Max Doerner said “it is no more possible to learn to paint from books than to learn to swim on a sofa.” A variation on that could easily be “it is no more possible to learn to draw from photographs than to learn to swim on a sofa.”
That said, I’ve realized in recent years that it can be very helpful to compare a life drawing to a photograph, especially given the ease with which it can be done. Here’s what you need to do it:
- A camera (an iPhone will do);
- A computer (I use a Macbook Air);
- An image editor (I use Adobe Fireworks from CS5, now discontinued; else, Photoshop will work)
Step 1. Take a picture of your drawing, then take a picture of your model, taking care not to get too close in order to avoid an overly distorted image.
Step 2. Import both pictures into the image editor, placing one on top of the other. If they are different sizes, don’t worry.
Step 3. Scale the photo of the model to the drawing (Don’t worry if the model image gets pixelated.) To do this, put the model image on top of the drawing image, set the model image to 50% transparency and increase (or decrease) the size of the image until it more or less coincides with one or more of the principle features; I usually target the eyes and nose.
Step 4. Bring the model image back to 100% transparency and trace paths over the principle lines of the features: the contours of the head, the ears, the shadow around the eyes, the nose, mouth, chin, etc.
Step 5. Turn off the model image and—voilà—you’ll immediately see right away what is right and what isn’t.
One of my students, Stefano, also did a similar analysis, I believe with photoshop:
Conclusion: avoid trying to improve you drawing by working from photographs, but take advantage of technology to help you calibrate your hand/eye coordination. You’ll strengthen your sense of proportional relationships and start to realize things like a short jaw doesn’t mean make it longer, rather the mouth and nose are too low. You’ll also become aware of where you have a tendency to err: I knew before starting the drawing that I tended to make noses too long—and during the drawing I moved it up twice!—but that still wasn’t enough. Now it should be relatively easy to make some fixes… then I’m ready to transfer the drawing and start painting.