Before the invention of photography, artists always had their subjects as a model for drawing or painting their portraits. This practice is deeply rooted in the tradition of portraiture. Of course, after photography became available, artists’ options for creating portraits expanded. This included the use of photography as the final medium, as well as a tool to help create drawings or paintings without having the model of the subject for the artist in the studio. Today, many artists choose to use a combination of both approaches when taking portraits. There are also artists who use only one way or another for various reasons. Each approach has pros and cons that will be discussed in this article.

Using a live model

Many artists will tell you that this is still the best way to create a portrait. Without a doubt, it carries the greatest weight when it comes to tradition. It has been tested over hundreds of years of practice. And in many ways, I think this is the most rewarding approach. It is highly interactive and the resulting portrait will capture the dynamics of the relationship between the model and the artist. There are some intangible qualities this approach offers that are not possible with a photograph. From a technical point of view, the values ​​will be more precise and the artist will be able to see very subtle differences in the hues and reflections that are sometimes lost in a photograph. Of course, I am not saying that a good photographer cannot maintain these subtleties. However, most average photographs lose those qualities to some degree. Likewise, many smaller details can easily be lost in photographic references. Small details in jewelry, for example, can be seen in person, but may not be distinguishable in a photo. Again, photographers using larger negatives or higher definition digital cameras can get good detail. But, chances are, if you are going to those ends to achieve that level of quality, you should probably use photography as your final medium.

However, there are drawbacks to drawing from a live model. First, it takes a lot more skill to draw from a live model. You are creating a two-dimensional image from a three-dimensional image. With practice, both can be done with equal effort, but for a beginner drawing from photos is an easier way to get started. Additionally, models must remain seated for extended periods. No matter how still the model tries to be, it will eventually change position. The longer they sit, the more drastic those changes will be. A good artist will be able to incorporate those differences into the portrait, but I have seen many novice artists really struggle with moving models. The other drawback of live modeling is the convenience factor. Long periods of time (usually more than once) should be set aside to work on the portrait. These times have to be coordinated between the artist and the model. Practicing this is not usually a big problem, but if you are trying to make a living drawing portraits, it decreases your flexibility with business hours and can become more difficult when you and your client live in different places.

Use photo references

Just as many artists prefer to use only live models, others use photographs only as the basis for their portrait references. The benefits of using photos are directly related to the disadvantages of using a live model. Photos allow the artist to really analyze a person’s face (or figure) without making the subject uncomfortable. While professional figure models can be used for art student classes who stare at them intently for hours at a time, many potential portrait clients may feel a bit uncomfortable with that. However, for the artist to get an accurate interpretation, he must look closely. Photographs also allow the artist to draw the subject without worrying about changes in position. And, of course, it doesn’t require the subject to be present. This can be something important to the subject and / or the artist.

The main drawbacks of using photographic references were listed in the previous section. The most critical problem that I have noticed about artists working only from photographs is that the resulting drawings tend to be very flat and lifeless. This is not always true, and can be overcome by an artist who has also made a lot of drawings from live models. But it’s easy to get too analytical and “rigid” when working with photos. I would not recommend it as your only approach. If you choose to do most of your portraits by photographic reference, I would at least keep up with figure drawing skills in a local figure drawing class with a live model from time to time.

So what is the verdict?

My professional opinion is that portraitists should figure out how to use both techniques to some degree. Nowadays, many artists will organize a session with the model to do some live sketches. They will use the same session to take some reference photos to finish the portrait. This seems to work very well with a lot of people. It allows you to get the best of both ways.

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