Ask the Art Prof: The Importance of Drawing From Direct Observation

Portrait Drawing

“I know how to draw, but I can only draw things that I can see. I draw from photographs that I find on the Internet. However, I have difficulty drawing from my imagination, and this bothers me because I want to be able to create images on my own. How can I learn to draw from my imagination?”

To successfully draw from your imagination, you have to be skilled in drawing from direct observation. I am appalled that so few art students draw from life nowadays.

Many young artists don’t draw from life because drawing from photographs is extremely convenient, doesn’t require a lot of thought, and gets quicker results. By comparison, drawing from life is much more challenging and time-consuming, but ultimately it is the approach that will provide the necessary skills to draw from any reference.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

For an art student, drawing exclusively from photographs is the worst approach to take. As a college professor, I invest a lot of time getting first year students to unlearn bad drawing habits they developed because they only drew from photographs.

Frequently, the students who have a lot of drawing experience, but who have bad habits, have a much tougher time than the students who have no drawing background. Drawing exclusively from photographs encourages these poor habits:

1) Obsessively laboring one drawing for several weeks.
Consequently, students become accustomed to working at a very slow pace. For anyone who aspires to be a professional artist, this approach is inefficient and unsustainable.

Students become precious about every drawing they make, which sets up an impossible expectation that every drawing must be successful. They are so afraid of making a bad drawing that they refuse to try anything new. This severely limits growth and keeps them from expanding their abilities.

2) Being unable to do 2-5 minute gesture drawings.
Gesture drawing is a key principle in all aspects of drawing, it teaches you how to quickly capture the essential spirit of your subject with energy and movement. Drawing from photographs trains people to draw in a very tight manner, which results in drawings that lack vitality.

3) Ignoring fundamental structures and focusing only on details.
The details of a drawing are usually what impress viewers the most; they are the glamorous part of a drawing that seduce and dazzle. However, no amount of detail will compensate for poor compositions and structures. Drawings that invest too much time on details will appear flat and superficial.

Drawing is about much more than copying an accurate representation of what you see. Throughout history, the most pivotal drawings have been images that a photograph could never make. When an artist draws, they are offering an artistic interpretation of what they have experienced.

A drawing copied verbatim from a photograph provides no individual opinion; the process just mechanically replicates what the photograph already said. At that point, there’s no point to making the drawing, you’re just making a bad xerox of the photograph.

Drawing from life is wonderful because you get to fully experience your subject. Compare the difference between drawing from a photograph of a person and drawing that person in real life. If you draw from direct observation, you would get to talk to the person, hear their voice, and learn about their personality. All of these aspects of the person that you experience will vastly influence your drawing process.


Many students aspire to create the illusion of depth within the two-dimensional format of a drawing. It’s counterproductive to try to achieve a convincing three-dimensional illusion in your drawing if your reference is a two-dimensional photograph. You have to directly experience three-dimensional space and form in person.

As a student, I studied Gothic cathedrals and looked at slides in class and photographs in textbooks. I eventually traveled to France to see the cathedrals, and was astonished by the vast depth of space. Being physically immersed in the cathedral, I was able to capture the mood of the space in my on site drawings.


Amiens Cathedral

You have complete creative control when drawing from direct observation. If you’re drawing a still life, you can arrange the objects any way you want and create a specific lighting situation. With a portrait, you can choose from multiple perspectives or ask the model to sit in a specific position. This allows for much more flexibility and significantly increases all of the visual possibilities.

This is not to say that you should never ever draw from a photograph, as there are instances where using a reference photograph is necessary. In those circumstances, I always shoot my own photographs so that I can control every factor. If I need an image of a gorilla, it means a trip to the zoo.

I see all reference photographs as raw material that I will manipulate and transform through my drawing process. The only time I would draw from someone else’s photograph is if I really need an image that is literally impossible for me to photograph on my own. Even then, I only use fragments of the photograph and I mix it in with other references. I would never take someone’s photograph and draw a precise copy of it.


Drawing from life involves a lot of work and patience, but eventually it will reap many rewards. You will gain a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of light and shadow, see how structures are organized, understand how forms interact within a space, learn how to articulate textures, and much more.

This knowledge will equip you with the skills you need in order to draw from your imagination. From there, it’s a matter of extensive experimentation and practice to see what works for you. is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.

Related articles
“What is a gesture drawing?”
“Is drawing considered an innate talent or a craft, which can be learned by anyone?”
“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”
“How can I draw what I see in my head?”
“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?”
“How do you get yourself to practice drawing?”
“What is the most important mindset a student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”


6 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: The Importance of Drawing From Direct Observation

  1. All excellent points, esp for those who are currently studying, can meet with or observe people to draw, etc. But: if I can’t draw from photos/TV I can’t make any progress in drawing people bec I don’t often see them in person.
    Terrific blog! Lots of very useful information and support.

  2. This is so very true! All of it! I do use photographs more often than that because I’m disabled. But more and more, I treat them as a starting point. Or to get details that aren’t there from memory.

    For every time I’ve drawn a big cat from a photo, I’ve sketched my own cat from life hundreds of times. With all my cat gestures, I’ve gotten to the point that any leopard photo will do. I know the differences in anatomy between leopards and Siamese – the leopard’s head is smaller than my fluff boy, the leopard’s got shorter hair – but the hairs still grow in the same direction. The spots form a pattern that’s general. In fact, if I get spots accurate to the photo I’ve done an individual’s portrait.

    And if I’m going to paint it I don’t bother spotting till I’m at the finish of the painting. A good painting starts with blocking in – and that’s a 2-5 minute gesture drawing, some basic lines to give the essence of the form. I can move the cat into different poses. Poses that looking at my own cat are fleeting but repeated.

    That is the key to life drawing when your model won’t hold still. Keep watching and they will do it again, over and over and over. You can hold it in mind just long enough to finish the gesture sketch. Most times my cat moves before the gesture’s done but I remember where his butt went and decide what to do with his tail within the range of tail motions that’d make it a better drawing. It’s cute when he tucks it under his leg while washing himself, but if it’d look better out at an angle, there it goes.

    So I have one thing to add to this: start with a subject you LOVE. Do it over and over with an egg timer till you’re used to working that fast. In time key details like say, whiskers or eyes, will start getting into gestures and you will know the subject well enough to do it from memory. And related subjects. Studying my cat from life even helped with all other quadrupeds. How the hind legs bend versus front legs is something that’s hard to get from careful photo copying – but in life you can see the structures in motion!

    But try with something you love, so you won’t be bored with it. Also play with different mediums and sketch techniques. It doesn’t have to be a dull process.

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