Let’s talk about something most artists don’t appear to give much thought to these days: the importance of drawing from life.
I know this topic is put on a back burner for most artists because I gave it little or no thought for most of my artistic life. My focus for nearly 40 years was portrait work, and I had a full-time job, drawing time was dedicated to portrait work. It never seemed important that I draw from life or do any art that wasn’t directly related to whatever portrait I was working on at the time.
But I was in error thinking that way. I short-changed myself by focusing so tightly on art for business, and may have actually hindered my progress as an artist.
Then came the acceptance of a large portrait in which the subject is human in 2013.
With a lot of flowers (hundreds of white roses.)
And a lot of palm fronds.
And a beautiful porcelain vase, a banner, bows, and…. (You get the idea.)
I did a lot of study sketches for that portrait. Mostly facial features, which had to be spot-on accurate. Those studies are all from reference photographs provided for the project, and they were invaluable (a topic for another post.)
But they didn’t quite get the job done. I needed something more. Something that stretched my ability to see what I wanted to draw, and to draw it more accurately.
So I turned to drawing from life.
The Importance of Drawing From Life
Since the portrait subject lived hundreds of miles away, I found other things for life drawing. Things not related directly to the portrait, but that would improve my ability to see, as well as my eye-hand coordination.
I learned valuable lessons through that experience. Here are a few of them.
Drawing from life develops observation skills.
This drawing is a life drawing. It’s not complete because I was walking the cat when I drew it (yes, on a leash). Thomas decided to lie in the shade, so I took advantage of the half hour to draw.
This particular drawing shows the growth end of one of the branches of a Mock Apple. I’d never before noticed the leaflets at the base of each leaf. Now I notice them all the time.
And that’s part of the reason for doing life drawings. Observation. You can see things in life—little details like leaflets, or color gradations—that are often vague or missing in photographs.
Learning to see and accurately draw values is also a reason to draw from life.
I drew the Mock Apple in strong light. I drew many other things in strong light, too, as well as in filtered and flat light.
If your subject is in strong light, it’s easy to see not only highlights and shadows, but middle values and reflected light. We all know about drawing accurate shadows and highlights, but the middle values and reflected light really bring a subject to life.
There is no better way to view how light illuminates objects than in real life.
But you don’t have to go outside to see strong light. I drew this egg indoors. I arranged it under a single bulb lamp and positioned it on a white cloth, so there was plenty of light bouncing around. Not only was it a great study of drawing white objects on white paper; it was an ideal light study.
It gets you out of your usual art routine.
Drawing from life is perfect for forcing you out of your usual art habits.
Some of you know that I’ve been an equine portrait artist since high school. Suffice it to say a long time. Since art time was such a premium most of those decades, I did very little art that wasn’t equine in nature.
I live in a residential area where dogs and cats are the most common animals, followed by birds and other small wildlife.
So when I started drawing from life, I was forced to draw something other than horses. Things like utility flags, the end of the porch railing, wood planks, and a loop of orange extension cord lying on the ground.
Here’s a bonus for many of us. Drawing from life means getting outside. Away from technology and into the fresh air and sunshine. I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for a 20 to 30-minute break most days.
How to Fit Drawing from Life into Your Art Routine
Draw outside once a week (or as often as possible)
Now that you know why I think drawing from life is so important, let me share a few ways I’ve found to fit it into my art routine.
A couple of autumns ago, I started a plein drawing challenge. I took myself outside each week for two months to draw. The goal was to produce one plein drawing a week.
I did it again last year, and I plan to do it this year.
After last year’s challenge ended, I decided to continue through the end of the year.
I’ve fallen down on the plein air challenge this year, but I do still draw outdoor subjects as often as possible. Even when I have to do it through a window!
Even when I haven’t been able to get outside every week, the motivation still exists. The fact of the matter is, I now see potential drawings almost everywhere I look!
Do small studies whenever (and wherever) you can
At the beginning of this year, I decided to finish one small piece every week this year. Most of those pieces have been smaller than the maximum of 4 x 6 inches I set for myself. The fact is, most of them have been ACEOs (3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches.)
But most of them have also been life drawings.
The personal challenge and the small size make it easy to dash off a drawing—even a detailed drawing—in 30 minutes or less.
Collect interesting potential subjects
A reader asking how to draw wet stones led me to collecting stones. I had to have a subject for that post, after all.
Once I got started, I looked for stones every time I went out walking. I even went out a time or two just to look for stones.
As I write this, I have a collection of seven stones of various sizes, shapes, colors, and textures to one side of my drawing desk. So now I don’t need to leave the house or the drawing desk in order to draw something from life.
But I still do. I’ve found several places around the neighborhood where there are plenty of stones to pick up! I would never have noticed them in the past.
Look for interesting subjects all around you.
You don’t have to leave the house to find interesting subjects. You don’t even have to start a collection.
Just look around you!
For instance, I look around where I sit at this moment and I see my pencils (some in interesting containers) and the old crank sharpener I use. There’s the computer mouse, a brick (yes, an actual brick,) a coffee cup with a spoon in it, those stones, a piece of cloth, a power strip, the modem and router for the computer, the computer itself, some paper, and some power cords and internet cables on the floor.
In other words, I don’t have to go anywhere, or even move out of this chair, to draw something from life.
Drawing from life is an important part of the artist’s life. Or it should be. It’s perfect for honing skills, exploring new or potential subjects, and just having fun.
And as you’ve seen, it’s easy to fit into your schedule whether you’re a full- or part-time artist.
What are you going to draw from life this week?
For more tips, read Three Ways to Draw Plein Air on EmptyEasel.
Thank you , Carrie. This post is a lighted match to dead coals. Now I just have to keep the coals burning!
That’s my problem, too! Starting something is easy. Keeping it going can be an entirely different story!
You make a very good point for drawing from life, Carrie. I now feel an urgency to incorporate this into my thought processes; it makes sense that it can only help my artistic growth. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Vickie!
Just the kick I’ve been needing. Thanks very much, Carrie.