More on painting & drawing from life

“Matthias, Painted from Life” 8×10″ oil on canvas panel

I thought I’d pontificate a bit more about working (drawing, painting) from life, and express what it’s like (and why it’s important) on an emotional level.

Working from life (having a model sit in front of you) is “harder” (you have to be quicker, you have to transfer the 3-D model to the 2-D canvas or paper). But it’s also more real. There’s a connection with your model and your surroundings that isn’t there when you work from a photo.

You see the model as they are to you, not as what the camera says they are.

I experienced this a while ago, when I was attending an artist’s painting group. We had a model, a young man (not the guy pictured above). I’d never met this fellow before, but he seemed to have “class” to him, a calmness, and a maturity (even though he was probably in his mid-20s). I painted him as I saw him. I also took a few photos so I could add some final touches to the painting later. A few days later, back at the studio, I looked at my reference photos and thought about what I saw that night I painted him. The photo told me things that were so different!


The camera told me that this was a young man with a round, youthful face, with zits! Zits! I didn’t see any zits when I painted him. It wasn’t because they weren’t there—it was because they weren’t important. They weren’t him.

Not only were the details contained in the photo “wrong” (zits!), the colors were different too. They were flattened, less rich, and a lot of the detail in the shadows (and highlights) were lost. Painting from life vs. painting from a photo are two different animals.

My painting of this young man was deemed a success by the model’s loved ones, and they assured me that I’d captured him. Even though, if I were to compare my painting to the photo of the guy, there were a lot of “flaws” and “differences.” But to the people closest to this fellow, my painting was him, far more than the photo. That’s because I brought my perception of this guy into the painting, instead of only relying on the camera to give me “facts.”

I’ve got more (much more!) to share on this topic, but I thought I’d leave it there for now.

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