• Peter at Start Bay Notebooks

Sketching from Photos - and why it's OK

My manifesto about why it's OK to sketch from photos - with a few things to bear in mind.

Sketching from Start Bay Notebooks

To start with, obviously sketching on location (plein air) is OK too, in fact it's great. But it's not always possible to do this. How often can most people be going to exotic, or even many not so exotic locations? But I want to sketch at night, and in spare time that I can grab, for fun.

Types of Photos

Being really technical, there are basically two types of photos to sketch from; ones that you took yourself and ones that you didn't, and there are a few things to bear in mind with both of these.

Photos You Have Taken

I know it's stating the obvious (but you'd be surprised), if you're taking photos on location to sketch later make sure that the composition is at least reasonably sound. You can add, take away and interpret as much as you want but it is easier when most of what you're sketching is what you see. So think about composition, rule of thirds, not having the vanishing point right in the middle - it is pretty much summed up as it should look interesting, good perspective, focal point and whether it's going to be one or two point perspective.

The good news is with pictures you've taken yourself is that they are going to be at head height, unless you're doing something really strange with the camera. There is going to be an automatic sense of realism because the horizon line is going to be at at the point you were viewing through the camera, as you were standing or, slightly more dramatically sometimes, if you were sitting.

“Sketching from a photo is no less worthy or noble a pursuit than sketching on location.”
Sourced Photos

If the source is good these are likely to be reasonably well composed, or at least you should be able to find ones that are. Think about the same things in terms of composition, perspective and interest - interesting to you is good enough.

Beware of Google Street View

Not that there is anything sinister about it, depending on your views. But if you sketch things from Street View bear in mind the height of the camera - it's on a van and mounted on a sort of platform. So it's not at a natural head height - this is not the angle you would see from as you walked down the street. There can be a sense of detachment from the scene as it can appear that the viewer is somehow floating around about twelve feet off the ground,

These sketches were done from Street View. One is of a patisserie in France (I think) and the other is of a butchers shop in the town where I live. In both cases you feel more like an observer than a participator in the scene because your 'head' height is floating at about twice the height of if we were actually standing there. There is nothing wrong with this if this is an effect you are happy with but it is worth bearing in mind.

The Way to Treat The Sketch

Wherever the photos comes from they are best treated in the same way, and it would be the same as if you were there on location in an ideal world, and taking the same length of time - remember this is a sketch, an impression, not a drawing. Just because you're in studio / factory conditions you don't need to behave like you are; that's not necessarily relaxing, or free.

“I don't use the word 'draw', I only use the word 'sketch'”

A sketch is a sketch and not a drawing, so things can be done with an observational sense of freedom i.e. draw what you see - roughly, follow some basic principals of perspective, plan roughly, sketch with passion and observation.

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