Friday, August 26, 2011

Painting from Photographs: All Surface, No Substance


"Rock, Grass, Rock" 9x12, pastel - contact Michael

I take every opportunity I can to disabuse students of the notion that painting from photographs is a valuable skill. It's not. Creating a painting from a photograph is like staging a theatrical set and then trying to live in it. That impressive shelf full of books is just a trompe l'oeil; the telephone that's supposed to ring in Act II isn't wired to anything; and the roast chicken on the table is literally rubber. A painting made from a photograph is like that. At first glance, it may look right, but as you climb onto the stage and look at the props, you'll see that they're exactly that - just props.

The reason painting photographs doesn't work is that photographs contain a very limited amount of useful information. Your senses will quickly outpace the meagre amount presented. You'll end up inventing things or worse, ruining your eyes trying to decide if a particular pixel represents a flower - or just a flaw - in the photo. On the other hand, if you work from life, you can spend a lifetime looking and still not see everything. But best is this - if you have any question about your subject, the answer is out there.

So what, exactly, are the problems with photos? A lot: Values, color and perspective. Either the light areas will be blown out or the dark areas will be too murky to do you any good. You can't have it both ways, unless you're doing HDR (high dynamic range) photography. The color will be off, even if you're an expert with fine-tuning your white balance. Film (or computer screen LEDs) don't have the range or sensitivity of the human eye for color. And if you're not using the right lens, you'll almost invariably have distortion in perspective. It's not so bad for landscapes, but with architecture, the right lens can be the difference between convincing and laughable.

The only thing a photo is good for is for shape details. If you can't remember how many mullions a window has, the photograph will help you out. But if you need to know what kind of green the ocean was, you're better off looking at a color sketch you made in the field. Even a handwritten note on a pencil sketch saying "bluish-green, a little darker than the sky" is more useful than a photo - which is what the old-timers did before cameras were invented.

The above pastel was painted, of course, not from a photograph.

8 comments:

Helen O said...

Right on, Michael! If your students learn noting other than the benefits of working from life, not photographs, you will have made a great contribution to furthering the enjoyment of making art. My complaint, in addition to your points, is that photos remove all the air; images suffocate when squished into pixels.

I have seen excellent abstractions that began with photos, and a few painters (my watercolourist neighbour among them) fuse their paintings with life that is nowhere to be seen in the photo. For her, as for abstract painters, the photo is simply a stepping-off place for abstracting and getting involved with the painting itself. I didn't think this could be done until I saw her resultsl.

Deb said...

So true... And yet in every gallery there's likely to be a successful artist who paints from photos and the general public admires the work- I can always pick them out, can't you? There's usually tell-tale incongruities
mostly in the shadows . They might look nice but lack a certain authenticity.

daniela.. said...

I think this is as good as pastel painting gets, beautiful. 'Look and put' from photos I agree, definitely limits your ability, it creates a dependency of sorts where you just don't do much imaginative problem solving.

grovecanada said...

I've been working on a sculpture of a Trumpeter swan...In concrete, you have to mix the colours into the cement, then lay on that whole layer to get colour in a part...So I needed to do the whole black bill in one batch of black coloured cement...(Trumpeters have the black bill, Mute swans are the yellow)...I went to the waterfront park where Trumpeter Swans sometimes hang out...I brought alot of wild bird seed & a sketchpad & a pen...I fed the swans there...I ran & got my pad & was able to get a really good take of the black bill...I went home with my sketch, & later mixed up some black concrete mix & did a wonderful black bill...The whole process is what I think being an artist is about...There is also the issue of model fees- the wild bird seed...(I bring it from Nov.-to April, so this was not my first bring)...When you appropriate from a photograph the model is not getting paid...
My new sculpture is of a raccoon I picked up in early summer...The tail is huge & very long-my husband said too long...But to me, when I picked up this raccoon (who had been hit by a car & I was taking him to a vet emerg. clinic), the tail looked gigantic...I feel showing the tail in gigantic is truer to life than making it whatever a photo shows it really is...If you see something in a different proportion than what science says is fact, then maybe that is important to tell in art...The jaw was giant too- I think showing that in my sculpture tells people that raccoons have really really big jaws- a traced photo rendition doesn't tell that very well at all...They look just cute in photos...Showing your warped perception alerts to danger better...The warp is what defines expressionism...It tells a message from the artist-namely, be careful with raccoons...

Cody DeLong said...

I agree that for beginner artists this is good advice, paint from life for direct accurate information. However once an artist has years of life experience, the best ones reach a level where nature becomes a 'jumping off point' for their own ideas. Working from photos for the experienced artist is just another tool in the toolbox. One that in fact can allow the time (without the light changing) to come up with more thoughful, complex and sophisticated ideas. these in turn can be executed with a wider array of paint application techniques than is normally available in one quick session. Both forms of painting offer benefits, and the very best artists working today use both.
Ask Richard Schmid.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Good points, Cody! Photos can be a good departure point, and there's no reason that, with years of experience, a painter can't use them.

thebrush said...

Good point cody, i am a detailed artist and i spend many hours working on my paintings , if i did not have a photo to work from it wold be impossible for me to do so , . So i do both stretch on site then use photos for reference , like you said its another tool in the tool box.

Becky Joy said...

Cody said exactly what I would say. It is another tool. Rendering, trying the "match" the photo results in a lifeless, stiff painting.
You do need experience as a life painter to use photos effectively. I find that it is another source of inspiration. Often the smallest detail is a "jumping off" point for the inspiration of a studio painting.