Drawing from Unsplash Photos

My free time has been pretty well monopolized recently, first with writing a book, and then with figuring out the ins-and-outs of independent publishing. Now that the book is out and that’s mostly off my plate, I hope to have a little more time for drawing. Because I have been somewhat less active on the artwork front, I’ve accumulated a larger than usual backlog of ideas. That’s sort of a nice feeling since I’m so often unsure what to draw next.

Of my inspirational backlog, I’ve actually got two drawings that I started but never finished. I did an outline of a Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot sketch, but my disappointment in the Dallas Cowboys perpetual mediocrity as a football team caused me to lose interest. I also started a sketch of Dirk Nowitzki, based on the cool retirement send-off at his last home game. I’m not sure why I haven’t finished it, but for now, it’s on the shelf. Another project, which I have moved forward with, is a drawing based on photographs from a site called Unsplash. If you haven’t heard of it, Unsplash is actually a somewhat controversial site. It’s a stock image provider, but with the noteworthy twist that the images are free to use! We can probably best sum up what they are about using Unsplashes own words:

All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and non-commercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.

Unsplash’s licensing page,

Sounds pretty great from a consumer standpoint, right? Free images for commercial use, including selling derivative works like drawings/paintings. Compared to licensing a photograph through Shutterstock, which tends to be around $10, and Getty Images, which can run into the $100s, that’s pretty sweet. There are a few criticisms, though. First, there is the important fact that paid royalty-free (meaning one payment required, not a per-use fee) sites like Shutterstock offer some legal indemnification. So, if you get sued, they will cover up to a certain amount of legal fees and damages. Unsplash doesn’t include any such protection.

That’s not the only risk, though. Photographers agree to license their photos for free on Unsplash, but what about the subjects? Sites like Shutterstock confirm model releases are on file, but Unsplash doesn’t. It’s up to the user to contact the photographer and confirm that they have a signed model release. Likewise, it’s important to make sure that no brands, logos, or otherwise trademarked things appear in these photos. If you’re going to utilize an Unsplash image for a commercial purpose, you’ve definitely got to be careful and do some of your own follow up with the photographer.

It’s divisive to photographers too. Some feel that providing their work for free does the profession harm (like this person). But others say it gives them visibility from images that may just sit idle on their computers otherwise (like this guy). Despite the controversy, I spent some time browsing the site and decided to do a few sketches based on interesting photographs. Although they don’t require photographer credit, I’m definitely going to provide that for each one. Interestingly enough, I’ve actually drawn something from an Unsplash photographer before, but I didn’t know it; my “how to” post image was originally from Unsplash (I found it in use by WordPress for an ad). So, my second Unsplash-based portrait is the subject of this post!

Of course, this sketch is in my favorite pose – the head-and-shoulders portrait view. Here’s the final result, followed by a discussion of the process:

Portrait of a woman with some green jewelry. Derived from a photograph by Luke Braswell on Unsplash.

I’m actually sort of proud with how this one turned out. Honestly, it wasn’t especially tricky; as I mentioned, this is essentially my favorite pose. I’ve had a ton of practice with the head-and-shoulders straight-on portrait view, so I wasn’t exactly pushing myself. Regardless of the challenge level, I felt good throughout the drawing. All of my usual methods and techniques for shadows, lines, and burnishing were fairly effective.

I selected this subject because of the deep shadows, but unfortunately shadows also represent the biggest miss of this portrait. There should have been darker shading framing the face, under the nose, and under the chin. While it’s certainly an improvement over my drawings from even six months ago, I still see room for improvement. I can still be fairly timid about using bold colors and high contrast, and I hope to work on that in the near future.

A sort of new wrinkle here was the prominently featured jewelry. I don’t have much experience with shiny stones in necklaces, so that was an interesting thing to try. The gemstones themselves I think look pretty good and simulate reflected light fairly well. The gold settings and links are just okay…not terrible, but sort of dull looking overall.

I took quite a few progression shots of this one. Here’s the .gif of this portrait as it moved forward:

This was a good experience overall. As I mentioned above, I’m planning on doing a few more Unsplash-inspired portraits. I probably don’t even need to do more browsing, because I’ve got at least half a dozen in mind already. Not that I’ll draw all of them…or will I? (cue dramatic music)


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  • Nice Jon! I can see YOU have been busy in the months that I have been absent from blogland!!! Please send me a small cupful of YOUR energy and enthusiasm to help me get my own blog restarted!!!! Happy New Year! I really hope 2022 is going to be a GOOD one!!!!

    • Hello there Hilda, great to see you in the blog world again! I just saw the new post on your site, which I will also comment on – but thank you for stopping by here to say hello.

      There are a couple of artists I follow that have taken a bit of a pandemic-era break who I’ve been wondering about and hoping they’re doing well. Yours has indeed been a noteworthy absence! I hope everything is good, and definitely looking forward to seeing more of your great portraits and landscapes at some point in the future.

      Cheers to a great 2022!

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  • Hi Jon, you’ve amassed a great amount of work, which is great to see. You’re not afraid to try new things.
    I recently posted a ‘tutorial’ on how I went about doing a self portrait sketch in in pencil, which might interest you. It’s good to be in touch.

    • Haha, see I’ve got you fooled there! I feel like I have a hard time trying new things. I think it took me like 6 months to get the courage to even try color! But I do try to push myself out of my comfort zone sometimes, because getting back into the art hobby after being away from it for like a decade has been all about learning.

