Drawing From Photographs

More than 5,300 artists entered one, two, or three works of art in the contest sponsored by American Artist and Utrecht art supplies, and I was one of the three judges that selected the award winners. It was both a challenging and rewarding experience, and I discovered some incredibly talented artists to profile in upcoming issues of our magazines.

Winter Glow
by Neal Hughes, oil, 16 x 20. Private collection.
This painting was selected as "Best of Show" in
the Utrecht 60th Anniversary Art Competition.

While marking the contest entries on a scale from 1 to 10, I did take note of the great number of drawings created from photographs. How do I know the artists worked from photographs? There are three telltale signs. First, there is usually a stiff, mechanical look to artwork that is slavishly copied from a photograph. That’s because the artists feel obligated to draw every line exactly as it is in the snapshot. Second, the drawings lack subtle midtone values because photographs tend to exaggerate the contrast between lights and darks—soft grays either turn to bright white or deepen to become part of dark shadows. Third, the drawings are overloaded with details that distract attention from the center of interest. That’s because when painting from a photograph, we feel obligated to draw every tooth on that smiling face and every tree in the background.

So what can artists do when they are forced to work from photographs because they can’t hire models or travel to picturesque locations? The answer is for artists to recognize the problems that can come from drawing everything the camera records and to approach the creative process as if they were looking at the real subject. We aren’t likely to count all the teeth when a live model poses for us, and we don’t see every branch on the tree when we are outside drawing. Those are some of the recommendations included in a free article you can download from our website simply by joining our community of artists: www.artistdaily.com. This free, downloadable article is the first in an informative series offering advice, lists of materials, special techniques, solutions to common problems, and recommendations for making significant progress. You won’t want to miss all this valuable, free content, so sign up today!

Download Free Article:  Draw People from Photographs

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

One thought on “Drawing From Photographs

  1. Hi! Those 3 telltale signs sound more like just 2; drawing too literally from a photo reference seems to be at the root of signs 1 and 3. I have to disagree, however, that this is a problem exclusive to those artists using photo references, and is prevented by painting or drawing ‘from life.’ I’ve seen *plenty* of studio work involving both human models and still life set-ups that are absolutely plagued by the exact same problems! Much too rigid, and WAY too fussy, unnecessary detail. Plein air painting seems to be much less afflicted with these overpainting or overdrawing problems. The issue of untrue shadows is probably one that I can see as a photo-related problem, but in the historical past, deep shadowing in art was admired and called ‘chiaroscuro,’ right? At any rate, photos are not a problem if they’re used with discretion and intelligence. And painting from life does not guarantee a problem-free result.