Three Reasons Why Sketches Are More Useful Artistic References Than Photos When Painting From Life

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The night before I originally wrote this article, I made a painting from life. Or, rather, I saw my reflection in part of a beer bottle and thought that it would make an interesting painting. Since I didn’t have a digital camera or my full art materials with me there and then, I made a quick sketch of it with the nearest pen, pencil and scrap of paper I could find, before turning it into a proper painting a while later.

Here’s a chart showing the sketch and the painting it turned into:

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION] The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th December.

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION] The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th December.

But, you might ask, why should any artist make sketches these days? After all, most people have digital cameras these days. Well, yes, photo references can be fairly useful for painting from life (not to mention that photos are very quick to take too). Likewise, even learning how to memorise images can be a good quick way to “save” something you see in order to paint it a while later.

But, why are good old-fashioned sketches even more useful than photos? Here are three reasons:

1) It forces you to think like an artist: When you take a photo of something, you point a camera (or phone) at it and press a button. When you take a sketch of something, you literally have to work out how to turn it into a drawing there and then.

What this means is that you have to focus on only sketching all of the really important details (this allows you to see the focal points of your painting, and to leave room for artistic licence in your final painting). It also means that you have to work out how to fit everything into your sketch (which helps you to plan things like perspective and composition for your final painting).

Likewise, it also makes you think about the palette that you will be using in your final painting. If you look again at the rough sketch at the beginning of this article, you’ll see that I’ve written down what colour various parts of the painting will be. Having to write down the colours you will use is good practice at recognising realistic colours and it also allows you to simplify your palette if you want to do this too (for example, I only used something like 5-7 watercolour pencils for the final painting).

But, most of all, it gives you some practice for your final painting. It gives you a quick “trial run” that helps you to see if the painting that you’ll make later is as easy to make as you think or whether it’s even worth making at all.

2) It allows you to record things that cameras can’t: The painting that I showed you at the beginning of the article is a perfect example of an image that couldn’t be taken easily with a camera. This is for two reasons – the reflection in the bottle was really small (in real life) and because I didn’t want a photo of myself holding a camera. In addition to this, a camera flash would have messed up the lighting slightly too.

Here’s a totally unscientific mock-up of what the painting would probably look like if I’d used a digital camera to record the image, compared to the painting that is based on a traditional sketch:

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION]

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION]

For things like very fine detail, lighting, poses in reflections etc… sketching from sight will often give you far better results than taking a quick photo often will. Likewise, using a pen and paper to record an image means that you aren’t pointing a camera around – which may not be appropriate in some situations (eg: if you’re in a cinema, a museum, a theatre etc..).

3) It’s a memory aid: A sketch isn’t supposed to be a 100% accurate recording of something that you’ve seen. Instead, it’s meant to be a tool that helps you to memorise something. Although I can’t remember where I read this, I remember reading somewhere that physically writing information down (with a pen or pencil) helps you to remember it a lot better than merely tapping it into a phone or memorising it does.

By physically making a sketch, you create a much clearer and more vivid memory of what you want to paint than you will if you just point a camera at it for two seconds. Whilst you’re making the sketch, you’ll also be focusing on recording the most important parts of what you see, which will also help you to memorise the image too.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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