IMHO) of the medium, where you can create form a lot easier with charcoal.

  6. Since I have set, and am working toward my goal of doing 50 portraits, I find that I need the photos to work from. A good close-up shows all the nuances that I need to do a representation portrait. I have worked from life but cant get all those details (and who wants to sit there for hours :). I like doing it both ways but am learning lots more working from photos.

    Thanks for asking the question and I enjoyed hearing what others think too.

  7. I almost exclusively work with photo references. I do this for a number of reasons related to the medium and style of my choice: pencil and realism respectively. The combination of these two plus the subject matter give me very little alternative but to use photos. Where for instance will find real life octopus on demand. My drawings are detailed and it is just not possible for me to the drawing equivalent of plein air. I think the skill in using photos is not to try and recreate the photo on the paper, but interpret the subject somewhat differently and think of an innovative composition using the photo as a basis.

  8. I work both from life and photos. Somethimes I prefer one over the other, but that decision is usually based on what it is that I want to express-explore-communicate about a particular subject. I could not for the life of me consider one better than the other. They are whatever you need them to be.

  9. Although I do enjoy drawing & painting from photos I do admit the art work on the right seems more alive. Perhaps it is that photos are composed and taken at the right moment. And life just happens no preparing.

  10. Personal observation. (meaning it may only be true for me).

    When working from a photo there is this notion that the photo is correct and if my painting or drawing does not look exactly like the photo then I am disappointed. This same feeling at times happens when I’m working from life.

    I now pay more attention to my interpretation of what I am painting and refer back to the model or photo as a key note reference. What I am hopeful to be able to do is to capture something in the portrait that is real and often overlooked. Like the crookedness of a nose, one eye not being centered in the eye socket, or a droopy lip, characteristics that our eyes and the camera want to avoid or justify.

    I like the drawing done from the photo best, but I think both are very good. The pen and ink drawing feels more spontaneous, the charcoal more studied and deliberate. I’m thinking that you might feel differently about painting from life if you were less concern about likeness.

    I visit you site every day and you are wonderfully relentless and passionate in your learning. bravo

  11. You know, I think both have their good points. I like to sketch from life when I’m out running around because I think it makes me work quickly and isolate what most attracts me to the scene or object, whereas, with a photo, it is easy to get carried away with every little detail. However, in the real world, photos are great. Once you learn to isolate what’s important, the photo becomes a reference, a guide, just a suggestion of what you really want to say, while giving you the information you need to be accurate. In other words, I sketch from life and paint from photos — that’s what works for me! And I don’t know if that made a bit of sense … 😉
    Funny. I was thinking about this same thing this week, and tonight tried a still life from life. Yuk. What a bomb.

  12. firstly thank you all for your time, advice and suggestions.

    altereebo : thank you for your choice and the reasons. i do agree it is easier to create form with charcoal but i lose the spontaneity that I have using pens ( very little correction possible ) and photographs. which do you prefer for your work – photos or life?

    teri : all the best with your 50 portrait project. i too have learnt a lot from photos and working from them and the results gave me the confidence to enroll and audit one year of a BFA programme. The last two years have seen a lack of models and work from life. i hope that i get to do portraits from life and learn to apply what i have picked up to the portraits i do from photographs.

    Detlef :

    I think the skill in using photos is not to try and recreate the photo on the paper, but interpret the subject somewhat differently and think of an innovative composition using the photo as a basis.

    heheh I had thought that that was what I was doing 😀 until the events that led me to make the post.

    Col : i would like to work from life more but the freeze frame feature is not available in real life (models move too much :D) nor the money to organize those setups which is the reason, i tell myself, for being so photo focussed these last two years. I also mostly paint late at night 😀 given a choice between the two today I’d choose photographs as it gives me access to a wider range of subjects.

    Leona : the artwork on the right is from a photograph, a medium i’m very comfortable using. i find life a little constraining as i have to be looking in the mirror so the they all end up looking similar in terms of composition whereas the photographs i can pick and choose and expression I like. having done some life drawing and sculpture has helped but i guess you cant do it and then forget about it. it has to be ongoing or those skills disappear.

