Jeff's Observations on Drawing from Life

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    Jeff's Observations on Drawing from Life

    There have been a lot of good discussions and questions about the "hows" and "whys" of drawing from life recently so I thought I would share my own personal experiences and observations. This thread is inspired by my friend Dpaint's excellent "Drawing from Life Survival Guide" (http://www.conceptart.org/forums/sho...p?t=178075)and I hope it will complement his thoughts. For many this will be familiar, but for others just beginning their journey I hope it provides some insight.

    1: It's hard...
    But, what's harder is not being able to do it. What I mean is yes, it is super frustrating sometimes, very challenging, very humbling, a hassle - all that stuff. But you just have to get through that. Every figurative artist down through history has those same frustrations and humbling experiences in common. Cool to think that if you could sit down with Rembrandt or Sargent at the pub you could trade stories about how agonizing it all is. It gets easier...but still no less humbling.

    2: It is still the best way.
    As challenging and difficult as it is at first, it is still the best way to go about developing your skills as an artist. It's hard to see that at first because the progress is agonizingly slow...but once you begin to see improvement you begin to develop some confidence and at least awareness that you're on the right track. That reinforces itself and pretty soon you're tearing it up...

    3: Why is it the best way?
    When you work from life your entire being, focus, whatever, goes into the process of observation and translation. As the artist you are making all of the decisions, measurements and marks that go into making or translating what you see and feel into two dimensions. That is an entirely different experience from copying an image/photo that has all of those decisions and observations already made for you. It might be like the difference between learning to play the guitar, trying to get that A-minor chord change, twisting your fingers all around in painful ways...practicing that chord over and over - then building it into a progression...as opposed to playing Guitar Hero. Eventually you can work quite well from photo reference - but not until you know what you're doing.

    4: So what is it?
    Drawing from life simply means observing and drawing anything that isn't already translated into two dimensions. So drawing from life includes still life, landscape and architecture sketching, etc. The term "life drawing" refers more specifically to studying the figure - usually the familiar nude in a studio setting, but can include the portrait, drawing animals at the zoo, people in public, etc.

    5: Shift awareness
    Try to shift your awareness to the deeper or more "core" aspects of art and away from just subject. Oddly enough the deeper aspects are also the fundamental principles (at least from a technical point of view - I'm not talking about deeper meaning, allegory, symbology, etc.). If you can learn to see and depict visual fundamentals well from life - then you have the ability to do the same in your more fantastic visions - if yo ucan't do it from life I don't know how you would do it from imagination. Basically if your ideas and visions are important to you then learn how to execute them well.

    6: Fundamentals...what should you be looking for
    These are the fundamentals that I feel are important:
    Composition - this is the foundation of your piece
    Drawing - accurate shape, form, perspective, proportion, angle, curve, etc.
    Value - good value range and pattern with careful observation of form vs cast shadow and reflected light
    Texture - surface quality of the subject or element within the subject
    Edges - what is the quality of the edge you are observing/drawing - is is hard/crisp - soft/fuzzy - high contrast - gentle in transition of form, etc.
    Balance - by this I mean a balance of all the variety of elements you have to work with - one of my mentors called it the "dialog of opposites" - some rich detail here but not everywhere - bold line vs. soft or lost - curve vs. straight, etc.
    Color - but that gets into painting so another time...

    7: Correct drawing
    There is a reason that any time you see a studio class or people painting in the field they are standing at easels (sitting at an easel or drawing bench is ok too - but not quite as good). There are a few reasons this is the best approach: 1) it allows you the freedom of movement to be expressive and to draw from the shoulder; 2) it allows you to step a good distance away from your work to analyze composition, massing, value structure, etc.

    8: Sight Measuring...how to compare and translate
    This is the real key to working from life - sight measuring. It is simple but it isn't discussed much - basically you hold your pencil or a thin stick out at arms length, sight with one eye closed and using your thumb as a mark measure how tall/wide something is in comparison to something else. Translate that same scale information to your drawing. This is how you judge proportion, height, scale, etc. For angles you can hold your pencil in line with the angle (but keep it flat to the picture plane) and just move your hand over to your drawing to get teh right angle.

    9: Still Life practice
    You can really improve by practicing the still life on your own. Set up a small space somewhere that you can set a few objects on - light it with a strong light and try to minimize secondary or ambient light. I like to have students start with one object - draw it for one hour - the next session add one object - draw this for one hour - add a third object - and so on. Still life is fun because you have the most control over it and you can do all kinds of creative things with it - use objects you're interested in or provide a challenge you want to observe. You can practice drapery/folds the same way.

