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Pros & Cons of Working from Reality

Image: my pencil & charcoal drawing “Portrait of Aloe”

“The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” – Oscar Wilde

Working from reality/observation/life can be a great and growing experience for any artist. What exactly are the benefits? We’ll discuss them here as well as list some possible drawbacks (and how to avoid them). This is the 3rd and final part of a 3 part series about the sources we use as artists. Here are links to the 2 previous ARTicles: Pros & Cons of Working from Photos, and Pros & Cons of Working from Imagination.

By considering the advantages and disadvantages of each source (Photographs, Imagination, and Reality) you’ll be able to choose which one(s) work best for you and your art. Let’s begin with the pros of working from reality.


Zen of Observation. Who of us truly stop and take in the moment by looking at our surroundings? When we work from observation it can feel almost like meditation. We need to be in that sensory moment. Also, we’re aware of the passage of time; when working from life you’re almost always racing against it. As the roses bloom and fade, your sitter gets sleepy, a storm rolls in, etc. But there’s beauty in the brevity of a moment. If the sunset lasted all day would it be so exquisite?

Tell a Story. The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. But is it true? A face might look neutral in a photo, but speaking with someone who I’m drawing, I realize their humor and a twinkle in their eye. I can insert that personality and capture the real-them better than film ever will. Can you draw moods, scents, sounds? I’m not sure, but I sure enjoy trying!

“Fruits like having their portrait painted. They seem to sit there and ask your forgiveness for fading. … They come with all their scents, they speak of the fields they have left, the rain which has nourished them, the daybreaks they have seen.” – Paul Cezanne

Life in HD. Photos never do a person, place or thing justice; they simplify shadows and colors. Studies suggest that we’re not capable of seeing what we’re not aware of. An example, the Himba tribe in Namibia have no word for blue. Researcher Jules Davidoff tested the tribe to see if they could pick out the 1 blue patch among green. They couldn’t. Jules then tested to see if they could spot the 1 green that was slightly different than the other identical green patches. They did it easily! You see, the Himba tribe has many words differentiating green hues, thus making them able to spot subtle nuances. When you’re an artist who deals with color you SEE more colors because you’re aware of more.  Isn’t that awesome? Artists see reality more vividly! So why not take advantage of that by working from reality?

Side Note: If you’re a Drawer who hasn’t dealt with colors yet, consider signing up for Two Day Pastel Workshop with Artist Emil Robinson. Drawing WITH color- best of both worlds!

Fall in love. Have you ever noticed the longer you look at something the more you appreciate it? Your view of beauty expands the more you spend time with a subject. An artist I know once said, “I fall in love with every model I have”. He didn’t mean it in a romantic way per say, rather he meant that he gained an appreciation for their being.  Make a deeper connection. It feels good to find beauty through observation.

Make Memories. When working from photos that are personal to you, you’re remembering. But when you’re working WITH your loved ones in real-time (or when working out in nature) you’re making memories. And you’ll remember them when you look at your finished piece.

3D & Me. I mentioned this in a previous ARTicle– When working from life we use 2 cameras: our eyes. Our eyes interpret a 3-dimensional view into a 2D one, leaving a unique imprint of our view as well as a sense of the fullness of form. When working from photos we lose this style-indicating opportunity.

“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished.” – Mary Oliver


Moving Models. When drawing from photos, there’s no moving. But, there’s also no life. Like I’ve said before, live models are awesome in their humanness. While models make micro-moves (i.e. breathing or shifting weight), my drawing is actually improving its feeling of reality. From your perspective, if it’s a big move they’ve made, try moving your easel left or right to correct it from your end. Happy model = happy drawing.

Model Cost. If you hire models, you know – those costs add up! And the pressure of limited time can actually psych you out of your creative flow. If this is you, consider relieving that pressure by asking family and friends to “freely” sit for you. And you’ll get to spend time with them, making it a win/win situation!

Making Time. Working from life is not always convenient (unlike photos or imagination). It’s actually quite often difficult. You’re operating around schedules beyond your control whether it’s because you’re working outdoors, dealing with your model’s availability, or flowers that die too quickly. Think of it as a sprint; you’ll get faster and stronger the more you do them.

“All observational painters edit to some degree, even if they do so unknowingly. … The visual world has so many surprises that when I‘ve tried to work from imagination, the results look programmatic and unimaginative.” – Dik F. Liu

Information Overload. I personally get this any time I’m painting outdoors. There are just so many subjects to choose from! Photos simplify; same with imagination. But the beauty of working from reality is that YOU get to choose what info to leave out and what to keep. You have complete creative control. Have you ever tried an artist viewfinder to help you find your composition? You can use it indoors or out, with a model, a still life or landscape. It can also be used to find tones or color. Here’s a link to a simple one.

Human Camera. There’s a temptation to be a “human camera”, to simply copy reality to a “t” and not take any artistic license. Painting the same scene in Central Park with a good friend, I looked over at her canvas and realized she made red umbrellas instead of green. I had captured the umbrellas as they were, unquestioning of whether it made an uninteresting painting (which it did- they were visually lost to the surrounding trees). Don’t be bound by reality. Make reality yield to your designs, and our paintings will tell a better story for it.

One for one. Just because you’re working from reality, don’t think you’re confined to the realism genre. Translate the real world you see around you to impressionism or another style. Have fun!

“The only merit I have is to have painted directly from nature with the aim of conveying my impressions in front of the most fugitive effects.” – Claude Monet

SUMMARY: The different sources (reality, imagination, photographs) are simply artistic tools on our toolbelt. Sometimes you need a wrench and a hammer just won’t do. I think the strongest artists have a vision and then use whatever means they have to achieve it. Work from observation (reality) and partner it with your dreams and vision (imagination), and when necessary, use photo references. Simple as that!

What are the sources you enjoy using the most? I would love to know! Please leave a comment below.

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  1. Loved reading this. So interesting about the tribe who could not identify blue but could all the different hues of green. Keep them coming.