Ask the Art Prof: When and How Should You use Photo References to Draw?

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Newly updated version of this popular Ask the Art Prof column!

by Clara Lieu

“When and how you should use photo references to draw?”

Too often I find that people use photo references out of laziness.  Be careful that if you decide to work with photo references, that it’s for a very specific need, not because of convenience. Photographs should only be used when direct observation of a subject is absolutely impossible. If you’re an illustrator and you’re creating a illustration about dinosaurs, obviously that’s not an image you can draw from life. However, there are many subjects where it’s very possible, and in some cases very easy. For a still life drawing, get the actual objects and set them so you can directly observe them from life. I’ve literally seen students search for a photo of an apple online so that they can draw an apple.  Is it really that hard to buy an apple to draw from life?!?

If you are drawing a self-portrait, it’s easy enough to get a mirror and draw from that. The 15 minutes it takes to figure out how to set up your mirror and drawing board to draw a self-portrait are seriously worth the time. Anything that you can possibly observe from life should be done in this way. Nothing can substitute experiencing a subject in real life: being able to touch it, smell it, walk around it, inspect it, experience it, etc. Staunchly set direct observation as your number one priority whenever possible.

Illustrator James Gurney

Illustrator James Gurney

I’ve also seen many professional artists work with a variety of other references that are just as effective, if not more so, than photo references.  Artist James Gurney fabricates sculptures of dinosaurs for his paintings. After sculpting the dinosaur in clay, he paints the sculpture and then draws from the sculpture as his reference. You can watch him go through this process in this terrific video below.  It goes to show that photographs are not the only option, and that other methods can provide a level of depth and understanding of a subject that photographs are incapable of providing.

Artist James Gurney  on how he paints dinosaurs by sculpting clay models.


My RISD colleague and former professor Andrew Raftery painstakingly creates complex 3D models of interior spaces using wood and wax figures as references for his incredible engravings.

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You can visibly see in this side-by-side comparison of Raftery’s 3D model  and finished engraving how critical the creation of the 3D model is in constructing the interior scene. The lighting and spatial relationships are literally re-created in the 3D model and are thus incredibly convincing in the completed engraving.

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If you’ve decided that photographs are indeed the only option for your drawing, the next stage is to do everything in your power to shoot the photographs yourself. If that means taking a trip to the zoo to take photographs of the gorillas, then do it.  I know it’s very tempting and easy to go on Google Images and simply pull a photograph off the Internet. However, when you use someone else’s photograph, your drawing will be vastly limited. You won’t be able to control the point of view, you can’t zoom in to get more details, and most likely the resolution of the photograph will be poor.  Take the initiative to go to your subject and photograph it from every point of view.  Shoot close up shots of specific areas so that you have all of the information you need.

The only time I would advocate using someone else’s photograph as a reference is if there is absolutely, one hundred percent, no other way to get the visual information you need. For example, if you are doing an illustration of an elephant, and you need details of the wrinkles in the skin, that’s a circumstance where you’ll need to use someone else’s photograph. In general though, someone else’s photograph should be the last resort in terms of references.

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When you do get to the point where you are working from a photograph, think about it as a process of gathering raw information which you then edit and manipulate. There is nothing artistic or creative about copying a photograph verbatim.  If that is your intent, you might as well xerox the photograph and be done with it.

Instead, take the raw information from the photograph and process it and shift it. change that raw information into something new and engaging. Be highly selective about what visual information you choose to use.  Just because something is in the photograph, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to use it in your drawing. Think about yourself as an editor, where you get to choose from a vast buffet of visual information. Comb through all of the visual information in the photograph and use only what is going to help facilitate your drawing in a positive manner. I also find that it’s very helpful to work from multiple photographs, so that you are not so reliant on a single photograph for all of your information. You can take visual portions from each reference photo and mix them together according to your needs.

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Drawings that use photo references successfully always look better than the photo reference.  If the reference photo is more engaging than the drawing, then it means that the drawing hasn’t done anything to fully manipulate beyond just copying the reference photo.

In the above image, you can see that the drawing at the figure gripping it’s face has very aggressive charcoal marks that are not apparent in the reference photo.  The reference photo looks static, flat, and posed.  The drawing took major liberties with the charcoal marks and therefore is much more full of action and tension.

