This week I taught a class that was all about figure drawing. Only one of the students was used to drawing from life, so I thought I would ask everyone to try working from photographs, as that’s what we all usually resort to these days – there is so much reference on the internet, compared with the bad old days when artists had to make sketches on the spot or rely on engravings by other artists. However, it’s actually harder to draw from a photo than you might at first think.
First of all, you have to find the right reference. The internet is full of action poses for super hero stories, erotic images, or actors pouting provocatively at the camera, while it’s difficult to find ordinary subjects like these two examples. We rarely take photos of people going about their daily lives, and if we do it feels furtive to snap someone without drawing attention to the fact that you are photographing them. Yet the casual snap is often a great source of natural poses and interesting characters, compared with a carefully arranged studio photo.
Secondly, the lighting is paramount. I came across a good summary of what artists are looking for in a photo at Fresh Designer. He gives the perfect example of a ‘useful’ photo:
“This image is a perfect example of good reference. It has all the hallmarks: single, dominant light source (1); clear light and shadow shapes (2); and a clear and distinct border between light and shadow (3). Original photo by G_S_H.”
But suppose you just want to draw a clothed figure? Do you have to draw a nude one and then add clothes? It’s very useful to study the nude form, and as Fresh Designer says himself, there’s no better way of doing that than to go to a life class. However, some people would just like to put a few convincing looking figures into their paintings, without going to all the trouble of studying anatomy – just yet. It should be easy enough to copy one of the figures in the first photo, shouldn’t it? I thought it would be easy enough for my students.
Following a tried and tested method, I suggested that they try tracing the figure, then simplifying the tracing to a basic shape. That was supposed to help them understand what was going on. But it didn’t. The more they tried to simplify the photo, the less information that photo seemed to supply. Their simplified drawings started to get way out of proportion, and they found themselves going back to copying the photo bit by bit, in the same manner as a tracing.
I suggested that a back view might be easier.
This was indeed easier, but one student was finding it really hard to understand what the lady’s left foot was doing. I realised that a photo just doesn’t give you the stereoscopic view that drawing from life always provides: if you can’t see the whole foot by moving your head or body slightly, it’s very difficult to fully grasp what’s going on. So I grabbed my handbag and posed for the group, hoping it would help.
Not only was it helpful, but everyone suddenly brightened up. To my surprise, they all declared that drawing from life was suddenly easy – and much more enjoyable than drawing from photos! At last they could really see what the pose was all about. And they are now totally confident about drawing from life.