Why Drawing From Life (and Studying “Realism”) is Important

Recently on this site’s Facebook page, an artist named Tony asked about why it was important to draw from life, since what he’s doing is cartooning (drawing in his own stylized way). I explained as best I could, but wanted to expound a bit on the subject.

Art students are often told to “draw from life” (as opposed to drawing from photos, or your imagination) because our art should, even if it’s highly stylized, emulate life. You can’t make a convincing “cartoon hand” if you don’t know what a real one looks like. Your stylized, artistically modified drawings look more convincing (even if they are not remotely “realistic” anymore) when you understand what you’re stylizing.

First, the “drawing from life” part. (As contrasted with drawing from photos.)

“Portrait of Girl, from Life” sketched in about 20-30 minutes.

I drew a lot of portraits from photos, starting when I was a young teenager. I’d draw my favorite actors and actresses. (Like a lot of kids do.) That meant drawing from photos. I became pretty good at it, for my age. I occasionally drew from life (my friends would pose for me) but not nearly as much as from photos.

When I first took a Life Drawing class (drawing the figure) in college, it was extremely difficult at first. A serious adjustment, and a grave blow to my ego at the beginning! I had always assumed that I drew pretty well, because I was doing a decent job of it with photos. But I still had a long way to go in developing my drawing skills. 

Copying a 2-D thing (photo) into another 2-D thing (your drawing) is a far cry from looking at a 3-D person and converting that to 2-D. Plus, 3-D “life” is different than photos—photos change color a little bit, flatten tone, and sometimes warp perspective. (Ever see how much distortion a fish-eye lens does? Well, all cameras distort a little bit—just not as noticeably as the fish-eye lens.)

Adapting to drawing from life is a good thing and increases your skill and helps you understand what you are drawing, as it’s right there in front of you (not just some shadows and shapes in a photo). In addition, drawing from life, where you have some pressure on you to finish the drawing before the model starts to move, that helps you increase your drawing speed and become more decisive in how you draw. (Note that the little portrait sketch I did above was done in 20-30 minutes.)

I’m not saying that copying photos is bad. I still do plenty of it myself. It’s just not a good idea to only copy photos.


Why you should draw from life and “reality” (realism) even if what you want to do is cartoons.

Does anyone doubt that artists like Bill Watterson and Ryoichi Ikegami both know how to draw realistically, and very well? Let’s look at some of their artworks:

Artwork from Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes”
Artwork by Ryoichi Ikegami

The Bill Watterson artwork shows a more realistic approach to the background (the tree trunk, grass, stream). He also has obviously studied perspective, understands balance in the figures and gesture (their poses look fluid and not stiff). Clearly this guy is extremely proficient and comfortable with “realism,” even though his art style here is not realism.


Ryoichi Ikegami, probably my favorite manga artist (I confess I’m not a huge manga fan), has a style that is closer to “realism” but still, he’s not rigidly realistic either. In his work we see an immense knowledge of anatomy, structure, human expressions, and things like perspective in landscapes and cityscapes. (The same understanding is in Watterson’s work.) My own proficiency in perspective is mediocre, so these guys have all of my admiration and respect!

We return to the fact that these guys (and I daresay many of the artists we admire and look up to) undoubtedly studied from life as well as “realism,” even if they ended up being known for a less-than-realistic style.

One thought on “Why Drawing From Life (and Studying “Realism”) is Important”

  1. The fact is that even in human eyes distortion is present. There are moment (especially in the darkness) where I notice that. When there is few light, I can see with the same quality both things that are in the center of my eyes and things that are in the corner of my eyes. Things that are in the corner part look distorted

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