In the image below, you can see the student’s reference photos that he shot at the bottom.  The reference photos provide raw information, but the two drawings are far more interesting than the reference photos.  The reference photos have very flat, boring black backgrounds and the facial expressions are not very dynamic.  In the final drawings, the student greatly manipulated and distorted the facial expressions to make them much more dramatic and exaggerated.

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It’s extremely difficult to use a photographic reference well, very few people do it successfully.  In my drawing classes at RISD, I spend half the course giving assignments that must be done from direct observation the entire time. In the second half of the course, I open up references so that students can work from a variety of visual references:  imagination, from photos they shot for the specific drawing, from photos online. When I switch over to open references in my courses, the reaction of pretty much all the students is: “Thank goodness, this is going to be so much easier now that I don’t have to draw from life and I can work from photos!”

Actually, the complete opposite happens: students realize after the first critique that creating excellent reference photos is an art in itself.  I critique their photo references:  we talk about their light source, choice of location, their choice of models, what their models are wearing, the posing of the models-the works. So many problems emerge in the reference photos: tons of factors distract in the reference photo, the set up looks fake, etc. Making the transition from the reference photo to the drawing presents its own unique set of challenges which is not nearly as straightforward as many people initially think. Personally, I find drawing from a reference photo much more difficult than drawing from life, because the temptation to simply copy the photo is always there.  When you draw from observation, you have to visually interpret and innovate.

I firmly believe that the only way to truly learn how to draw from a photograph well is to establish a solid understanding of fundamentals in drawing with years and years of experience drawing from direct observation. Once you have solid skills drawing from direct observation, these skills will allow you to draw from a photograph successfully. This article talks about how direct observation will provide the basic foundation to be able to work from any visual references successfully.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks


Related articles
“How can I tell if I’m skilled enough?”
“How do you find your own individual style?”
“How do artists manage to get their soul out into images?”
“How do you develop an idea from a sketch to a finished work?”
“How do you make an art piece more rich with details that will catch the eye?”
“How do you learn the basics?”
“Is it bad to start another piece of art before finishing another one?”
“How do you work in a series?”
“How do you know when to stop working?”

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Professional Artist Portfolio Critique #2

Video critique of professional artist Traci Turner’s portfolio


by Clara Lieu

Many people think that being an artist is only about creating the artwork.  Actually, there are several other aspects of being an artist that can carry almost as much weight. Critique is a huge part of the creative process for artists.  The opportunity to get advice on your artwork is critical towards an artist’s growth and progress. Inherently, all artists are stuck in their own heads when they produce their artwork. No artist ever gets to a point where they no longer need feedback on their artwork.  For this reason, it’s impossible to see your work objectively, which is why it’s so important to get a fresh set of eyes to look at your work and evaluate where it’s going.

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Even though I’ve logged over a decade as a professional artist, I still have to take initiative to seek out my artist friends and colleagues to critique my work. Frequently, they’ll point out some aspect of the work that I hadn’t even thought of, or was super obvious to them, but that I was oblivious to.

Unfortunately, unless you are enrolled in a studio art degree program, there are very few opportunities to get trusted, professional feedback on your artwork.  From my research, I’ve seen that there is a lot of content on Youtube about people talking about how to speak at a critique, and describing how a critique works, but the problem with this approach is that it only goes so far. Ultimately, one needs to see a critique to truly understand what a critique entails. If someone explained to you verbally how soccer was played, you would understand technically what the game involves.  However, until you actually got on a soccer field and physically kicked a ball yourself in a real soccer game, your understanding of soccer would remain superficial.

Student Artwork, Drawing Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

Group critique at RISD Pre-College


Currently, there is almost no content online which shows an actual art critique.The content that I did find was either completely out of context, or so poorly put together that it was basically useless. The other places I’ve seen art critiques is in online forums, but the problem with this context is that 1) the critiques are typed which is inefficient and not as impactful, and 2) the feedback is coming from sources you can’t necessarily trust and 3) people rarely want to critique the artwork of others-the vast majority of these forums are flooded with artists begging for a critique, but no one is responding.

This is why here at Art Prof one of our initiatives as an educational platform is to show audio and video critiques of artwork submitted by you, our audience. Sometimes artists will think that a critique is only useful if it’s their work being reviewed.  On the contrary, my students at RISD are always commenting how much they learn and gain from watching and listening to a critique of another student’s artwork.  In some ways, it can be easier to watch someone else’s critique because you’re removed from the process and can see the critique more objectively.

