Is working from real life or a photograph your preference?

I (unashamedly) hold my hands up to share that I love to do both. I believe that from each viewpoint you can learn a lot about the craft of drawing and painting. Both are different. There is a time and place to employ working from a photograph or from reality, both are as valuable as the other.

Seeing that I am intrigued by learning to draw and want to do so as quickly as possible, finding as many different ways to do so is my aim. I’m quite aware that for the purists amongst you guilt may creep in when you work from a photograph. As the debate continues to rage in this new era (where we are seeing a resurgence of people wanting to go back to the basics of drawing) I think it’s important to check in with yourself.

Working from Real Life or a Photograph

What do you ultimately want to achieve when you draw? And how can you do so as accurately as possible?

I’ve ditched the guilt surrounding how I fill my sketchbooks because I am clear that my ultimate aim is to improve as an artist. I’m highly conscious of the process you undergo to become a better artist. And in doing so I’ve become highly a-tuned to the differences and subtleties of the techniques needed to do so which I am now going to be sharing with you!

In this article, therefore, I’ll be expounding upon the virtues of the humble photograph and drawing from real life and how you can approach using each one.

Include both as an important mix of tools to support you improve as an artist. 

Drawing from Real Life

I make drawing from real life a regular habit even if I am stuck indoors. Drawing what you see is a unique skill set to master.

In drawing from real life you are creating your own photograph. 

To be able to draw in real life feels such a massive accomplishment to achieve. 

The whole point of creating what you see, whether in the flesh or via a photograph, is that your unique human viewpoint is transcribed onto the page. Drawing from real life regularly empowers you to see things in a new way. Your eye is far more powerful than a camera is. Don’t underestimate how you respond to the light, how your eyes adjust and develop their own types of exposure to colour as well as in tandem with the other senses such as smell and touch. We have become somewhat obsessed with perfectionism as a culture, and our drawing is no exception. Drawing from real life should come with a warning that perfectionism need be abandoned in favour of developing your creative and unique style.

It’s exceptionally difficult though when you are first starting out to get to grips with drawing from real life. Even more so with the advent of advanced cameras that do a beautiful job in capturing the world around us.

The whole concept of how we see what is in front of us forms the foundational principle of drawing. Get good at that and you will master developing your skills. 

Drawing from real life, however, can throw up a variety of factors.  

Where do you start?

How do you condense a landscape in front of you onto your considerably smaller piece of paper? Or how about a moving figure? Where does your drawing begin and end, or how do you frame it on your page? How do you choose what to focus on in your drawing? After all the natural world around us does not come pre-packaged in a frame. 

In order to start, you have to assess what type of drawing or painting you are producing. This will then impact on what techniques you are likely to use. So, for example, if I am sketching out a busy street scene I know that my drawing style will be loose and fluid and not necessarily as accurate as a still life portrait. Be prepared to use different techniques for the different environments you find yourself in when drawing from real life. This comes with practice and time. 

Likewise you may be creating a still life scene of fruit or flowers with a particular background or lighting sequence. 

This is where I believe a photograph can step in and support you with the development and assessment of some of these techniques. Obviously it does not compare to “plein air” but, nevertheless you can use some of the basics such as layout and the simple lines of the piece to give you some support. I regularly take pictures of what I am drawing “live” right then and there so that I have some context to creating an understanding of how to layout my page. Once I make my markings on the paper I can then swiftly return to the view in front of me.  I use my camera as a viewfinder which was and is a common practice amongst artists to support with context. 

Learn to assess what techniques you are likely to need to use when drawing from real life.


Choose the subject

Take for example these quick sketches by David Gentleman of Hampstead Heath. Small and to the point. Fluid, drawn speedily, yet charming in their rendition.

In his opening chapter of his book “An Artist’s Life in London” which contains a tome of his drawings of street scenes, Gentleman describes how he comes to choose the subject he wants to draw,

“These early years taught me how to to choose a possible subject and then decide on the most interesting point of view, both of which can take a while but waste less time than drawing the wrong thing. Avoiding the most obvious and therefore the most hackneyed subjects sounds sensible, even when they were what first caught your eye, but first impressions matter too and can be the truest and most vivid.”