    10: Recommended books and resources
    I recommend these all the time:
    "Drawing Essentials" by Deborah Rockman - best book on observational drawing and not terribly expensive
    "Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes" by Jack Hamm - great book on composition and "environments"
    "Imaginitive Realism" by James Gurney - not a technique book but a great book on professional, creative illustration practice
    Jim Gurney's blog: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/ Jim created Dinotopia and is a National Geographic illustrator

    I hope this helps answer a few questions on the "hows and whys" of drawing from life.

    This is just some personal background stuff about why I'm so passionate about working from life...feel free to ignore...

    A: Why do people push it so hard?
    Well, I know I do, as does dpaint and most pros you talk to or read. For me the reason is simple: I wasted far too many years thinking I didn't need to draw or paint from life and I want to try to help others avoid my mistake. Here's why I avoided it: when I first tried "life drawing" in college I sucked. Hard. I was embarassed. So I avoided it for years - after all, I was a "fantasy and science fiction" artist. I drew and painted fantastic, imaginary people, places and things. The problem was I did it quite poorly.

    B: Eventually...
    I began to realize that I needed to get really serious about becoming the artist I had always wanted to be. The first step for me was to list and analyze all my favorite artists/illustrators. I broke them down into groups mainly around the media they use and the genre they paint in. Then I tried to figure out what they had in common - a pattern emerged - my list was 90% oil painters. So I knew there must be something about painting in oil that allowed them to work in a way that spoke to me. They were all over the place as far as technique - but they were all oil painters. They were also all very traditional in their approach and they worked from life.

    C: Now I knew...
    What I had to do - I had to work from life and figure out how to paint in oil.
    Remember #1? It's hard? And #5? How I sucked? Repeat. Only a lot worse.
    I'm trying to work through it...

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  4. #2
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    I know we talked about our respective takes on life drawing suggestions for people interested in getting started. Thanks for posting this; it is always good to get back to the why and how of it. These are great tips and a well organized thoughtful approach to tackling one of the most diffecult artistic endeavors.

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    Excellent post, Jeff. Very comprehensive but there's still I question I have:

    Have any of you professionals ever done life drawings digitally(tablet)? If you have, how exactly?

    If you haven't, why not?

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    When I was working inhouse I did it a couple of times. Just used my laptop and wacom. I have a portable collapsable drawing bench and I just set it on the bench like I would a pad of paper or canvas. You just need to make sure you have a place to plugin or a couple of batteries. My laptop would only go for a couple of hours on battery power. Nothing beats a sketchbook and pencil for ease of use and portablity though.

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    Thanks dZ-ero - I've never tried it myself - probably the main reason is it isn't practical yet. Other reasons are the average tablets aren't very large - maybe if you got one of the really big ones and could set it up so it was vertical and you drew directly on the screen it would work pretty well - it will probably get there (and be affordable) but not now.

    I think there are some people that have done plein-air work with a laptop though - Craig Mullins comes to mind but I don't remember if he was working plein air or just from reference.

    My other real reason to be honest is I really like the physical part of drawing and painting. I do digital stuff too but it is more in line with Android's kind of digital aesthetic.

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    Well, thanks for your replies.

    I guess I need to do my life-drawings the old way.

    I've drawn a few times in public but it just feels so awkward and I get distracted a lot.



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    I'm really interested in this stuff and diving back into fundamentals right now with observation and learning from nature. It's amazing that all the information you need to learn to draw is basically sitting there in front of you all the time. Learn to translate nature and the toolset you have to create anything you want is enormous.

    Can anyone comment on which fundamentals or aspects are best trained and honed by which type of study. Why am I doing a still life?
    Are there any techniques to use when studying (what to think about) from life that are beneficial to learning certain fundamentals?

    I find quick color studies do more for my color sense than longer drawn out detailed studies. Those are better suited to working on texture and modeling and other qualities. What about landscape for example, what are the most beneficial studies for each quality or fundamental I want to develop?

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    Quote Originally Posted by fersteger View Post
    It's amazing that all the information you need to learn to draw is basically sitting there in front of you all the time. Learn to translate nature and the toolset you have to create anything you want is enormous.
    Really well said - thanks! Good questions too...
    Most of the fundamentals can be studied and learned through drawing so that's why it is so important. So often people jump into painting and color because they want to get those finished pieces out there - but if they can't draw then it becomes a big, discouraging mess.