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Painting by Traci Turner

Above you can see a portfolio critique I did for professional artist Traci Turner.  Stayed tuned for more critiques!  Prior to our launch, we’ll continue releasing Crit Quickies, 4 Artist Critiques, Interactive Video Critiques, Art School Admissions Portfolio Critiques, and Professional Artist Portfolio Critiques. Get more information about our critiques and how to submit your artwork here.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages to learn visual arts in a vibrant art community. Imagine all of the resources here on our blog, except exponentially bigger, in greater quantity, and in more detail. Our Kickstarter campaign hit its $30k goal on July 19!  Get info on our future launch by subscribing to our email list.

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RISD Pre-College, Drawing Foundations course, Summer 2016

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Clara Lieu teaching her Drawing Foundations course at the RISD Pre-College Program


by Clara Lieu

RISD Pre-College ended a week and a half ago, and already, the program feels so far away. Teaching RISD Pre-College is like stepping into a time warp which exists in a different universe than the rest of my life.  During the school year, I generally teach at RISD only 1-2 days a week, whereas for RISD Pre-College I teach studio classes 5 days a week. The schedule is really intense, especially since I commute 1 hour each way from Boston, but I always find the program to be incredibly rewarding.  I attended RISD Pre-College in 1993, and it was a life changing experience that still continues to impact my life today.  You wouldn’t think that a 6 week program could affect your life so deeply, but the intensity of the experience and tremendous growth one experiences is simply remarkable.

Now that I’m a teacher, I experience the program from a completely different point of view: the 6 week length of the program is challenging because it’s so short compared to a usual college semester. For each Pre-College studio class, I only see each class six times, which is nowhere near enough time to truly master any technique. (during the school year, I see students for 12 times-double the length of a Pre-College course) Since I know there are limits to what I can teach in just six weeks, I focus my efforts on getting students to grasp fundamental ideas that they can then further apply in any future context. I remind students that they have the rest of their lives to learn how to handle a brush well, and that ultimately, what I’m most concerned about is to teach them how to think about their artwork.

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Most students who attend RISD Pre-College are not prepared for the rigorous work load and the mental challenges that come with brainstorming and thinking through the complex stages of each project. It’s a huge adjustment during the first few weeks which is tough for everyone. However, in the third and fourth week, you begin to see some fundamental concepts start to really sink in.  By the last week, it’s amazing to see those concepts take root in the students’minds and flourish.

Speaking to one of the students the last week, they told me that the most important lesson they learned at Pre-College was that every action they take in their artwork should have intent. This student explained to me that before coming to Pre-College, they never took the time to think the art making process as being a series of deliberate decisions.  Generally speaking, they didn’t think at all while creating their artwork, it was almost a mindless technical exercise. Most of the process was random and had no specific motivation or rationale behind it. Knowing that this student grasped this concept, I knew I had done my job.

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The close bonds I develop with my classes and students is very poignant. The first week of class, you are complete strangers who work quietly in the same room.  The last day of class, you’re hugging, laughing hysterically, taking silly selfies, drooling over hot celebrities together, and bawling your eyes out.  The emotions as just as intense for me as they are for the students. I have never found it easy to say goodbye the last week.  As a teacher, I feel that I am just starting to really know the students in that 6th week, and then all of the sudden, we’re gone. We leave campus and return to our “normal” lives.

Thank you 2016 RISD Pre-College students, for keeping my life exciting and fun, and for inspiring me with your tremendous passion and energy!  I miss all of you and will treasure those precious weeks we spent going to hell and back together.

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ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Art Prof Intern: Anna Campbell

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by Clara Lieu

There are many high school students who have strong drawing skills, but few know how to think critically and speak articulately about their artwork and the artwork of their peers within the context of a group critique. The vast majority of students who I have taught at RISD Pre-College have never experienced a group critique before, so I know it’s my job to introduce the students to the idea of a group critique.  Group critiques are an exercise that takes a lot of getting used to, and even then, it’s still challenging for many students for several reasons.  Critiquing artwork is a skill that takes time and experience to develop, and every single critique is completely unique.

