Drawing vs Photography

Two weeks into term and a week or two into this year’s Open University modules and I just about feel I can get my head above water long enough for a blog!

During Induction Week (the more politically-correct term for Fresher’s week) we have the joy of running a series of practical workshops for the new students, in various stages of hangover and sleep deprivation.  These cover key skills such as microscopy, pipetting liquids and using the university library but my own sessions cover ‘Observational Drawing’.  Why, you might wonder (and some of my colleagues did, this year) when students all carry cameras around with them 24/7 on their phones?  What’s wrong with just taking a photo?

There are two answers to this question really – one purely practical and one more philosophical.  On a practical level, photos usually convey much less information than drawings.  Most of my photos are of plants, many taken for identification purposes.  This is necessary to prevent my family and colleagues going stir crazy when I take out a book every time I find something I don’t recognise, particularly when I am let loose somewhere like the Valley of Flowers .  Even when I get around to looking at the photos fairly soon after taking them I find I struggle to remember exactly where the plant was growing, how large it was and exactly what the leaves looked like, making accurate identification difficult. Really, I should be taking a whole series of photos of plant parts, with a suitable object to provide scale….  Cue more impatient sighs from my nearest and dearest!



Geranium wallachianum, near Ghangharia.  What size is the flower? What do the leaves look like? What about its fruits?

Of course I’m not suggesting my students go in for full blown botanical illustration in the course of a three hour practical session.  These beautiful, detailed drawings and paintings seek to portray all the aspects of a plant in one picture – flowers, fruit, leaves and sometimes the roots, but are quite beyond the skills of most of us.


Passion flower plant and flag-legged bug by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) from The Royal Collection

Even a simple drawing like the one below can convey much useful information.


If photos of flowers can be of limited use, photos of rocks can be even less informative.  In fact, one OU friend used to tell students that the reason they needed to do field sketches was because any photo they took of a rock formation, however dramatic, would look like apple crumble when viewed a week or two later!

These spectacularly-folded sedimentary rocks in the Pin Valley, Lahaul and Spiti make the case well.


I have no idea what type or age of rocks these are or how big the fold is , though I could dig back through my notes and find out at least some of the answers.  A quick field sketch made at the time, with the rock types labelled and some sort of scale and indication of orientation, would have made this much easier.

Those may be the practical reasons to encourage students to draw, but there is another, more philosophical one.  In his preface to  ‘The Elements of Drawing’, John Ruskin makes the point that drawing is all about careful observation and goes on to say that, “the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.”   Despite being the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford and establishing the school of art which now bears his name, Ruskin viewed drawing as something as a means to an end.


Portrait of John Ruskin by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais

I know I’m fighting something of a rearguard action here but feel I’m in pretty good company!



  1. Hi Heather, I just wanted to leave a note to say how much I have enjoyed reading your blog this year – your account of your travels, far and wide, has made wonderful reading, so thank you! And I could not agree more about drawing. Just as writing about a plant or animal really makes me pay attention, so does drawing – I would say that I notice at least 50% more when I’m drawing something than when I’m taking a photograph. And I also notice that I fall in love with whatever I’m drawing – there’s something about noticing the tiny injuries to a plant, or the way that the light falls on it, that makes it particular and individual, as well as an example of its species. So thank you again for reminding me how much I love to draw, and how important it is sometimes to just take the time to be still and really look.

    • Thanks for your kind comments – really glad you’ve enjoyed the blog. Hopefully more to come next year but it’s all rather more local for now. I like the whole business of following a tree through the year just because, although I’m taking photos, I still find myself forced to look much more carefully.

  2. Love the apple crumble analogy! I’m with you (and Ruskin) on the subject of field sketches etc. As well as being an extremely convenient way of making notes about particular parts of a rock exposure (or a flower!) they make you look at it properly. Plus you can add thumbnails of interesting bits etc etc. A sketch is still worth a thousand words, even in the days of wonderfully easy digital photography! One of my treasured memories from SXR103 days is at an Activity C staff development event in Shropshire when we visited the Ercall (splendid geology site) and set the geologists to show the ecologists how to do a field sketch of a rock exposure. There were a few horrified looks on faces 🙂

  3. Bug Woman makes some great points, and I bet the percentage of what is noticed when drawing vs. taking a photogrpah is much higher. So I (once again) feel sad that I haven’t been drawing and promise myself, “Maybe soon.” That being said, I do try, when I can slow myself down, to snap a photo of leaves and stem, along with the flower, so when I get home and open the book I have a better chance. Too often I’ve found there are two or three plants with similar flowers, whose ID rides on other details. Wonderful post here!

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