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Drawing from Life

Hello fellow animators!

You've probably heard the phrase "draw from life" before, but it's not always clear why it's so crucial. The phrase has two meanings: the first is the literal act of creating an image on paper using a pencil or other medium while looking at real-life reference. This definitely helps improve your drawing technique. However, the second meaning of "draw" is to extract, gather, or pull from. When we apply this definition to drawing from life, it means we are extracting or pulling visual information from what we observe in real life. Being able to draw visual information accurately from real life is even more important than drawing an image on paper. If you can't accurately extract the visual information you see in real life, you won't know what to draw on paper. You can't draw what you don't understand, and you can't understand without drawing from real life.

I've compiled all my knowledge on this subject into my Intro to 2D Animation Course!

How to Draw from Life

By understanding the two-fold meaning of drawing from life, we can equip ourselves with the necessary skills to create successful drawings. By closely observing real life, we create mental images that our brains store away for later use. The more you observe, the more mental images you will have available for future drawings. This is like having a file cabinet full of images of different subjects that you can access and use as reference when you draw. It's the same principle as filing images away in a mental hard drive.

Find out how you can perfect you portfolio in Lesson 15 of my Intro to 2D Animation Course

It's important to remember that observation is a form of drawing in itself. Even if you don't have a pencil and sketchbook available, you can still "draw" by observing what you see around you and thinking about what gives the subject its form and shape. Of course, if you can sketch what you are observing, that is the best case scenario. But if you don't have your sketchbook handy, drawing through observation of real life is a skill worth developing that will serve you throughout your artistic journey.

Learn from some of the industries best in our Art of Sketching Lesson, or our Art of Caricature Lesson, and improve your ability to translate what you see in life into your artwork.

Examples in Film

Now, let's talk about specific examples of how drawing from life is used in the creation of animated films.

Behind the Scenes of Moana

Firstly, let's look at the character design process. When creating a character, animators need to consider the character's anatomy, proportions, and movement. To achieve a believable and expressive character design, animators need to study real-life human anatomy and movement. For example, in the Disney movie "Moana," the animators traveled to the South Pacific to study the people, culture, and environment that inspired the film. They observed how people moved and interacted with each other and with their surroundings. This helped the animators create believable and culturally accurate characters that moved and behaved like real people.

You can check out my Lesson on Character Design HERE

Another example is the use of life drawing in animation production. In traditional hand-drawn animation, animators create each frame of animation by hand. To achieve a smooth and convincing movement, animators need to have a deep understanding of the principles of animation and how to apply them to real-life movement. Life drawing is an essential tool for animators to learn how to capture the movement and weight of a character. They can then use this knowledge to create convincing animation that looks like it has weight and follows the laws of physics. Even in modern computer-generated animation, animators still rely on the principles of traditional animation and the knowledge gained from life drawing to create believable movement.

Whether you're interested in 2D or CG Animation, we have an ever growing catalog of Lessons from animations finest like Glen Keane, Mark Henn, and Ron Husband!

Disney's UP versus real place

Lastly, let's talk about environment design. In animated films, the environment can be just as important as the characters themselves. To create a believable and immersive world, animators need to study real-life environments and landscapes. For example, in the Pixar movie "Up," the animators studied the landscapes of Venezuela and South America to create the world that the characters lived in. By studying real-life environments, the animators were able to create a world that felt like it could exist in real life, even though it was entirely animated.


Drawing from life is a crucial skill for animators. By observing and studying real-life subjects, animators can create believable and immersive animated worlds that feel like they could exist in real life. Whether it's character design, animation production, or environment design, drawing from life is an essential tool for animators to create successful animated films. So, get out there and draw from life, and see how it can improve your animation skills!

Whether you want to hone in on your skills, or learn how to put together your Portfolio, our vast library of courses here at Pomeroy Art Academy can help you get started today! Browse our library HERE

Your Animation Colleague,

John Pomeroy


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