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Why I draw from life

By Pathways

A couple of years ago I bought the book, Judith Kerr’s Creatures: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr. I ended up reading it in one sitting as I was so absorbed by her story. One of the parts that really stood out for me was about her initial studies for The Tiger Who Came to Tea. When she was creating her tiger character, she visited a zoo to make some observational drawings and she also sketched her own kitchen for the home scenes. She later explained how much she appreciated being able to carry out research on the internet for drawings as this was something she couldn’t do when she first started out as an Illustrator. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how her tiger character would have looked if she hadn’t of been through the process of drawing from life, or what the kitchen in her book would have looked like if she hadn’t referenced her own. Would her illustrations have been different from what ended up being published?

These days I draw from life a lot more than I used to. In early 2019, I took over the role of managing London Drawing Club. As part of this role, I organise drawing meet-ups at interesting places in London every month for illustrators. After running a few of these meet-ups, I began to notice a visible difference not only in my illustrations but also in my confidence. Where once I would overthink and get anxious about my approach to a drawing, I no longer have those daunting feelings. When you have very little time to draw something, you just have to go for it and move on. I also noticed how different my drawings turned out when I used the real world rather than images as reference.

Left: Observational drawings from Barbican Conservatory. Right: Illustration of plants made using online references, both by Nami Ralph

Drawing from life at the People Illustration Masterclass

One of the most enjoyable Pathways Masterclasses so far for me was the People Illustration session. It was run by illustrator Sara Ogilvie, Jane Buckley from Simon and Schuster, and Sarah McConnell from Nottingham Trent University. During this session, each of the tutors acted out different expressive actions which we had to capture through two-minute sketches. After the session, I expanded on my sketches and even wrote a short story to accompany one of the illustrations. I absolutely loved the whole process from start to finish. The biggest take-away for me was how much can be gained from a two-minute observational sketch.


Left: Two-minute sketch of the pose ‘It was him/her!’ Right: Final sketch from the initial drawing, both by Nami Ralph 

Observation drawing as a research

At our Character Design Masterclass on Pathways, we spent the day being taught by illustrator David Roberts, Libby Hamilton from Anderson Press and Nicolas Burrows from Camberwell University of the Arts. During the masterclass, David Roberts told us that one of the ways he approaches his work is through spending some time researching what he can bring into his illustrations and sometimes that involves making observations from life. This reminded me of a fantastic blog post that Emily Haworth-Booth wrote about the work that went into creating the opening scene for her book, The King Who Banned the Dark. In the post, she explained that the first spread of the Prince’s bedroom needed to feel royal and include toys, which were not there in her first drafts. She decided to spend the day at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton making some sketches to inform her work. She also made a cardboard mock-up of the room to work out where the shadows would fall. I found reading about her process really inspiring and it opened my eyes to the exciting ways I could bring observational drawings into my work during that initial research stage.

Although I will continue to refer to images, I intend to make an effort to draw from life as often as I can. There’s an element of mindfulness that comes into drawing from life and the final results are often very rewarding. On Pathways, many of us are figuring out what our process will be, and I imagine this will evolve and be refined as we continue on our journey. In the meantime, I can’t help but feel really energised and inspired by everything I’ve learned from Sara Ogilvie, David Roberts, Emily Haworth-Booth and Judith Kerr, and hope to feed this energy into the illustrations I will create for our Pathways Literature Briefs and beyond.

Nami Ralph is a London-based freelance illustrator based in London who primarily works with watercolours, gouache, pencils and digital platforms to create her work. She especially enjoys illustrating the everyday and is inspired by Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell and Judith Kerr.