I really enjoy making life studies, it's one of those things that allow you to really observe and understand what you're seeing. I've done way more than you'll find on my gallery, since I'm lazy to scan my sketchbooks, but one of my favorite activities is going out from time to time, sketchbook at hand, and drawing people, buildings, trees, etc.
You learn so much from it, from how different materials work, to how lighting affects the image. And it's more what you can learn from this experience compared to studying photos (which is an absolutely a valid tool, too, that I use as well), but with photography you miss many elements inherent to life study.
So here there are few tips that I learned and have helped me a great deal.Choose your lighting adequately:
more often than not, I choose artificial lighting over sunlight. The reason is simple; you might spend many hours there, meaning the lighting will change.
It's always better if you have two sources of light, in my case it's either sunlight and a lamp, or the room's global artificial light, plus a lamp. The lamp gives you more control since you can move it around the scene and find "the perfect" lighting.
There are few tutorials online for photographers respecting the setting and control of light source for different purposes. This is very helpful for painters, too, so check them out!Experiment with the composition:
arrange and rearrange the elements you're going to paint, until you feel comfortable and it looks harmonious to you. When you do this take into account not only the shapes, but also the colors.
For example in this image I didn't arrange the bottles in a particularly original way, but I wanted some sort of harmony for the colors, as it goes there's a progression: golden/yellow, green, blue/purple, pink.
Determining if your format will be oriented vertically or horizontally is fundamental for the composition, try picturing both before you set for one or the other, you might even end up going for a square format.The background is important.
This seems a no brainer, but it's a frequent mistake. If you're working with translucent materials, whatever is in the background will become part of the image. If you're working with very reflective surfaces the colors of the objects in front will reflect on it. What I'm getting to is if you set your scene carelessly, you'll be including elements you don't want on the scene. So my recommendation is that you set everything in a plain neutral background, personally I prefer grey and white, because this way you can study the colors without extreme modifications. Sunlight is great too, but remember what I mentioned above.Set your goals:
if your plan is mindlessly copying what you're seeing to achieve realism, you're in for losing your time, because you're not exploiting the chance to learn from the experience as much as you could.
What you must do is setting the goals you want to achieve with the study. For example: you want to explore how different materials work under certain circumstances. You want to learn how the muscles tense up and relax in certain pose.
My goal with the studies is exploring the ways to give the illusion of realism in my works. When you truly learn the behaviors of determinate materials, you can paint more or less realistically without referencing; more so you can bend the rules to create crazy but convincing effects.
Besides, who wants to become a machine that produces hyper realistic pieces? We already have those, they're called cameras. Get comfortable.
Another no brainer, but sometimes you think you're comfy until you've been sitting for hours and your back and neck hurt. I always try to set my scene close to me, often on my desk beside the computer, so I don't have to be turning constantly. If you can't do that, you should by all means move your workstation so the scene is in front of you, slightly to one side.Guides:
I'm sure most of you are familiar with the guide "the human size is seven times the size of the head", use similar guides, for example: the object's length is three times the size of its base.
In order to get the angles correctly, you can draw lines with the predominant angle to use as guide for the rest.
Use your thumb to determine the angle, extending your arm completely in front of you (I'm sure you have also seen painters doing that heheh). The thumb can also help you with the sizes and proportions
Another guide I seldom use anymore is the perspective grid, but it's very helpful for beginners who aren't familiar with perspective rules. Working with models:
this is perhaps one of the few things I can't do as often as I wish. If you find yourself in the same position, but you want to practice live anatomy try practicing with mirrors, or maybe friends and even random acquaintances. The problem with the latter option is that most people get high expectations and you can't focus on the study properly, but instead try to please the person. Another problem is that they don't have the time and get tired. This is why I prefer mirrors.
One of the basics for this type of exercise is capturing the gesture (pose for full body, expression for portraiture), try to nail the gesture with rough quick lines, do it as many times you deem necessary until you finally capture it, and only afterwards you work over this. You don't start with the arm, head, eyes or any isolated part, because you'll get the proportions and pose wrong.
If you're working with still life or landscape, then you can start with color blocks, with more or less the shape you're representing, instead of starting with lines.
Why the difference? Because the lines capture something you don't need to capture with inanimate subjects. (:Take some photos! "All that talk about life studies and now you're saying we should take photos!?"
Basically the photo will help you a great deal during the study in the following scenarios: your model got tired and moved. You were using sunlight as light source and you spent so much hours the lighting changed.
The photo can also help you to check your colors. In my case I tend to over saturate the colors, sampling the colors from the photo and comparing them with my own, help me to see how saturated they are, as well as other underlying colors I don't notice at first.
One thing to take into account is taking the photos from the same position you're looking at the scene. But try at least, snapping two photos from slightly different angles. Why? So you have a better sense of the depth on the scene.
Finally, practice often, practice your weakness and your strengths, but do practice.Features!