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Reference photos

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.

Posted in art technique, painting.

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2 Responses

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  1. Ann says

    Hi, I finally found time to check your blog out. Very nice! {A good paint­ing made using pho­tos is bet­ter than a bad paint­ing made from life}

    Good points!
    I couldn’t agree more to both your com­ments. I’m not into haul­ing all my sup­plies to a loca­tion, and then stand­ing out­side in all ele­ments to paint. If I had a lovely scene out my win­dow, then that is fine, I would maybe paint it.

  2. David says



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