    Anyway, still life is great because you have everything working for you: you control the setup, the lighting and how much time you want to spend. Through still life study you can learn composition, proportion, foreshortening, texture, balance, values, etc. Pretty much all the fundamentals - the fundamentals are the same whether you are drawing the figure, the landscape or the still life. About the only thing different with the figure is the dynamic gesture quality which is so critical.

    I think the best thing to keep in mind while drawing from life is trying to see things not as things but as shapes, edges, angles, intersections, value transitions, etc. Drawing from life is all about two things: analyziing and comparing things within the subject you're looking at - translating that information to your drawing and then comparing everything within your drawing.

    Also - just try to work on one thing at a time, shadows for example - read about that aspect/fundamental every night - then practice it the next day or drawing session. It doesn't really take that long to get this stuff - it just takes what one of my mentors called "diligent study".

    Personally I think color is best learned by painting the landscape - but that's what I like. If you want to do figurative work that is quite a bit different. Color is actually the most variable of the fundamentals in my opinion, because it is very subjective.

    I hope that helps - good luck to you!

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    Quote Originally Posted by dZ-ero View Post
    Well, thanks for your replies.

    I guess I need to do my life-drawings the old way.

    I've drawn a few times in public but it just feels so awkward and I get distracted a lot.

    Yeah - I hear ya - everyone's been there. Try not to be too self-conscious about it though - most people think it's interesting if they even bother to acknowledge you. And people are way more forgiving and understanding than you think - we're usually our own worst critics which can keep us from trying.

    What would Caravaggio do?
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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Anyway, still life is great because you have everything working for you: you control the setup, the lighting and how much time you want to spend. Through still life study you can learn composition, proportion, foreshortening, texture, balance, values, etc. Pretty much all the fundamentals - the fundamentals are the same whether you are drawing the figure, the landscape or the still life. About the only thing different with the figure is the dynamic gesture quality which is so critical.
    This is cool, because I dread studying out of books - especially when it's the fundamentals.

    But to do life drawing of the figure, comprehension of how everything underneath works (joints, muscle, tendons) would be extremely helpful. Only books and pictures have that information. Or, is it possible to become just as proficient at drawing the figure only drawing from life?

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    I think a mix is the best way to go. The old european schools started with copy work like the Bargue course then moved to casts from life then to the model from life. Each has drawbacks if you stay with it too long. Remember the ultimate goal for all of this is making a picture. Good paintings have an idea to them they are not just studies no matter how beautiful those can be.

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    Absolutely - sometimes I forget to emphasize that most important of all factors - the whole point of studying so hard, from both life, books and master's works is to be able to express your ideas to their fullest. I think I tend to assume that is what we're all after so I take it for granted. But you're right - I mean, look at how many incredible life drawing artists the academies (and today's ateliers) produce - but they don't really have anything to say (not always - I'm just generalizing to make the point).

    What would Caravaggio do?
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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Then I tried to figure out what they had in common - a pattern emerged - my list was 90% oil painters.
    This may be too obvious, but, is it possible there were all old guys who predate the computer by some number of decades or centuries?

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    Not really - I tried to be very objective and didn't consider medium at all - just whether their work moved me in any way. It is true that this was probably 15 years ago when I went through that analysis, so there wasn't a lot of digital work around. Don't get me wrong, I love the digital medium. I've been making digital art since about 1986...its the core of my career - but it isn't the best medium to learn visual art fundamentals.

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    It is indeed an agonising proccess having to search for real life props everytime you need to make a scene. Eventually one has to be able to rely on his/her visual memory banks and conjure the 3D object and how light hits it on the fly.. One also has to be able to visualise that object in variety of different real life settings and how they would affect it.
    My ex was allways making beautifull renders from real life, until i asked her to draw something that is not infront of her and she choked.
    It is humbling to practice the skill of observation and translation, as long as you don't forget that the goal is not to be a human photo camera, but rather to be able to conjure realism from your brain, where ever and when ever.

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    good stuff jeff altough i have yet to draw anything from life... just photos...

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Not really - I tried to be very objective and didn't consider medium at all - just whether their work moved me in any way. It is true that this was probably 15 years ago when I went through that analysis, so there wasn't a lot of digital work around.
    That's sort of what I'm getting at - 15 years ago digital painting was still new. Most of the really good painters would have spent the previous 30 years working with physical mediums just because it was the best thing going.


