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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.

Posted in art technique, painting.

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6 Responses

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  1. Incompetent says

    Methinks you’re too hon­est, David. I’ve seen por­traits done from 4×6’s from the fam­ily scrap­book and the vast major­ity of peo­ple I’ve met think those naïve-realist ren­di­tions with no depth (but “shad­ing”) are impressive…especially since many take the pho­to­graph as the bench­mark of pure objec­tive and opti­cal reality.

    No amount of artic­u­la­tion can make peo­ple see what they can’t real­ize. Well, doing the right thing was never sup­posed to easy anyway…

    You could prob­a­bly ignore my com­ments since I live in the boon­docks. We have a “Thomas Kinkead Gallery” (mousepads now on sale) and lit­tle else.

  2. David says

    Thanks for the comment.

    U.S., at least, we all live near one of his galleries.

  3. Anna Sellers says

    I will make the promise. You are quite right about the fam­ily mem­bers thing. I hate telling them no. They just don’t under­stand that their favorite snap­shot makes a lousy draw­ing. Now I can say “David made me promise not to” and get out of the long explaina­tion as to why I can’t use it.

  4. David says


    Excel­lent! Just say no to snapshots.

  5. Jeff says

    Great Advice David!

    I am inter­ested in learn­ing to take proper ref­er­ence pho­tos for addi­tional work when life is not avail­able (for instance start­ing a land­scape and then bring­ing it back into stu­dio once the light is not opti­mal). Do you have any good sources for learn­ing? (I’m sure I can dig up some really
    good stuff over on Cen­nini). Have you heard any­thing about Scott Burdick’s Pho­tograph­ing Your Art­work DVD?

    Inci­den­tally, I got the Richard Schmid Paints The Land­scape– May DVD for Christ­mas. It is inter­est­ing in that he takes the paint­ing back into the stu­dio where he has his Mac Book and Cin­ema Screen hooked up to dis­play a ref­er­ence (he said it was the sec­ond time in his life work­ing from dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy). In the past he pro­jected a 35mm slide which gives off a very hot light so if the sceen had cool lights and warm shad­ows it reversed the color per­cep­tion. He says work­ing dig­i­tally main­tains the color bal­ance. I would be open to trad­ing if you were inter­ested in check­ing it out (I’m inter­ested in some of the Liliedahl DVDs if you have any).

  6. David says


    I’m not so great at either tak­ing good ref­er­ence pho­tos or work­ing from ref­er­ence pho­tos (although I do know that flash snap­shots are what not to use). It seems over­all that good pho­tos often make bad ref­er­ences, and good ref­er­ences often look rather blah as pho­tos. I think it’s use­ful to bracket shots (delib­er­ately shoot­ing mul­ti­ple shots of one scene, with some shots over­ex­posed and some under­ex­posed), because that can pro­vide a lot more shadow detail in over­ex­posed shots and high­light detail in under­ex­posed shots. But I am hardly the expert.

    I’m afraid I don’t have any paint­ing videos of any kind. I don’t have any objec­tion to them, but I’ve tended to spend my money on art books instead.

    It’s very inter­est­ing to hear that Schmidt is now using dig­i­tal photo ref­er­ences; I’d thought he was a “work only from life” purist. At some point I will buy his “Alla Prima” book.

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