Presenting and speaking about your artwork in front of the entire class can be really nerve wracking, and discussing the artwork by your peers is tricky.  I know that many students worry about the social backlash that can sometimes occur if someone doesn’t take a comment in the way it was intended.

Anna Campbell was one of the rare students I’ve had in my Pre-College classes who was able to dive right into group critiques and offer helpful, constructive comments to her classmates. She was encouraging and supportive of her classmates, but was also candid and honest. Anna’s presence during group critiques was very important to the class: I thought about her as an “engine” who set a serious, focused tone to the conversation and who also inspired other students to participate at the same time. She offered thoughtful and clear ideas during group critiques, and was able to provide helpful suggestions for her peers with enthusiasm.

Copy of 1 Playing God (18x24, caran d'ache self-portrait)

On top of her terrific critique skills, Anna was also extremely versatile in her artwork.  In my Design Foundations course, she was just as confident creating work in a bright, graphic style (as seen in her playing card designs below) as she was creating dramatic, foreboding images by drawing with color. Anna combined her techniques with innovative concepts as well, something few students in high school think to do. The drawing above was her depiction of how she organizes her friends in her head.  The image she developed had an unusual, surrealistic look, and portrayed her concept effectively.

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Let’s hear from Anna now:

Hi! I’m Anna, freshly out of high school and about to move from Chicago to Providence to attend RISD this fall, where I hope to study illustration. In addition to being an artist, I’m an avid reader, collector of odd words, and ice cream enthusiast.

Though I’ve always expressed myself via drawing and faithfully filled sketchbook after sketchbook, I didn’t really think of art as a viable future option until my junior year of high school, when I began probing my interests and researching more.

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It was my amazing experience at RISD Pre-College in the summer of 2015, where I studied under Prof Clara Lieu, that solidified my decision apply to RISD. (I wasn’t accepted to Hogwarts, so I figured art school was the next best thing) The mix of constructive criticism, skilled professors, and fellow artists I found there made for an incredibly stimulating learning environment and one of the best experiences of my life. I’m excited to share that same mix of awesome with others looking for educational art resources through Art Prof!


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks

“Should We Protect Arts Education?” in Education Week

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by Clara Lieu

I recently wrote a guest blog post for the Leadership 360 blog in Education Week titled “Should We Protect Art Education?” Thanks to Jill Berkowicz, and Ann Myers for inviting me!

The article talks about my work with students in the RISD undergraduate program and RISD Project Open Door.  Working in such contrasting programs (one a degree program, one a free community outreach program) has led me to believe that the vast majority of the time, art education is a simple matter of access.  In my opinion, it shouldn’t be that way, which is why Art Prof is an important initiative towards equalizing access to high quality arts education.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Experiments, Glitches, and Learning Curves

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I know that some of you tuned into yesterday morning, hoping to see my charcoal drawing demo that we had initially planned to stream on our Twitch channel.  I prepared everything for the shoot well in advance with my usual anal retentiveness, did a rehearsal of all the software, equipment, etc. three times through in advance of the stream and felt confident that everything would be fine.  The studio we were in was the same studio used when we shot the prototype videos, so it was a familiar space. The plan was to stream the drawing demo through 3 smart phones, which would allow 1 camera that was aimed toward my face, one camera on the drawing, and one camera on the model. (see image above)

Yesterday’s shoot was one gigantic experiment, and was a totally different format than when we used only 1 camera for the videos in our finished prototype, which we shot way back in October 2015. Below is a tiny slice from one of our videos in the prototype.


I had Olivia, one of the ART PROF interns on hand to help with the shoot, with Marianna as the artist model.  My partner Tom Lerra was there as well to help oversee the shoot. We got into the studio, set up a scary number of extension cords hooked up to multiple tripods, stands, fiddled with lights and backdrops, wrapped gaffer’s tape to get every phone positioned, for at least 1 hour.

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The simplest way to explain our set up (because it was anything but simple)  is that the 3 smart phones have to connect to a laptop through the Internet-and that’s when all of our problems started. We were on the guest wi-fi network, which we discovered after setting everything up had a firewall which prevented the set up from working properly. We tried the employee network, which didn’t work either.  Tom volunteered the network on his iPhone which eventually worked. This was at least 1 hour of troubleshooting with us frantically re-configuring everything, Tom scrounging for phone chargers, and other desperate measures.

