Drawing from life is a nice way to live.
Some thoughts about meditating with a pen in your hand and the world for a head. 🌏✒️🧠
I have been really feeling the lack of drawing from life in my artistic process recently. I didn't appreciate the cognitive pleasure brought from working on observational drawing and painting while I was in art school – like most experiences at that time, I think the insane pressure of being in art school kind of got in the way of enjoying that in the moment. I always liked it, but in hindsight I appreciate how it was a process for grounding the mind and being present in a way I don’t dedicate as much time to now.
There's something interesting about observational drawing as a form of mindfulness. It's not the same thing as straight-up meditation, where the object of focus is your own experience. It feels like a more active kind of work, but it has a similar level of grounding that I find extremely enjoyable. When I'm deeply involved in working from life, everything else sort of falls away. It becomes an experience of deep study and ever-unfolding layers of complexity.
I'm not sure if it's the same thing as the famous "flow" state, though. It isn't as mindless, where your brain switches off and you’re completely caught up in the work – it's like a kind of intellectual flow, if anything.
When you’re deep into observational art, I think you are very close to recognizing your place as a sensory receiver in the universe. You start to think about how your organs (your eyes, nerves, brain) manipulate the world into something you can perceive. In that process, the mechanics of the perception become part of that observation, too. I find myself both thinking about the structure and form of the thing I’m looking at, as well as the way it’s being absorbed by my eyes as an image – I have a feeling that I become part of the picture, in that way.
There's a pretty famous book (that I, admittedly, have not read but have only heard lots of other people discuss) by a guy named Douglas Harding called On Having No Head. The high-level understanding I have of the book is that he brings up the idea that, when you are being truly present and mindful, your awareness of your head disappears from your perception of the world. In a way, you become one with the perception of experience, and so the world replaces your head - you identify with everything you're experiencing rather than seeing it from behind your eyes. It is in deep observational drawing or painting that I feel something closest to that. I feel the barrier between the world and myself become the thinnest as I examine that boundary and find it actually isn't there. It's pretty far out, man.
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I've been trying to do more observational drawing when I have space for it – the luxury of having multiple hours-long classes a week dedicated to it is hard to emulate in my post-art-school life, but I had a lot of fun pulling out a small notebook on a recent trip to France to try to capture small moments or interesting features in a much slower and more engaging way than just taking a picture on my phone.
The other piece of observational drawing, of course, is the drawing (or painting or sculpting, etc). And that's where I think a lot of people stop: the work feels very technical and academic if you think of it purely as trying to be a human camera - maybe Vermeer liked the idea of reproducing the world one microscopic point at a time, but I find great pleasure in finding a way to capture reality a bit more intuitively.
Recently, at a show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, I was really amazed by the drawings by artist Gao Jie, who really amazingly created these scenes full of energy and emotion with an incredibly reserved use of line (here's a bit more about the drawings featured in the AGH show). This piece (pictured below, secretly taken as a stealth art-crime on my phone at the AGH) in particular really captured me with the way the entire field of grass feels full while the page is actually left mostly empty. It's that kind of use of media that I find really inspiring and try to capture when I work from life, too. Immediacy and control of your tools that captures a moment in time (and the artist's presence at that moment, too).
I saw a video on TikTok of someone sharing the process of painting a portrait in oils with a model from life. It was really exciting just to see some of that work happening, even though I wasn’t doing it. I have really fond emotional memories of the satisfying feeling of that work.
The end of the video had the creator acknowledge a common question from viewers: "why don't you just use a photo?" And, honestly, I was really let down by the answer they gave. I don't remember it exactly, but their answer was something along the lines of "I just find I capture that life-like feeling better when working from life. But don't get me wrong, I work from photos a lot, too."
I don't want to be negative about someone's process – that's why I'm not linking to that TikTok, (if I could even find it again). I understand what they were saying and I think we're all entitled to our own understanding of how we work and why we work the way we do. I just think it was kind of shallow, and a missed-opportunity to explain the subjective experience of an artistic process to someone who is showing an interest in your motivations. It feels dismissive to your own work to say "oh I just kinda find it makes it better when I do it this way." Your practice deserves a bit more reverence than that.
