1: It's hard...
But, what's harder is not being able to do it. What I mean is yes, it is super frustrating sometimes, very challenging, very humbling, a hassle - all that stuff. But you just have to get through that. Every figurative artist down through history has those same frustrations and humbling experiences in common. Cool to think that if you could sit down with Rembrandt or Sargent at the pub you could trade stories about how agonizing it all is. It gets easier...but still no less humbling.
2: It is still the best way.
As challenging and difficult as it is at first, it is still the best way to go about developing your skills as an artist. It's hard to see that at first because the progress is agonizingly slow...but once you begin to see improvement you begin to develop some confidence and at least awareness that you're on the right track. That reinforces itself and pretty soon you're tearing it up...
3: Why is it the best way?
When you work from life your entire being, focus, whatever, goes into the process of observation and translation. As the artist you are making all of the decisions, measurements and marks that go into making or translating what you see and feel into two dimensions. That is an entirely different experience from copying an image/photo that has all of those decisions and observations already made for you. It might be like the difference between learning to play the guitar, trying to get that A-minor chord change, twisting your fingers all around in painful ways...practicing that chord over and over - then building it into a progression...as opposed to playing Guitar Hero. Eventually you can work quite well from photo reference - but not until you know what you're doing.
4: So what is it?
Drawing from life simply means observing and drawing anything that isn't already translated into two dimensions. So drawing from life includes still life, landscape and architecture sketching, etc. The term "life drawing" refers more specifically to studying the figure - usually the familiar nude in a studio setting, but can include the portrait, drawing animals at the zoo, people in public, etc.
5: Shift awareness
Try to shift your awareness to the deeper or more "core" aspects of art and away from just subject. Oddly enough the deeper aspects are also the fundamental principles (at least from a technical point of view - I'm not talking about deeper meaning, allegory, symbology, etc.). If you can learn to see and depict visual fundamentals well from life - then you have the ability to do the same in your more fantastic visions - if yo ucan't do it from life I don't know how you would do it from imagination. Basically if your ideas and visions are important to you then learn how to execute them well.
6: Fundamentals...what should you be looking for
These are the fundamentals that I feel are important:
Composition - this is the foundation of your piece
Drawing - accurate shape, form, perspective, proportion, angle, curve, etc.
Value - good value range and pattern with careful observation of form vs cast shadow and reflected light
Texture - surface quality of the subject or element within the subject
Edges - what is the quality of the edge you are observing/drawing - is is hard/crisp - soft/fuzzy - high contrast - gentle in transition of form, etc.
Balance - by this I mean a balance of all the variety of elements you have to work with - one of my mentors called it the "dialog of opposites" - some rich detail here but not everywhere - bold line vs. soft or lost - curve vs. straight, etc.
Color - but that gets into painting so another time...
7: Correct drawing
There is a reason that any time you see a studio class or people painting in the field they are standing at easels (sitting at an easel or drawing bench is ok too - but not quite as good). There are a few reasons this is the best approach: 1) it allows you the freedom of movement to be expressive and to draw from the shoulder; 2) it allows you to step a good distance away from your work to analyze composition, massing, value structure, etc.
8: Sight Measuring...how to compare and translate
This is the real key to working from life - sight measuring. It is simple but it isn't discussed much - basically you hold your pencil or a thin stick out at arms length, sight with one eye closed and using your thumb as a mark measure how tall/wide something is in comparison to something else. Translate that same scale information to your drawing. This is how you judge proportion, height, scale, etc. For angles you can hold your pencil in line with the angle (but keep it flat to the picture plane) and just move your hand over to your drawing to get teh right angle.
9: Still Life practice
You can really improve by practicing the still life on your own. Set up a small space somewhere that you can set a few objects on - light it with a strong light and try to minimize secondary or ambient light. I like to have students start with one object - draw it for one hour - the next session add one object - draw this for one hour - add a third object - and so on. Still life is fun because you have the most control over it and you can do all kinds of creative things with it - use objects you're interested in or provide a challenge you want to observe. You can practice drapery/folds the same way.
10: Recommended books and resources
I recommend these all the time:
"Drawing Essentials" by Deborah Rockman - best book on observational drawing and not terribly expensive
"Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes" by Jack Hamm - great book on composition and "environments"
"Imaginitive Realism" by James Gurney - not a technique book but a great book on professional, creative illustration practice
Jim Gurney's blog: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/ Jim created Dinotopia and is a National Geographic illustrator
I hope this helps answer a few questions on the "hows and whys" of drawing from life.
This is just some personal background stuff about why I'm so passionate about working from life...feel free to ignore...
A: Why do people push it so hard?
Well, I know I do, as does dpaint and most pros you talk to or read. For me the reason is simple: I wasted far too many years thinking I didn't need to draw or paint from life and I want to try to help others avoid my mistake. Here's why I avoided it: when I first tried "life drawing" in college I sucked. Hard. I was embarassed. So I avoided it for years - after all, I was a "fantasy and science fiction" artist. I drew and painted fantastic, imaginary people, places and things. The problem was I did it quite poorly.
I began to realize that I needed to get really serious about becoming the artist I had always wanted to be. The first step for me was to list and analyze all my favorite artists/illustrators. I broke them down into groups mainly around the media they use and the genre they paint in. Then I tried to figure out what they had in common - a pattern emerged - my list was 90% oil painters. So I knew there must be something about painting in oil that allowed them to work in a way that spoke to me. They were all over the place as far as technique - but they were all oil painters. They were also all very traditional in their approach and they worked from life.
C: Now I knew...
What I had to do - I had to work from life and figure out how to paint in oil.
Remember #1? It's hard? And #5? How I sucked? Repeat. Only a lot worse.
I'm trying to work through it...
Read more: http://www.conceptart.org/forums/showthread.php/178087-Jeff-s-Observations-on-Drawing-from-Life/page2#ixzz3CDZNCHBb