    Bob Martin : i do have a big problem with wanting a likeness whether it be from photographs or life and dont know yet how to get away from it 😦 I recently saw a photograph of an artists setup and painting on the canvas. This was of Amrita Shergil’s (whose work is absolutely gorgeous) set up for her painting of South Indian Ladies. The painting on the canvas was figurative but her set up was of south indian ladies posing in her studio. That particular photo isnt available on the net but..
    About Amrita Shergil
    amrita shergil’s work at Tate
    I need to learn to do that… to let go. I’m still caught up in learning to do it right first. I hope one day….. sooooon… i can use a reference similarly and have my own take on it. so far i find it easier to do with photographs. i too like the second one. i think it looks more like me 😀 and you’re right it was completely spontaneous and the expression is different from the photo ref.

    thank you as always for your advice and support. my most recent painting has been based on your demo of oil over acrylics. i’m very grateful for your help.

    Linda : loosening up is top of my list and i’m hoping that a 100 starts will get me there and i guess it just might if i ever get around to doing them!!! it does make sense, i still need to learn about taking somethings and not everything. i thought i was doing that but obviously not. thank you for your comment.

  13. I really like that charcoal drawing. I don’t think I have seen you work this way before.

    I like drawing from both life and from photos. I do tend to feel more relaxed when working from a photo and I like having a sense of control. The drawback is that sometimes I can get caught up in what I see and make the drawing way too literal. Result: flat, boring drawing. Working from life is more exercise for me. I work fast and I feel I get a more dynamic and authentic portrait. But the process can be random and when it goes wrong I feel so disappointed, especially when the model (usually one of my friends) looks a little peeved about the result. : )

  14. I like working from life when I want to hone my drawing skills and examine flesh, muscle etc, but for practical reasons use photographs for reference. There are times when I want that flat photo look that comes with using a photographic reference. My latest painting is an example of that. I think both your drawings are fabulous. Love the cross hatching on the right one.

  15. I work at an art gallery with a very gifted painter who paints massive canvases. His style is realism/fantasy. In other words he paints beautiful landscapes, cityscapes, etc, with a fantasy story overpainted. He always begins his large canvases by looking at photographs. The result is very realistic, almost photo-realistic – you feel you are there. I don’t think he paints much outdoors from real life. Thanks for your great posts!

  16. I find it difficult to draw from photographs. My eyesight is very bad and so you would think I prefer photographs. But I always find something lacking in work I do from photos compared to those from life. My photos from life may not be as realistic as from a photo, but I feel I capture the essence of the subject when drawing from life. I like the one on the right best but also like the first one. Both different but strong drawings!

  17. genexters : thank you. i try and think about form when i’m drawing from photographs instead of just looking at the marks but sometimes i forget 😀 most people (including me) are not satisfied with every photograph taken and so I’ve decided not to take offense when friends dont jump with joy when I show them their portraits.

    jaffrabit : photographs are very convenient as i dont have a scheduled time for painting. it could be anytime through the day but usually late at night. unlike you i dont want to have that flat look and try very hard to give the pieces some form. thank you.

    Jean L – thank you for your comment and the link.

    mARTa – i see that too but only when i’ve spent time on the drawing from Life. compared to my sketches the drawings from photographs are usually better. I currently prefer the freedom that using photographs provides me in terms of time and subject. thank you 😀

  18. I prefer to draw portraits from pictures. Mainly because I´m not good enough for live drawings yet. It´s a lot easier for me to use pics, but I do hope that I will be able to draw recognizable portraits some time in future.

  19. I think you’re being harsh on yourself. I enjoyed your participation at The Portrait Party through last year and am looking forward to more!

  20. I like both drawings as well.

    I think it’s better to work from life, but I rarely do, in the case of portraits. I find it’s too distracting to have someone sit there and be bored while I work. I always worry about them and think I have to entertain them in some way. And, I think I just prefer to be alone when I draw or paint.

    For self portraits I always use a mirror, though, I’m not sure I’ve ever drawn myself from a photo.

    One nice think to do if working from a photo is to turn it upside down to work from. It’s hard to do that with a model. They turn all red in the face.

  21. thank you Bill 😀 planning and routine dont seem to be a part of my daily art activities and i might not be painting if it wasnt for the convenience of photographs. lol re the models. I did a couple of upside pen & ink drawings based on a post at Danny Gregory’s and the Betty Edwards book and loved them. I’ll take your advice and try it out for painting too.

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