Using Photos to Inform Your Drawings

Model James Orona

When I was photographing George Towne’s step-by-step demonstration for the December 2009 issue of American Artist, I took 15 minutes to draw James Orona, the model who was posing for George. My Conté crayon sketch turned out not to be an accurate portrait of James, so I took photographs to use in correcting the sketch or developing another drawing. It was at that point I realized that much of what I needed to know about drawing from a photograph was covered in the special premium currently being offered to people who subscribe to the Artist Daily e-newsletter.

Looking at the photographs I took of James made me realize just how misleading a photograph can be in terms of colors, values, composition, and detail. Even though I used an expensive digital camera to take the shots, the skin tones were completely different from what I observed, the sculptural form of his body became flat, and the subtle shadows cast by the light crossing his torso had become harsh. If I hadn’t just spent time looking carefully at the live model, I might have missed all these subtle but important distortions.

The free premium being offered to Artist Daily subscribers explains why these misrepresentations happen and how an artist can compensate for them. The eBook also recommends drawing tools and suggests techniques for drawing hair, eyes, and mouths. You are sure to create better drawings of friends, family members, or clients if you use the information contained in this free publication.

Steve Doherty's drawing of
James Oron.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Using Photos to Inform Your Drawings

  1. Interesting and valuable comparison. I would only say that artists working from life also have to critically evaluate what they’re seeing, and edit, enhance or modify the visual information before them. It is not necessary, nor is it desirable to record everything that is observed, precisely as it is observed.

  2. Thanks Steve for focusing on this particular detail of sketching from photos..I am basically a three-minute sketcher..and for this matter in portraiture, I prefer to do it with Live models than with photographs since there is really a great difference in “visual perception and treatment of space”…specifically, expressions and the essence of that particular moment of a model is more profound when done in actuality..than by mere photograph.

    There is always an essential and significant sketches compared to photographs….actual sketches reveals specific essences…photographs simply documents i guess…

    interesting indeed

  3. On the other hand, a model who knows he or she is being observed will convey a much different ‘essence’ than someone who is photographed unselfconsciously. It really depends on what the artist is interested in and after. Most deliberately posed portraits or figures cannot escape that what is being recorded is a *posed* essence. Sometimes that is desirable, other times not.

  4. As a painter who often focuses on the male figure, I was glad to see this article featuring the work of George Towne. It’s very rare to see an article which focuses on the male figure. It was fascinating to learn how George applies layers of colors and has to wait for them to dry. I could never work that way! Even working with Golden Open acrylics, which take longer to dry than conventional acrylics, is proving a challenge to me!

    Good points were brought up in the article about knowing/not knowing your model which is an issue I always face when painting a portrait. I’m not quite up to Andrew Wyeth’s point of refusing to paint commissions of people I don’t know! 😉

    Like George, it’s typical for me to work with a combination of photos and live posing. It would be impossible to work otherwise, given everyone’s time demands and the prohibitive cost. I don’t know how the old masters did it!

    It was a wonderful experience to become familiar with George’s sensitive yet manly works.

    I wish this article had at least been mentioned on the cover of the magazine. I would have never seen it if not for this blog.