There are some artists who think that using a photograph as a reference for a painting or drawing is cheating. I think that’s silly, because you can only cheat when there is a defined set of rules. The only important thing in visual art is whether it is good or not. A good painting made using photos is better than a bad painting made from life. Art is not gymnastics; the judges don’t give you extra points when you attempt a routine with a high degree of difficulty. Artists have used “cheats” for centuries—there is a woodcut by Albrecht Durer that shows an artist using a grid of wires to draw a nude woman, for example. Vermeer used a camera obscura, which is a device for projecting an upside-down image into a box. Some artists make a fetish of declaring that they work “only from life” or “en plein air.” I’m not impressed by such claims—it’s easy to fake and says nothing about the quality of the work. Good is good; bad is bad.
The problem with photographs is not that using them is cheating, it’s that as references they suck. The camera just doesn’t see the way the eye sees. People see with two eyes (most people anyway) and the eye has a completely different sensitivity to light and dark than the camera does. The eye has a broader value range than any film or digital camera, and the eye can expand its sensitivity by adapting quickly to looking into a shadow area or a light area while still keeping the rest of the scene in mind. The eye interprets edges differently than a camera does. Lenses also introduce major distortions; I’ve heard of photographers who could look at a bad painting copied too directly from a photo and identify the type of lens used.
For the past year and a half, I’ve worked mostly from life, and that has noticeably improved my work. I’ve used photos occasionally as a supplement—for example, when a pose at art class was over, but I still had work to do on the painting, I took a photo (with the model’s permission) and used it to finish. That worked out fine. I’ve tried a couple of landscapes from photo references, however, and those have mostly been failures. I’m not very good at using photos as my primary reference.
And yet some excellent artists use photos, not as something to be slavishly copied, but as something that provides some part of the visual reference needed to create a drawing or painting. It seems like if you are good enough, you can train yourself to translate the distortions introduced by the camera into something that looks as if it were done from life. I’m not any good at that, but it is clearly possible. That is particularly the case with some of the better illustrators out there, who routinely work from photos and whose work shows no absence of vibrancy or sense of reality.
I think that use of any assistive device for drawing or painting—a photo, a projector, and so on—is an advanced skill. Until you are able to do work of excellent quality without such assistance, you should not use them. If you do decide to make use of devices, treat this as a skill to be learned. How do you interpret the pattern light and dark to make it look like the way the eye sees? How do you avoid lens distortion? How do you avoid stiltedness and flatness? When should you forgo the reference and finish the work without it? Those are matters of discriminating judgment that I am only beginning to understand.