On drawing from photos

Drawn from life.
Drawn from a photo.
Can you see the difference in detail, in energy, in understanding of the scene?

Occasionally I make drawings from photographs. If I have an illustration assignment to draw something that I can’t get my hands on or a location that is remote or a human in a particular position or a drawing that needs specific detail, I will resort to photographic reference. If I am cooped up in the house during a cold spell and bored with drawing my environment, I may pull down one of the old yearbooks I collect and draw ancient faces. If I am stuck on the runway with nothing to draw but seat backs, I may flip through the in-flight magazine and be inspired by the pretty pictures. But, always, drawing from photos is a hollow experience. Photos are useful reference for illustration but as a basis for real art and for the sort of meditative drawing that expands my consciousness and creativity, I find it a lot less helpful. Far better, I’d say, to draw a cluttered corner of my desk from a half dozen angles than waste time drawing from photos of celebrities or far-off places or someone else’s kitten or the like. I’d rather draw what I see in front of me.
So what is it about photography that makes for a peculiar kind of drawing experience? I’m going to jot down some thoughts, in some case taking extreme anti-photography positions in order to get a better grip on this phenomenon.
Is photography more accurate or more authentic than a drawing? Does the average snapshot actually capture what the picture taker originally noticed in the scene? Does the camera see as the eye does? Does the viewer look at a photo and see it as one does reality or as one sees a drawing’s depiction of reality? How long can you look at a photo and remain connected? Compare that with the experience of looking at a drawing or painting, particularly one you made.
A photo captures a scene without emphasis or subjectivity — it is a mechanical rendering with no human element in the process. It also captures just a fraction of a second of time. Even if the subject doesn’t move, it lacks the fourth dimension, the influence of time on the scene that comes with looking at reality or art – it is frozen and there fore unreal in a fundamental way. Time does not stop. It is difficult to remain connected as you spend more time looking at the photo than the time represented in the photo; the more disproportionate, the more difficult to remain engaged.
Drawing from photos is really bridging media. Can you imagine drawing from a piece of music or dancing to a painting? I propose that if you did you would not be copying what you see but instead give yourself a lot of latitude in reinterpreting. But when you draw from a photo, do you give yourself that sort of creative license? Great photographers have made many great photographs that are powerful art. I have yet to see a drawing from one that would be considered equally great. Imagine a Diane Arbus or a Steichen or Mappelthorpe rendered in graphite or ink. Ugh.
A camera sees all in one fell swoop – the focus is deep, the whole scene, from 90Ë™ corner to corner is captured with same emphasis. That is not how the human eye, and more importantly, the human brain see. We scan back and forth at a varying rate, observing more or less, capturing more or less detail, depending on our degree of interest in the subject. Even if we observe a photo in this manner we are not having a true viewing experience. That is why drawings done from photos seem to me to have an inherent flatness (which is further exaggerated by the optics of the camera lens) or an unlikely amount of detail in elements that are not inherently interesting. Photorealistic paintings and drawings are immediately recognizable as having been done from projected, traced photos because of a certain eeriness, the quality of their reflective surfaces, the deadness of the scene.
Some people are also concerned about the legal issues in drawing from someone else’s photo. Technically, if the picture has been copyrighted and you draw it, you are making an illegal copy. Obviously most photographers won’t bother to hire lawyers and impound your sketchbooks but it is a consideration. More dangerous to your experience as an artist is the practice of drawing something you have actually never seen. Sealing someone else’s vision may not land you in court but it will arrest your development. Stick to your own experience of the world. If you insist on drawing from photos, take them too. It’s so easy to shoot a digital picture and then pump out a print to draw from that there’s no reason to violate others’ copyrights if you can help it.
Drawing from photos is also easy and faster because the camera has already done the conversion from three to two dimensions. When we draw, we are always selecting between the data provided by one eye or the other, shifting back and forth, picking and choosing. But the camera has just one eye and so it flattens the perspective, seeing just from a single POV. It doesn’t have to choose where one plane intersects another or if a shadow contains variations in light or where one plane sits behind another. All the calculations are worked out for you and you just transfer them form one page to another. Again my brain and my creative-decision-making apparatus are robbed of the pleasure millions of little decisions, the decisions that are mine, decisions that make it art.
Another consideration is that the composition of the picture is dictated by the original photo and photographer, All too often something will look better when the POV is shifted or the picture elements are rearranged. If I don’t really know what my subject looks like, can’t see in to the shadows, don’t understand the surface and the lighting, this is very hard to do effectively. And again someone else’s photo or my own hasty snapshot will not come close to the careful consideration and particular priorities I bring to the subject when I make a drawing. I also think that a drawing is influenced by what’s beyond the frame – the artist’s experience of the scene and the moment, the sounds, the temperature, the smells, the parts not seen within the boundaries of the frame and again, the time that passes in contemplation of the scene, the moving light, the changing world, the way I, my mind, my body are becoming different as I draw and I capture the hundreds of glances that go into careful observation, glances from slightly different vantages as my head shifts, my lungs expand, my heart beats, all these changes add life to my creation. Drawing is life and life is time.
If you are overly committed to drawing from photos, think again, long and hard, about why you are drawing. Is it to impress with the ‘accuracy’ and photographic ‘realness’ of your final image or it to have the drawing experience, the life affirming contemplation that comes from slow and intense observation of some object or creature in your environment. Do you get it from drawing from a photo? Maybe you do. I find it hard. Every time I draw from a photo, I feel like a bit of a cheat. When I’m done, covering the content of the photo, transferring it to the page, and I look back to find more, there is none. It’s done, emptied of content, wrung out. It’s like a tracing. But when I draw from life, I can keep going deeper and deeper puling more and more stuff out, as if I am diving between the molecules, heading to the subatomic realm that unites all things. P.S. For further digestion of what I have written here, check out Jay Savage’s thoughtful analysis on the Digital Photography Weblog. P.P.S. For an amazing photo experience. spend some time here.

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