Graphic Designer & Illustrator


A place to share my point of view on the arts and entertainment. You can also catch me on Twitter @emerycmiller

Drawing from Life

GREAT IDEAS MAY COME TO YOU IN THE SHOWER, or while driving, but even the most brilliant illustrators don’t whip out designs without some visual reference. Sure. The internet is a decent place to start your search. But there are disadvantages to limiting your research to a pool of still images curated by an algorithm. Furthermore, drawing from photos has a multitude of drawbacks as described in this well written article by Veronica Winters. Join me as I take you by the hand away from the comfort of your chair and into the real world in search of live reference.


Observational Drawing

Otherwise referred to as “coffee shop drawing” or just “people watching”, this is the practice of drawing people in the wild. To get the most out of this, your attention must be focused on your subject. Not yourself. Think of it as a recorded observation on paper. Forget about your individual style, your reputation, your Artstation, Etsy and Instagram. The goal is to learn something about people. People are interesting and behave unexpectedly when they aren’t aware they’re being watched. Which makes for great character reference! Whether searching for reference or inspiration, observational drawing is a beginning drawing exercise that should really be taught and sustained at all levels.

Drawing from a Model

One way to create a character is to directly reference a live model of your choice. The following images show how Disney animators based Alice on a live model named Kathryn Beaumont. Conveniently, she also voiced the character.

By doing this, they were able to more accurately depict the character’s size, age and mannerisms, among other things. It’s not clear whether they are tracing over photos, but they do appear to be drawing her very literally. I can see some problems with this, but in general, figure drawing is extremely important and should be practiced often because it allows you to focus on details.

Drawing a Live Animal

Have you ever tried your hand at animal or creature design, only to realize you don’t know what the hell you’re doing? I have. Disney animators found themselves in that situation in the late 1930s when they were tasked with creating a believable, but not overly realistic Bambi. They studied live animal models to get the anatomy and movements just right. It wasn’t convenient for the production, but it was an investment of time and talent that resulted in a landmark film.


I doubt the old Disney animators would have relied on the internet as much as we do today. Another awesome thing about drawing from life, is that the playing field is level and accessible to everyone. And it's not limited to people. In the end, you’ll have a better understanding of various subjects for present or future character design, and the confidence to draw anything in public or in private without fear.

Have you ever wandered away from the computer in search of live reference? Have you ever been inspired to design a character based on somebody you saw? Share your stories below.