Saturday, July 11, 2020

Why Draw from Life?

domi_digital asks: "I need to get something cleared up. What is the biggest reason that pro artists tell me to draw from life? My opinion is, it's to get a sense for 3d space, and therefore placement of objects in that space. I've drawn from life before, but as a beginner it was really overwhelming. I drew still objects, but I can't even imagine how hard it is to draw a moving subject."

Answer: Yes, you're right. Translating 3D space to a 2D piece of paper is a cognitive skill that you develop while drawing from life. Does that skill make you better at creating a sense of solid 3D form or a feeling of depth when you draw from your imagination? I don't know, but I suspect it does. 

Also, as you suggest, when you draw a moving object, you develop your speed of execution. You'll be able to paint a picture in a fraction of the time it would take you in the studio. 

But drawing from life is more than a method of developing your skills. It builds your visual vocabulary. It puts you in direct contact with visual effects that cameras can't see. 

There's no filter. There's nothing between you and the subject: no lens, no film, no sensor, no distortion, no picture frame, no style guide, no color picker, no caption, and best of all, no words. As long as you're looking at photos or other people's art, you remain in the cave looking at shadows on the wall

Drawing by A. Menzel, 1902 
Profile study of a man with
sketching block and pencils
Drawings done from life by artists from centuries ago somehow transcend the stylistic mould of their times. 

Finally, it's a powerful experience on its own terms that makes you feel more alive and connected. When you draw or paint from life, you become very aware that everything is moving and changing: the sunlight moves, flowers fade, and the tide comes in. It's always a good thing to get in touch with the dynamic universe.


Gary said...

Hi James--I suspect that's part of the impetus behind the plein air movement these days: confront the subject, build visual vocabulary and practice practice practice. Good motto.

Garrett said...

Great post!

I would add that drawing from life also expands the possibilities for representational expression. Cameras are just one way of seeing, and while they can be a great tool for an artist in the right situation, they can be incredibly limiting for a beginner.. The danger is that the young artist will begin to rely on the camera even as it introduces all kinds of arbitrary distortions via lenses, cropping, depth of field, motion-blur, freezing time.. Many people today just accept photos as "reality" even though they capture the world in ways that would never be possible with the human eye.

So even though photography expands the artist's toolkit with those novel features, it would be a shame to lose other forms of representing the world in the process.. Line art, mannerism, abbreviation, abstraction, the dilation of time... these are all beautiful artifacts of using the human instrument.. Students should definitely learn to use their own senses to interpret the world, because the photo is only one way of seeing!