Three Ways To Add Some Creativity To Painting From Life


Once you’ve practiced and learnt the basic skills (such as copying from sight and recognising realistic colours), painting from life is one of the easiest ways to create impressive-looking art…. even when you’re feeling uninspired. After all, if you’re painting a still life, then you just literally have to copy what you see in front of yourself.

However, this isn’t to say that there’s no room for creativity when painting from life. In fact, using artistic licence in various ways can make your paintings from life stand out from the crowd. Here are a few ways to do this:

1) Add parts of your art style: If you’ve been making art for a while, then you probably have an idea what your own unique style looks like. If you haven’t, then you’ve got all of this to look forward to when you’ve been influenced and inspired by a suitably large number of different things that you think are “cool” (which will teach you a unique mixture of techniques that will eventually become your own style).

But, the thing to remember about your art style is that it’s more than just “how you draw people”. It’s how you handle lighting and shading. It’s how you use and choose the colours that you add to your art. It’s your preferred level of detail. It’s the general types of art materials that you work best with. It’s a collection of preferences and “rules” that you can apply to any paintings of things in real life that you make.

For example, one of the relatively recent “rules” of my art style is that the surface area of each painting should consist of at least 30-50% black paint. This allows the other colours in the picture to look a lot more vivid by comparison, as well as lending my art a slightly gothic 1980s/90s-style look too. So, when I paint from life, I often tend to find ways to add extra darkness to whatever I’m painting.

For example, in this old still life of mine from 2015, I removed the distant background in order to make the colours in the rest of the picture look bolder.

"Plush Rat And DVDs" By C. A. Brown [2015]

“Plush Rat And DVDs” By C. A. Brown [2015]

Once you have a good understanding of how your art style “works”, then you can apply it’s rules to more realistic paintings from life. Then again, once you’ve found your own style, you’ll probably start doing this instinctively anyway.

2) Instinct is better than perfectionism: Although my occasional paintings from life tend to look better than the paintings from imagination that I make more regularly, they probably aren’t technically “perfect” in every way. But, and this is the important thing to remember – if you want technical “perfection”, then take a photo.

When you’re painting from life, especially if you’re painting a still life, then your main concern should be “how can I make this into an interesting painting?” rather than “how can I represent this accurately?“. In other words, think of your painting from life as a painting that is loosely-based on real life, rather than a “100% accurate” record of what you are seeing.

In other words, don’t be afraid to let your artistic instincts take over. For example, the day before I wrote this article, I’d originally planned to make a quick still life painting of a tortoise figurine. But, when I was looking at it and sketching it, I thought that it would be interesting to also draw my hand holding the tortoise. Before I knew it, I’d made a first-person perspective picture of myself making a still life drawing. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The full-size painting will appear here on the 9th December.

The full-size painting will appear here on the 9th December.

On a purely technical level, this painting probably isn’t quite “right”. The background is deliberately left slightly undetailed in order to place the emphasis on the foreground, the colours in the picture are deliberately bold and unrealistic, the lighting in this picture is very unrealistic, everything in the picture is probably slightly “squashed” vertically (in order to fit more stuff into the picture) etc…

But, again, paintings from life aren’t photographs! They’re art. So, think of your painting as a work of art first and foremost, and don’t be afraid to use all sorts of artistic techniques that might make your picture look less “realistic” or “technically perfect” if you think that this will make your painting look more attention-grabbing, visually-interesting, unique etc…

3) Placement and subject matter: One of the easiest ways to add creativity to paintings from life is simply to choose something interesting to paint. This means either arranging the things you are going to paint in an interesting way (eg: so that it hints at a story of some kind) or being on the lookout for any interesting things that you see.

For example, one of the things that has prompted a couple of paintings from life is seeing my reflection in curved surfaces. Not only does this give me a chance to practice using different types of perspectives, but it’s also a quick and easy way to come up with interesting-looking self-portraits that contain a low level of detail. Although I previewed one of these pictures a few days ago, here’s an older full-size picture based on seeing my reflection in a bottle of nail varnish:

"Self-Portrait In A Bottle Of Nail Varnish" By C. A. Brown [2015/16]

“Self-Portrait In A Bottle Of Nail Varnish” By C. A. Brown [2015/16]

So, yes, choosing what to paint can be as much of a creative decision as choosing how to paint it.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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


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:



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 🙂