Drawing from Life: Benefits, Tools, and How to Get Started

Drawing from life is an incredibly rewarding, surprisingly fun practice for any artist, and I hope that others will learn from my experience and do as I say, not as I have done, and NOT wait 18 years into their drawing study to start doing daily drawing-from-life.

Drawing from life is also known as observational drawing, and refers to drawing something that you are looking at, rather than drawing something you’re imagining or “from your head.” Drawing something that’s physically there in front of you is ideal, but even drawing from photo references is excellent practice. There are many reasons why life drawing is such an essential skill and practice to cultivate; here’s a few that have been most obvious to me:

  • You’ll need it later: The ability to draw from reference is essential for any artist. Every artist, even fantasy artists and surrealists, will need at some point to draw something that exists in the real world – and some of those things will NOT be objects that are familiar enough to draw from memory. Could I draw a rhinoceros right now, off the top of my head? No. Probably not. But if I don’t cultivate the art of drawing from reference, I won’t be able to USE that reference effectively.
  • Build your own reference library: Say you eventually need to draw a shoe. Or a pincushion. Or someone’s ponytail in a hairband, in detail. If you can say “Oh, I’ve drawn that before,” it’ll be much easier to do it. But if you’ve never drawn any of those random things before, you’ll be making it up as you go along – which is fine, but it’ll take longer and you’ll be sort of reinventing the wheel in some places. 
  • It teaches you to look: I’ve always believed that art is less about making marks on paper and actually more about learning to look and see what the world really looks like. Making marks on paper is the easy part, believe it or not. Mentally translating what we visually process into an idea of how something actually looks, and then sending that to your fine muscles to draw on paper – that’s the hard part! So drawing from life challenges you to really look, and see what the world actually looks like. It forces you to draw things as they appear and not how you think they appear. It’s actually an intense right-brain exercise that most people never cultivate, including many artists.
  • It increases your visual/artistic vocabulary: I have found that my favorite thing to draw plein air is people on the train. I definitely suffer from “Same Face Syndrome” with my own art, but when I draw people at random, I end up challenged to draw clothing styles, body types, and features that I might never have chosen voluntarily for my own characters. Plus people on the train are usually so wrapped up in their phones that they don’t notice me (thank you 21st century!), so it hasn’t caused any trouble so far.
  • It’s actually pretty fun: I always thought “I don’t want to do drawing from life, that’s where they make you draw a shoe.” But really, once you start looking, there are fascinating people, structures, objects, plants, vehicles, and other things all around us. Visually fascinating, if not interesting otherwise, these unique visions will jump out at you if you just get yourself to start looking with drawing in mind. And it will be fun, I promise you.

What tools do you need? Really, whatever YOU are comfortable drawing with/on. I do recommend self-contained tools like pencils, pens, or markers, rather than paints or inks, because you’ll often be out and about doing this and it can get difficult to manage a whole watercoloring setup when you’re at a bus station trying to draw an interesting architectural structure.  If you’d like to see what I personally bring with me, check out this video tour of my pencil case:

So how to get started with this fun, useful, valuable practice? I want to do a whole YT video on that, but here’s some tips to get you started…

  • Devote a sketchbook to it: If you can afford to, get a small sketchbook (or a cheap one) and use it as your life-drawing sketchbook. I have one that I made myself, a 5×7” hardbound sketchbook with Coptic stitching and 200 pages. If possible, bring that sketchbook with you – EVERYWHERE. You never know when or where you’ll see something that you want to capture in pencil (or charcoal, or whatever you use).
  • Have a daily quota: Say to yourself that you have to fill half a page, or a page, or five pages, or do three individual drawings – but just pick a number and stick to it. I recommend choosing either two to five individual sketches, or one to two pages, to start off with. Challenge yourself to fill that quota either every time you go out plein air sketching, or three times a week, or flat-out every single day – whatever works and will keep you drawing on a regular basis. I actually am just trying to do 200 pages/drawings in the next 8 months, 5×7”, in pencil. But I am sticking to that goal.
  • Have accountability: Post on an Instagram account, or in a Facebook album, whenever you make one of those drawings. My accountability is my Instagram, julian_jaymes, where I
  • Play scavenger hunt: Imagine that there is one really interesting person/object/structure out there for you today. (Believe me, there is at least one that you’ll run into each day.) Go walking around your town, or the next town over, or the woods – whatever you like – and try to find that one thing. If you find something better on the way back, double points!

So get out there and draw what you see! You don’t really have to go anywhere special; just drawing items in your house will definitely still help. But it’s so fun to have adventures out in the world doing art and getting outside your studio on occasion.

I do plan to do videos on plein air/urban sketching/observational drawing in the future, on my YouTube channel, and will definitely post links here when I make those videos. 🙂


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