Drawing from (Paused) Life

Sometimes there's really no option but to draw from still images.  Say you want to learn to draw a hippopotamus.  You go to the zoo, but both of the hippopotami are laying head-first in their little cave so you can only see their rear ends (true story).  Then you try to draw the mountain goats, but small children notice you sitting very still in a prime viewing spot and mistake you for a stepladder (also a true story).  Or, you've had a long work day (or any sort of work day) and aren't willing to get off your couch for love or money... but you wouldn't mind sketching, if only there was something to draw that didn't remind you that the living room needs tidying. This brings me to my dirty little secret: I love sketching from television stills.

I don't want to recommend it in general. It really is ABSOLUTELY better to draw from life than from a 2D image!  Reasons are many, skip this if you're already with me:

  1. In life, you have to look at the chaotic real world and make a choice about what to draw and what to leave out.  This is not easy. With photos the choice has been made for you, an important part of your job as an artist completed on your behalf by the photographer.  The real world is a madhouse of sensory information, and you have to project a little bit of sense into it by way of your vision and your pen.  Much of your character as an artist will come from what you choose to leave out, and the best way to practice this is to draw from life.
  2. It's harder to figure out the shape of things when you can't use your depth perception and can't look from another position to figure out exactly how bulbous is the end of that person's nose.
  3. Without the time limitations or impatience that you have when drawing from life, you can be very leisurely about copying every little detail - which leads some of us to create busy, overworked drawings that focus intensely on surface detail and basically miss the spirit of the subject. For this reason, Matthew Brehm goes so far as to recommend always standing when sketching quick landscapes.
  4. It's uniquely rewarding to document your own life and surroundings and city through your own frames and viewpoints, instead of documenting someone else's.  Love the one you're with, right?

So, don't sketch from photos.

Unless it's all you have... or you're not willing to leave the couch.

OK.  That said, some images are better than others as sketch material.  You'll be able to understand the 3D shape of a thing better if the lighting in the photo creates areas of light, shade, and reflected light. For instance, here are screenshots from New Amsterdam, Doc Martin, and Sherlock, respectively...

There's a primary light source illuminating one side of the face, then there's shadow, then another, weaker light source (or reflected light) illuminating the shadowed side. Note how you can see where the cheekbones are, where the skin folds, how large the nose should be, in all these photos.  It's a long shot from the kind of detail available to you when drawing from life, but you can see enough to make some choices about what to include. For the first image, you probably wouldn't copy a bright white highlight onto the darker side of his face as is shown in the still shot, but you would know where to place lines to indicate the bottom of his eye socket and the side of his face and the roundness of the cheekbone.

Dramatic shows (rather than sitcoms, particularly) are not only most likely to provide good lighting, as a bonus they're more likely to give you close ups.

Now, compare those images with these, which have unclear lightsources (New Amsterdam,  Sherlock, and Black Books, respectively):

Without the three clear levels of lighting, these images don't communicate as much - and unless you're already a real pro, a sketch based on them would be a little more likely to look cartoonish, with features pasted on a shapeless plain of a face.

Besides lighting, you can also look for still shots that reveal form through overlapping.  This photo of a water buffalo gives you some ideas about the spherical shapes that make up its bulk, and you can see those shapes passing in front of each other: the folds of the neck are in front of the bulk of the shoulder area, the barrel portion overlaps the hip area, and so on, providing the kinds of clues that Hokusai was paying attention to in his famous animal study.

Water Buffalo

(Hokusai image courtesy of  Jane Rosen's UC Berkeley course lesson "Turning Circles".  Jane was my figure drawing instructor in the late '90s and I was very lucky to learn from her.)

Contrast that image with this one which, while fine as a photo, would not be quite as good to sketch from - you can't see the form and would end up sketching an outline, not really understanding the shape of the animal, and not learning as much in the process.

Water Buffalo at Lake Nakuru

Although the face on that guy to the right is just hilarious.

So, back to TV.  Sketching during TV watching is easiest if you're rewatching an old favorite - otherwise you can get swept away in the action and won't notice the great shots that need to be sketched.  Shows that include exciting locations or costuming can spice things up as well. Pillars of the Earth has great lighting, great faces, gorgeous buildings, and lots of wonderful cowls and other draped clothing to sketch.  BBC miniseries North & South has similar benefits, with more top hats but not so many cowls. Oh and if you want to sketch ears - Doc Martin should fit the bill, Martin Clunes has ears to spare. The X-Files is good sometimes, but often the faces are disappearing into shadow (not to mention, covered in beetles or green slime or whatever). All of these show are available on Netflix instant viewing.

Here are a few of my sketches from TV and movies recently.  Sometimes I get into more detail, but often I keep it very gestural in order to get back to watching.  Even if I don't draw those three different values as described above, the information revealed by lighting helps me figure out a person's face in order to sketch it.  Left to Right: Pillars of the Earth, BBC miniseries North & South (not the American Civil War drama), Doctor Who, Destry Rides Again, North & South, His Girl Friday.

Yes, it's better to draw from life.  But if you are going to draw from images, whether a TV shot or a photograph, you can take steps to make it worth your time.  A photo might say a lot about the physical structure of a face (or animal, or posture, or building, or street scene) - or it might just provide flat outlines of the basic features.  If you can recognize the difference, you can get the most out of your drawing practice even when you can't manage to get out and draw from life.