Draw From Life

Draw From Life


I don’t draw realistic stuff. I need to spend my time figuring out what my style is. I need to spend time getting better at drawing cartoons/manga/original characters/etc. because I want to be an illustrator/animator/painter/etc. Drawing realistic stuff is a waste of my time.

If this is along the lines of what you think when you hear you should draw from life, and you’re serious about wanting to make a career out of your passion, stop for a second and hear me out.

I used to think this way, too. I think a majority of us do. Whether you think it’s fun or boring or necessary or unnecessary for you to draw from life, if you’re planning on going to art school you WILL end up drawing from life. That’s because it IS necessary and it WILL help you draw better cartoons/manga/animations/etc. 

Here is a suggestion: Don’t wait to get to art school to start drawing from life. Actually, whether you plan on going to art school or not, if you want to draw/paint/animate/design better draw from life

You don’t need to pay someone to stand behind you and tell you what to do to start drawing from life. Instructors can suggest ways to approach drawing from life, but the real learning comes from trying and failing and trying again and again. You can also find the same kind of advice you’d get from a life drawing instructor online for free. Just google search a bit. You can start with something like how to draw from life.

All you need to start is a pencil and paper. You can fuss about the type of pencil and the kind of paper you should use and waste time not drawing, but it really doesn’t matter what you use. Seriously, just get a no.2 pencil and a bunch of bond paper and go draw. 

Your first drawings won’t be that great. That’s okay. Just keep at it.

Well, how will drawing realistic stuff help me draw/paint/animate better?

No matter how stylized artworks are, they have to be based in reality in order to be successful. Although you might not mean for your drawing to be realistic in style, if it’s not realistic enough in context, it won’t feel right to others. 

Have you ever heard of the term “suspension of disbelief”? This is a term commonly used when talking about works of fiction. With good fiction, people can momentarily accept the unrealistic parts of a story as real in order to follow it through. For example, we know that dragons don’t exist in real life, but we accept that dragons are real in “How to Train Your Dragon” because the story wouldn’t make sense otherwise. 

This applies to stylized art, too.

Take Mickey Mouse. He is a mouse but he looks and behaves more like a human. Why do we accept that he is a mouse that acts like a human and not a human dressed as a mouse? Suspension of disbelief. 

Suspension of disbelief only goes so far, though. If things are taken too far away from reality, the art doesn’t feel right

If you’re going to stylize something, it has to be done deliberately or it won’t be taken seriously.

Consider this thing:

Now consider this excerpt from Preston Blair’s awesome book “Cartoon Animation”. (a great resource for anyone interested in animation or illustration or character design):

Notice that the hands, although stylized (and purposely missing one finger), still follow basic human anatomy. The gloves also behave like real gloves; folding and stretching with the movement of the hands.

You get the feeling that Preston Blair actually knew how to draw hands, while whoever is responsible for the airbrushed girl didn’t know anything about figure drawing. 

As the artist, you make a deliberate decision on how far away from reality you want to stray. But you can’t push the boundaries without understanding the boundaries first. What I’m getting at is this: It’s not deliberate if you’re using “style” as an excuse to draw something a certain way or to not draw it at all because you don’t actually know how to do it. So:

"Hands are hard, so I just draw mitten hands all the time and call it my style”.

Is an excuse and the mark of an amateur. It’s okay if drawing is just a hobby to you and you don’t care whether you actually know how to draw properly or not. But if you’re serious about your art, stop lying to yourself and start drawing from life. 

Okay. So, how do I get started?

Like I said, the best way to start is just by drawing! If you want some ideas on how to approach drawing from life, do a little bit of searching online. There are tons of resources available to you.

The other thing you need to do is choose what you want to draw. The possibilities are endless.

-If you want to learn to draw hands, draw your non-dominant hand or ask someone to pose their hand for you. 

-If you want to learn to draw buildings, go outside and draw your house.

-If you want to learn to draw objects, set up your own still life at home. Grab some items from around your house, arrange them in an interesting way, put a light on it and draw it. 

-If you want to learn to draw faces, do some self-portraits or ask a friend to sit for you. 

-If you want to learn to paint trees, go to the park and paint there. 

You get where I’m going with this.

You should definitely try to capture the thing in real time, but in situations where that’s not possible, you can always take pictures to use as reference. For example, if you don’t have someone available to pose for you, you can have a friend over for a photo shoot where you take pictures of various poses to draw later or take some pictures of yourself. Pictures can be very helpful, not just for learning, but to use as reference for specific projects. However, let me emphasize again how much better it is to draw from life in real time. You’ll learn at least twice as much as you would from a picture because you’ll be teaching yourself to translate what you see in 3D space into 2D space, while using a picture takes that aspect away completely.


Again, why you should draw from life? Because strong drawing skills will help you become a stronger artist in the long run, regardless of what field you want to go into.

I will definitely revisit and expand on different types of self-teaching through drawing from life in future posts. I will also share some tutorials on ways to go about drawing from life, different materials you can use, etc. In the meantime, there are tons of resources you can find online to learn more about drawing from life to get you started. As always, keep the pressure off so you can focus on learning and remember to have fun!

Create Your Own References

Create Your Own References

Draw/Paint Self-Portraits

Draw/Paint Self-Portraits