So here's what I would have said:
There are two main reasons I prefer drawing and painting from life compared to from photography. The first is technical, and the second is personal.
The technical reason is because, as an artist, when I'm working from life (in the context of an observational study, rather than an interpretive, expressive context) I'm really acting as a translator of dimensions. I'm taking the three-dimensional world outside of my head, and using my eyes, brain and body to convert that three-dimensional experience into a two-dimensional representation on a medium (paper, canvas, wood, etc). In the context of working from photography, the translation has already happened – the three-dimensional world was captured as light through a lens and onto film or a digital sensor – and so my role as a translator becomes less direct. It's like a game of telephone. And my role in that game is as a middle-man – it diminishes my voice in the process. In a way, I’m always drawing from life and when I draw using photos, I’m just drawing a photo sitting in front of me, rather than the subject of the photo.
The personal reason is that the process of translation is deeply satisfying. It forces me to study all aspects of the three-dimensional subject and make decisions about how to represent the form in a way that is true to the experience I’m having. It’s complex, and I can never do it perfectly. Working from a photo robs you of that work, in a way. The more “life-like” quality of the finished product is, I think, less about the subject and more about the artist – I engage more deeply with the subject when working from life because no decisions about the translation have been made for me yet. I'm forced to go deeper, making the work more challenging and also more satisfying. The result seems more “alive” because I’m enjoying the work more – it has more of my life in it.
I used to really want to be a robot. I wouldn't have worded it that way at the time, but my feelings, thoughts, anxieties, beliefs and dreams all felt very intrusive. They were like a distraction from my goal of achieving perfect routine and unbridled productivity.
I find the pursuit of a more efficient means of recreating images to be a bit like that – it used to really frustrate me that I would fail to reproduce a subject as accurately as a camera. I could see the way something was supposed to look in front of me, but I didn’t understand why it looked that way, and struggled to bring the form into my work.
But now I really enjoy that puzzle. I love how I'll never get it right. I love the way that working from life reveals things about myself — how I think and observe. I love how it gets me out my head, and fills my mind with the world around me. I love how, in the drawing, the world is revealed to be full of me, too.
Drawing from life is a nice way to live! It reminds me that I'm part of the picture, too.
Hope you have a beautiful day! If you get bored, maybe make something that reminds you that you’re part of the world, too. 🍄
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P.S. Links & Things
I want to add a quick note that didn’t really fit nicely into my ideas above to say that using photo reference is amazing and wonderful. Photography itself is an art and one that I find really affecting. I don’t think gate-keeping the ways people can do “real” art is productive or of any real value – that’s never my goal. Photography lets us capture impossible moments in time, freeze people and make them immortal, and explore scales that break our vantage point as monkeys on earth to become as small as ants or as giant as a dragon flying overhead. It’s amazing! The thoughts above aren’t against photography as an art or as a tool – they’re about why I like drawing from life. 🥰
My most recent post on Robot Fan Club received a lot of really amazing feedback. Thank you! ♥️
It was really nice to hear how much people connected with the ideas I shared there. If you read this post today and thought that what I was discussing didn't include you — that you can't engage in observational art or studies because you "aren't creative" — I'd recommend giving that a read. You should definitely put some time aside for yourself and try drawing something outside your window, or your dog, or your reflection. I truly believe that it's incredibly good for you.
If you like little drawings done from life, I recommend checking out the work of. There are some incredible moments captured in beautifully small drawings in his newsletter, and a real sensitivity to special moments. I particularly liked reading about what it's like to be a fly on the wall, drawing at events like a wedding.
This is mostly unrelated to today's writing (other than that art is related to everything, man 🤯), but I really highly recommend this video from musician Benn Jordan about his idea for a hypothetical "Media Tax" that could, in theory, abolish copyright while paying artists more for their work and making cultural works a publicly available good for all - like public school or road infrastructure. It's a bit utopian feeling, sure, but I've been thinking more and more about how copyright and IP law is really just a tool to let corporations hoard money and cultural value created by artists, and ideas like this point to an interesting, positive way out of this mess. I like the spirit of it.