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 
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.
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]
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 🙂