  • Hi Jon, I see that you’ve ‘liked’ my latest blog, thanks for that. I have had a quick look through some of your posts, and you have created an impressive list. As an artist (in many drawing mediums), and lover of people to draw, I’ve enjoyed looking at your approach to the portrait. I recently did a self portrait, and have noted my approach to this sketch on the post. Nice to be in touch, Vivienne (New Zealand).

    • Hello there Vivienne – I always love coming across new art blogs (well, new to me anyway). I’ve learned a ton just from following other artists who run WordPress sites, so it’s great to find more people to follow. I’ll have to check out the self portrait and some of your other works as well.

      Thanks for checking out this site!

  • Wow! this is awesome 🙂

  • Nice one Jon, and a good point with regards to the model release part of these ‘free’ sites. For something commercial I’d probably be inclined to use either my own photos or create something drastically altered from someone else’s photo. Or possibly even… (scary thought) use my imagination.

    Well done on the phrase “perpetual mediocrity” and the gif build up.

    • Haha, thanks Steve – if only my imagination was more functional going from brain to paper. It’s funny, I’ve always thought of myself as a creative type of dude, but honestly that is a real struggle for me most of the time. It’s frustrating, because when I really want to practice art, the limiting factor is usually that I can’t figure out anything interesting to draw!

      That makes sites like Unsplash such a remarkable gift. And WordPress too, because reading about how/where other folks come up with things is like a gold mine. Ha – also thanks for the kudos on my Dallas Cowboys diss. I can never pass up a chance to bad-mouth the team that I both love and hate.

      • Going from brain to paper is what you and I are both doing anyway, it’s just that we’re taking in that optical input as the source. Using the imagination to generate that initial image must be like a holy grail. I use visual references 100% of the time, well maybe 99.65%.

        I’d say that since I started drawing 6 years ago I’ve just been copying for the most part, learning how to use the tools. Only in the past year have I started to ‘create’ something new but even so it’s started with an image reference.

      • Dude, you are sure right about that – definitely the holy grail of drawing. I am being totally literal when I say I’m in awe of the creative talent some artists have. Some people really have a gift!

  • Lovely job, Jon! Good to see some fresh work from YOU btw! I think the jewelry works just fine, especially as it is the second thing that draws the eye, the first being her EYES! In case you did not notice, I am using Unsplash almost exclusively for my Face A Day May challenge,this year, so I was very interested to hear your thoughts on it in regards to copywrite. I always credit the photographers because I think they should have credit for their work and exposure, even though they are posting their work up with no strings attached – to me it’s the right thing to do and I, as a portrait and figurative artist am truly grateful that these websites exist to give me such a broad segment of humanity to reference!

    • Much appreciated Hilda – it always feels good to get back into some familiar territory! Although I’ve really only been blogging for about two years, it’s comfortable to be in the draw-and-write-about-it flow.

      I’ve been meaning to check into your Face A Day May challenge and see how it’s going. I’ve only read a couple of the posts so far, but already I’m seeing great things. I only just found out about Unsplash; what a wealth of ideas! I read your reference to Pixabay too, which I will definitely check out. You’re so right about the “broad segment of humanity” to reference, it’s so valuable to artists who are thirsty for practice.

      I love the prompt to your readers to participate in the Face A Day challenge by submitting ideas or photos, by the way. It sounds fun – I’m going to ponder a bit, see if I can come up with something good before the challenge gets too far along.

      • Looks like you came back and read a whole lot more of my Face A Day posts, Jon! Hope you are finding them entertaining! The thing I like about Unsplash is that you can make a ‘collection’ and then it’s just a case of opening your collection each time and picking from what you already pre-selected – so it really cuts down on decision making. The other thing I noticed is that Unsplash will then suggest other people’s collections that you might like (and I am getting ones on the subject of “humanity”, which then gives me further interesting face-fuel!!)
        Glad you like my idea to get my readers involved (so far it has inspired two people to submit …which is wonderful, fun and really inspires me to put forth my best effort for their benefit) I hope YOU do come up with ‘something good’ that would be awesome….tick tock, clocks ticking and the $’s just creep up…….(THAT aspect was also inspired by something I heard another artist did to inspire audience participation!)

      • Oh yes, I really enjoyed what I’ve seen so far! This is such a cool idea, I love unique challenges like this one. I can’t remember if I was around and blogging for your first two Face A Day Mays (you’ve had three now right?), but it’s very fun. I’m excited to see what the rest of May brings.

        Unsplash really is a cool site. I hadn’t even made a profile yet, but I went ahead and did that tonight so I could take advantage of some of their features. The photo suggestions so far have been surprisingly solid too, and keep leading to more ideas. At this rate, I’m going to need some more paper for all these planned sketches!

  • This is a great outcome and the jewellery adds another dimension, drawing the eye in. I think you’ve captured the light in the gemstones very well and, yes, capturing gold settings must be very hard. My favourite parts of this sketch are definitely the hair and the gem stones.

    • Thank you Claire – in hindsight I’m actually a little surprised about the necklace. As I was working on it, I thought the entire piece of jewelry was a bust. But the stones actually look decent! Gold is apparently tricky for me because it seemed in this case to have both bright/shiny and dark qualities. That part was a bit confounding. I’m glad the hair and necklace left an impression! That’s great to hear.

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