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Once everything was finally up and running, we discovered, after many attempts that even the network on Tom’s iPhone wasn’t strong enough, and the streams that we did get onto Twitch were breaking up and going offline without us knowing.  We kept at this for about another 2 hours, with a lot of panicked phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages to my husband Alex Hart, who probably has logged more uncredited work hours than any person in history because of ART PROF. (he’s getting public acknowledgement today for the first time since ART PROF started in September 2014)

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Eventually, we decided that we couldn’t waste any more time trying to fruitlessly do Twitch, have it never work out, and then leave the studio empty handed.  So we ditched the Twitch stream, and decided to just record the video, which we knew would guarantee that we would leave with video footage which could be posted on our Youtube channel later. At that point I had probably done the first few parts of the demo at least 5 times, and we had to start all over from the very beginning to record the video. I’m all for risk taking, but when the risk is so incredibly that high that you’ll end up with nothing, the route than guarantees something (as opposed to nothing) is the way to go.

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Yes, about 10 billion things went wrong yesterday, and as much as I wanted to tear my hair out every second of that 7 hour long shoot, I kind of found it super exciting at the same time. I was kind of a wreck afterwards, but we did come out of the studio with over 60 minutes of footage, with the demo from beginning to end.  And I am so grateful to Tom, Marianna, and Olivia for their resilience, tenacity and unwavering patience through a 7 hour shoot long shoot that was anything but smooth.

Olivia must have saved the day from disastrous consequences at least 12 times yesterday. There were so many tiny details where she would point out “Didn’t you forget about…. Shouldn’t you….?” When you’re on set like that, you need people like that to catch those little details that could make or break your production!

And although I’m bummed that Twitch didn’t work out, and felt horrifically guilty when I found out later that Nikki Murphy-Epsimos had planned on streaming the demo to her middle school art class, I am glad that we had this experience, and that we’ll have the entire demo ready for all of you to watch on our Youtube channel next week. So our sincerest apologies to those who were looking for the stream yesterday, and couldn’t find it!

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Sometimes even the best laid plans don’t work out, but Tom and I saw yesterday as a tremendous learning experience, and both of us were kind in awe that we got the results we did with just 3 smart phones and a laptop. Our creative juices started flowing like crazy, and we realized that there are many, many options for how to extend and stretch ART PROF to last longer if our Kickstarter campaign is successful.

The experiences I’ve had where I felt I learned the most, always tend to be under the most difficult, strenuous circumstances, and yesterday was certainly no exception. ( I don’t know why I can’t have a learning experience while sitting on a beach with a cocktail.)

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With my partner in crime, Tom Lerra from WGBH Boston.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

ART PROF Drawing Demo on Twitch tomorrow!

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First of all, I am overwhelmed with the extraordinary enthusiasm and support that has been pouring in left and right since our Kickstarter campaign went live yesterday! More thoughts on that soon…. because I have another treat for you that can’t wait.

Many of you who sent messages and made comments yesterday told me that you were dying to see what the video tutorials on ART PROF would be like. Well, now you can get a gigantic taste of that in about 18 hours.

Watch the ART PROF Twitch channel tomorrow, June 16, at about 10:00am EST and watch me do a figure drawing demo from beginning to end!

This is the closest thing to being in one of my RISD classes, and will give you a preview of the kind of video tutorials you would see on the ART PROF site if our Kickstarter campaign is successful. You can even post questions during the live stream and I can answer right then and there! You don’t need a Twitch account to watch the stream, but you do need an account if you want to post questions during the stream.

We will have an artist model posing for this demo, so this demo will be divided up into 20 minute segments so that the model can take breaks between poses.

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The drawing demo will focus on the lower section of the face, the neck, and the shoulders. Here is a general outline of techniques and approaches I’ll cover in this demo:

  1. Setting up the Figure
  2. Lighting the figure
  3. Creating a dynamic composition
  4. First round of linear thumbnail sketches
  5. Selecting which thumbnail sketch to use for the final drawing
  6. Second round of tonal thumbnail sketches
  7. Transferring the final thumbnail sketch composition to the final drawing
  8. Drawing with cross-hatching using a charcoal pencil, eraser stick, and vine charcoal.

We’ll announce the start of our Twitch stream via Facebook live video. So, if you like our Facebook page, you’ll get a notification when the Twitch stream begins.

Hope to see you all then!


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.