Drawing in real life is instinctive and “truest and most vivid.” Your brain and eye have to make a decision on what you are going to draw. You are looking through the lens of your own eye and not that of a camera. Vividness too is sometimes far better than accuracy. Drawing in real life forces you to make a multitude of decisions in comparison to the ready taken picture. You work far harder on all levels. Perhaps this is why you feel a glow of satisfaction to have completed a sketch in real life. I know I do.

As you get started, assess the scene if front of you and make some qualifying decisions about what you notice.

Quick thumbnail sketches

Start small if you are new to this and focus on one or two specific details just as Gentleman does in his own sketchbooks.

Start small is you are experienced also. This is where a sketchbook comes in handy to scope out some quick thumbnail ideas of what it is you want to capture in a larger piece. Again, this technique not only warms you up but also gets you assessing what you need if you are spending more time drawing.  

When you employ the thumbnail sketch, you need to work quickly to capture the essence of an object as opposed to the accuracy. This will force your creative style to emerge faster than it would if you were working from a photograph and had all the time in the world to do so.

Remember all I have taught you in my previous blog about setting down the contour line first? 

Get as much of the overarching picture down as possible on your page. By doing so you will naturally start to learn how to set your framework to your drawing when there isn’t a natural one to see. Sizing and gauging will come far quicker when you learn to sketch the overarching outline of your drawing first. You then work from the outside in keeping your eyes for the majority of the time on the object in front of you.

Formatting and layout

This is one of the trickiest things to get right when working from real life. There are no natural borders and edges to your viewpoint. You must create them in your mind’s eye. 

1. It helps to rough out  a border or edge on your paper so that you can at least contain what you draw. 

2. Approach the scene as a whole and draw its entirety out first, a nod again to the contour technique! This will give you an idea of what space you are playing with and where your eye needs to focus. Remember too all the lessons you will have learned from employing the basic principles of drawing!

3. If possible, start your sketch in the middle of your page and break down your pages into 3 sections to support you manage your page so you don’t fall off it. I talk about this technique step by step in my nature sketching article.

This three step process will support you learn about sizing and adapting the view you are drawing from onto your paper.

From there make your decisions about the materials you want to use. I restrict myself to no more than three mediums that I can carry with me easily. Usually my pencil case with pencil, and ink pens, my small watercolour set and a few colouring pencils.


I find it fascinating that I was always so inhibited when I started to draw in real life. Even when I was alone staring at a still life, let alone out in public. Why is this? It almost always stretches into our own perceptions of what being a good artist looks like and our own interpretations of where we ourselves fit on that sliding scale of being good at something.

One cannot underestimate the importance of this factor. How many of us actually produce better drawings from photographs? When you draw in real life your style and approach changes partly because you are less in charge of the elements such as passers by or the weather. 

There is merit in adopting a quick drawing skill when you draw from real life as part of your repertoire. Apart from anything else it enables you to behave like a camera! A quick 5 minutes here or there will quickly start to fill the pages of a sketchbook and see you improve. 

If you’ve never had a go drawing from real life I’d urge you to go try it and over rule your inner critic especially if you are frightened of making mistakes. 

Drawing from a Photograph

Hands up how many people have a phone full of pictures you want to draw “later”? In an age of social media where we are constantly bombarded by images of others drawing or painting it is easy to find oneself a vicarious watcher as opposed to doer. 

We live in an age where the photograph is a throwaway commodity giving us instant access to our repertoire of memories and, in my case, my great intentions to draw every beautiful thing I come across or see! If only I whipped out my sketchbook to at least start the thing I plan to draw later! This could be a great motivator to draw more and complete fattened sketchbooks of daily life. 

Are you a vicarious watcher with your phone, taking pictures with good intentions for later on but then never really realising the intention?  One of the biggest challenges we face whilst learning to draw is that we spend much of our time watching rather than doing, collecting intelligence like magpies with great hopes to work through things later but never doing so. We rather dangerously never get round to doing much of it at all! 

But…I am being rather too negative too soon about the merits of working from a photograph. 

Remember my opening comments at the start of this article? Be clear on where you’d love your drawing journey to take you and use whatever tools and resources you need to get you there. 

Just as you would draw from real life approach working from a photograph with intentionality too. 

Your photograph may serve as a complimentary by product of drawing in real life. For example my floral paintings drawn from real life are supported by a photograph at a later stage. Or you may want to work directly from a photograph.

