I’ve noted previously that, while there is no such thing as cheating in art, photographs present certain problems when used as reference materials for realist drawing or painting. These problems are exacerbated when you try to do something with an amateur snapshot, which is typically to be used as the basis of a portrait. To be useful as a portrait reference, a photo really needs to be composed largely in terms of the direction and intensity of light. Does the light illuminate the face in such a way that the structure of the nose, the brow, the mouth, and so on are clearly delineated? Are the lights blown out? Are the darks impenetrable? Are there lively catchlights in the eyes? Will the smile on the face translate into something that looks like a horrible grimace? (Almost all portrait paintings, in my opinion, are better if no teeth are showing.)
No one gives the least thought to any of that stuff when taking, or judging, a snapshot. Nor should they. But if they bring it to you and ask you to translate it into a painting, you need to be willing to explain why that’s just not a good idea. Even working from life, it takes great skill to paint a good portrait. It’s even harder when working from a set of well-lit and correctly exposed photographs. Making it work with a crappy snapshot is almost impossible. That’s especially the case when the photo was made with a flash on the camera pointed straight at the subject, which will eliminate all trace of dimensionality and make everything look flat.
So I want you now to make these two promises to yourself:
I solemnly swear that, if presented with a good snapshot, taken without a flash, and asked to paint a portrait from it, I will not comply unless offered really impressive amounts of cash or threatened with serious emotional blackmail by a family member whom I know to be crazy enough to convince my mom to stop speaking to me for a year.
I solemnly swear that, if presented with a bad snapshot, or any snapshot taken with a flash, it would take a credible threat of death to me, a loved one, or a family pet in order to get me to try to do something with it.
Now you’re ready for when your Aunt Stephanie finds out that you are an artist and wants free portraits of the whole family. Leave it to Chinese sweatshop artists to attempt “genuine oil paintings made with artist-grade materials” using only crappy snapshots. You owe it to yourself and to the rest of us.