Deciding What to Leave in When Drawing from a Reference Photo: A Quick Draw Art Lesson for Middle or High School

Deciding What to Leave in When Drawing from a Reference Photo: A Quick Draw Art Lesson for Middle or High School
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Some reference photos include too much information, leaving students frustrated when trying to create drawings or paintings. Use this exercise to come up with a quick, strong composition that focuses on the important elements of the photo and allows students to practice making artistic choices.

Objective: Students will be able to review a reference photo and identify which parts of the photo to use for a strong composition in a painting or drawing.

Materials: Reference photos (note: land or cityscapes that have structures and figures work well for this particular lesson), drawing paper, pencils, charcoal, or other sketching mediums as preferred by students

Lesson Procedure:

Step One: Teacher will share a reference photo with a lot of details (preferably using a projector) and ask students what they would think of turning the photo into a piece of artwork. Allow time for students to discuss their thoughts on the photo and identify the challenges they might face when using it as a basis for a drawing or painting.

Step Two: Teacher will suggest to students that they can simplify the elements of the photo, and build a strong composition by choosing only the “important” components of the picture. Allow time for students to discuss what items they see as important and what items they would consider leaving out of their final compositions.

Step Three: Teacher will give students a copy of the photo shown on the projector, and ask students to identify the foreground, middle ground, and background of the picture. Students may make tick marks to note each section of the photo. Then ask students to use a marker or charcoal to draw over the basic elements of each section that they would like to keep, creating a “road map” for their sketches. Suggest that students keep large structures, strong figures, and any solid forms that feature prominently in the photo. It may be helpful to give students a limited number of items to keep (such as five or seven items) so they can prioritize the objects they will use from the photo in their own works.


Step Four: Teacher will ask students to create their own sketches based on their “road maps,” making sure that they are putting the objects into the foreground, middle ground, or background of the sketch. Encourage students to adjust the number of objects in their sketches so that the composition looks right to them (for example, adding objects if there are parts of the sketch that feel empty, or removing objects from parts of the sketch that feel too crowded.

Step Five: Teacher will give students time to finish their sketches as needed. Students who feel comfortable may wish to take a new reference photo and design their own sketches based on the dominant figures and forms in the photo.

Assessment: Teacher will ask students to post their completed sketches on the board as a group along with any reference photos they used. Teacher will guide students through a group critique of the works, asking students to identify common elements that students kept in their works and note variations in the compositions.

Extension: Once students have completed this introductory lesson, they should be able to use this activity as a warm-up in art class. For example, the teacher can post a photo at the start of class, ask students to choose five items from the photo to make a sketch, and allow students 10-15 minutes to complete their sketches. Regular use of this activity will give students confidence in making their own artistic choices when drawing and painting.