Running out of time drawing in real life!

The first scenario from which I work from a photograph is when I run out of time drawing in real life. If I was sketching a scene with people for example, I might sketch it quickly, rough out some shapes and then fill in some of the details later. If I want to add an extra layer of watercolour or colour I might also use the photograph to help me scope it out later. 

And then of course no one might be able to predict the weather if you are outside or how much time it may take to process a still life that you need to move. 

Working from a photograph is a great starting point to support you appreciate formatting on your page. You have a natural border around your photograph, and just as you would take a picture that was proportionate and aligned correctly you have a ready made image that you can copy. 

Whereas working from real life you had to contend with many different elements, you have less pressure when working from a photograph. In this instance you may find that you now have the time to focus on working on particular aspects of your picture with greater detail. 

Capturing Movement Accurately. 

This is most definitely a challenging area to draw and a photograph supports the accurate depiction of movement especially of the human figure. This does not mean I don’t attempt this live – but my live drawings are always much more gestural as opposed to technically accurate. When it comes to sketching the human figure, for example, unless you have a set up pose that stays still its incredibly difficult to capture imagery accurately. 

I am finding, for example, with drawing birds in my garden, that as my stroke gets more confident I can draw an outline very quickly – almost one continuous line. You will find that the better you know your subject and the more you practice it the less you will come to rely on taking pictures of it. Your brain will come to associate the movement and lines with familiarity onto the paper. 


When painting a final piece, unless you create a completely static scene in front of you (complete with the adequate lighting), the photograph is pure gold to work from.  Light changes every hour so an element of speed is required in any type of drawing from real life. It is no wonder that the masters used to paint at various times of the day.  Still..a photograph cannot quite accurately capture what light does in real life, but it can give you a great idea of where the tonalities and shadows of your picture lie. 

Stimuli to your imagination

I keep a multitude of Pinterest boards with ideas for images that I want to use. I may choose them for their formatting, colour, or composition ideas.  In my quest to draw everyday and maintain inspiration, flicking through photographs and sketching from them is a great way to maintain a sketching habit. I also use a collection of photographs or images to inspire my ideas and thoughts around themes and what I’d like to focus on drawing that week. (Always remember to be courteous to the artist who took the photograph if you are using the work for commercial purposes. Sometimes it is better to stick to your own photography if you are looking to commercialise it!)

As practice

Many of you that have joined my classes will have also seen me working from photographs as we draw together. Obviously this is partly due to the technical difficulties of drawing live on a camera with larger scale objects or subjects. 

When you have a photograph in front of you how do you approach transcribing it? How do you view it? You can work from a photograph much the same way that you would from real life but you have more opportunity to appreciate the perspective, the shapes and spaces, and proportion within a set framework. I use my photographs to reinforce the basic principles of drawing and take my time to learn from the process of adopting these drawing skills. I wonder whether the same can be said for drawing from real life when we are faced with a different set of creative pressures? 

Use your photograph as a point of learning! 

Practice and practice again. 

Building confidence to draw from real life

I started drawing from a photograph to build my confidence. Practicing from a photograph and spotting similarities between the photo and real life, gave me the confidence to then try it out. There is no doubt that drawing from real life creates a very different effect to drawing from a photograph. However, just to be drawing and practicing and producing art work that you are happy with is important. 

You may find that as you draw more and more and gain confidence you will find that not using a photograph becomes the norm. 

An exercise to try. 

Grab a sketchbook. For the next week I want you to fill your sketchbook with real life drawings. Don’t worry about accuracy. You may want to fill them in quickly with gesture strokes, or you may want to take your time and practice. At the same time take photographs and draw from them noticing your approach to the process. How do you approach drawing from real life and from a photograph? What does each make you feel? Appreciating the challenges that each one throws up for you is a good indicator of the areas in which you can perhaps work on! 

Here are my final words on this subject. Imagine you have a wide spectrum.  Drawing from real life is at one end and working from a photograph at the other.  At each end is the extreme. However, imagine the different variations on that spectrum where blending the photo and real life becomes acceptable in different scenarios depending on you as the artist? 

Each format is as valuable as the other and by embracing each you will be giving yourself the chance to improve as an artist. 

You are then the ultimate decision maker when it comes to deciding which you prefer based on the type of artwork you are looking to produce!