    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    Don't get me wrong, I love the digital medium. I've been making digital art since about 1986...its the core of my career - but it isn't the best medium to learn visual art fundamentals.
    Why? I've got oils and acrylics here and I wouldn't wish them on anyone.

    Pencil on the other hand I think can be justified, at least until Cintiq screen resolution increases by about 10 times.

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    Jack - thanks for the input. I don't really think it matters which medium one uses - what matters is the result. With the important exception that certain media lend themselves to unique expressions or styles - in other words, the various media each have their own look. I've never understood why people working with digital media would try to or want to simulate traditional media with it. Digital has its own aesthetic which is entirely unique and can be pushed to do amazing things (Android Jones and John Picacio come to mind). If you want it to look like an oil painting then paint it in oils, marker, pastel, etc. If you want to do digital work don't use it to simulate somehting else.

    There are a variety of reasons why learning the fundamentals through traditional media is a better approach - there has been a lot of discussion around here lately on that very topic. I realize it is somewhat counter-intuitive because one would think you have access to so many tools, tutorials and examples all right there at your fingertips - but digital tools lack the basic flexibility, portability and simplicity of traditional media.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kraus View Post
    It is indeed an agonising proccess having to search for real life props everytime you need to make a scene. Eventually one has to be able to rely on his/her visual memory banks and conjure the 3D object and how light hits it on the fly.. One also has to be able to visualise that object in variety of different real life settings and how they would affect it.
    My ex was allways making beautifull renders from real life, until i asked her to draw something that is not infront of her and she choked.
    It is humbling to practice the skill of observation and translation, as long as you don't forget that the goal is not to be a human photo camera, but rather to be able to conjure realism from your brain, where ever and when ever.
    Hey Kraus - thanks for the comment. I think you definitely have to work from the imagination when designing your scene - exploring the idea through composition thumbnails, lighting sketches, etc. Then when you get a pretty clear rough established, most artists work from life or shoot photo reference to go for a final painting. The better your "memory bank" is, and the more you understand about the fundamentals the better your process sketches will be. In the end even the best guys go to life for the subtle and unique information you can't pull out of your head.

    James Gurney's book "Imaginitive Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist" is loaded with great examples of exactly this kind of approach. His blog is also probably the best blog out there right now for people interested in illustration.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    but digital tools lack the basic flexibility, portability and simplicity of traditional media.
    ArtRage is simple. My Tablet PC is portable. The screen washes out in strong light, but maybe a shade would be a good idea at any rate. I don't know what you mean by "lack of flexibility." Digital tools seem to be infinitely flexible to me.

    Sorry if I'm being annoying but I don't see where you're coming from. I'd think digital tools would by far and away have the advantage, if only because you don't have to worry about how fast or slow the paint is going to dry.

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    You're not being annoying - but we hash this out all the time around here. Here's one recent thread - I think I posted around #19 - there are plenty more. I think digital is an advantage with certain types of rapid visualization and matte painting. Though a skilled traditional artist will still probably generate more useful concepts at a higher volume than a digital artist. The advantage to digital is in the ease of shifting colors, moods and elements at the whim of the art director. For matte painting I think there are many more additional advantages.

    But back to learning and flexibility - digital just isn't the best place to learn fundamentals because the fundamentals are best learned studying from life in a traditional manner. My little profile pic there was taken on top of a cliff - that was a short three day workshop I taught - I did ten paintings - all sold or were the basis for studio works. Some I did on the beach - a couple on cliffs - some were smallish - 6x8, the largest was 12x24. That's what I'm talking about with flexibility.

    I'm not sure why people get so worked up about digital - I like it - it is probably my "primary" medium in many ways - I just don't think you should try to make it be all things.

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    One problem with digital is that it works in pixels.

    Most pixels are tiny rectangle on the screen. It's easier for the computer to read rectangles, and It's easier to measure too.

    Another thing is that in digital the artist doesn't really need to improvise since the artist has "The All-Mighty Ctrl+Z."

    But, what do I know?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Flashback View Post
    Another thing is that in digital the artist doesn't really need to improvise since the artist has "The All-Mighty Ctrl+Z."
    You can scrape off oils with a palette knife easily enough when working wet on wet and you can remove fresh glazes as well. With pencil there is always the rubber.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Black Spot View Post
    You can scrape off oils with a palette knife easily enough when working wet on wet and you can remove fresh glazes as well. With pencil there is always the rubber.
    And with Ink or Watercolor there's always Gouache.

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    Jeff maybe you could suggest a book on painting. Mind you I am looking (oddly enough) for a simplistic 1-2-3 'how-to' book that has some info or help on technical aspects such as, 'why isn't the damn paint sticking on the surface over the other layer of paint'. You know, just a book with some aspects of that nature, simple stuff that a teacher could answer in 10 seconds, nothing too special. I have books on painting that cover other aspects. Richard Schmidt's Alla Prima is excellent, and by the way everyone should get a copy in my opinion, even if you're not painting yet.

    "Don't judge a book by it's cover" Frank Frazetta 1928-2010
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  34. #26
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    Sure Michael - I'll just list a few that I got started with:

    "Oil Painting Secrets form a Master" by Linda Cateura - really this is a book of notes from David Leffel's classes.
    "Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting" - by John Carlson - considered one of the "bibles" or must have books - only black and white but loaded with insight.
    "Capturing Light in Oils" by Paul Strisik
    "Oil Painting for the Serious Beginner" by Steve Allrich
    "Fill Your Paintings with Light and Color" by Kevin Macpherson - Kevi nalso has a newer book "Landscape Painting Inside and Out" but I don't have a copy.
    Barron's Guides to...I've also found to be really useful - they have one on oils, still life, figure, etc.

    The problem is most books (including the ones I listed) deal more with observation, approach and a few of the practical matters like making panels and such. I can't think of any areas where they deal much with paint handling/application. Mainly this is because it just comes through practice and there are too many variables - paint brand/consistency, use and type of medium, surface, etc.

    Are you having trouble specifically or are you looking for some resources you can share with students? Just curious - when it comes to paint handling there are some rules of thumb to keep in mind:
    Paint "fat over lean" - work with thin paint first - no medium except a little turp - that will dry pretty quickly - especially outdoors - develop the next layer with more impasto brushwork if it suits you.
    I recommend staying away form medium is general for a few years - it can be difficult to manage and adds another level of complexity to painting.
    Develop a "delicate facility" with your brush - for later, finishing passages hold it near the end, loosely - load it well and apply the paint with the "flat" or side of the brush rather than scrubbing it in directly with the bristles.

    I hope that helps - if I had to recommend one or two of those I would say three: Leffel, Allrich and the Carlson books. If you have any more questions feel free to ask.

    Jeff

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  36. #27
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    Quote Originally Posted by Black Spot View Post
    You can scrape off oils with a palette knife easily enough when working wet on wet and you can remove fresh glazes as well. With pencil there is always the rubber.
    I was hoping someone would attack the pixel statement more than the other one.

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    I just realised I should thank you in your thread for helping me out with the advice

    Just waiting on the next paycheck to get my drawing casts and drawing combined cubes and spheres and cylinders in the mean time.

    Looking forward to when I get to this stage:
    Then I tried to figure out what they had in common - a pattern emerged - my list was 90% oil painters.
    Cant wait to explore the mediums and techniques that my favorte artists use but need to be able to draw that cube propperly first

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    You're more than welcome Whirly! Good for you - you'll get there before you know it - just learn to enjoy getting a good drawing done - subject doesn't matter - drawing does. The ENTIRE reason for learning those fundamentals is so that you CAN express yourself when it gets to the subject, stories and ideas you want to communicate. The problem is so many people get it backwards - with unpleasant results.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    You're more than welcome Whirly! Good for you - you'll get there before you know it - just learn to enjoy getting a good drawing done - subject doesn't matter - drawing does. The ENTIRE reason for learning those fundamentals is so that you CAN express yourself when it gets to the subject, stories and ideas you want to communicate. The problem is so many people get it backwards - with unpleasant results.
    I understand what you're saying, truly. But I notice you tend to phrase things in an odd manner, that could be considered confusing for some.

    Subject matter can have a huge impact on what you're learning. Drawing a stone will not necessarily teach you how to draw water, or clothes. It can - if you pay attention to it. But for that matter, simply looking at a photo of a pig can teach you how to better draw a person, if you analyze it well enough.

    It would be more accurate to say that, so long as you're putting in the effort into understanding the content, that it matters not where you start drawing. The content itself, can matter a ridiculous amount. If it didn't, then drawing from life would not be necessary - as the "subject matter" from real life, would not matter.

    You already know this. I'm just rephrasing it for you, as it doesn't quite make sense to say you need to study life because of it's content, and then say the content of the drawing matters not.

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