Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reference Photos - Help or Hindrance?

I don't have a classical art background, so I never learned early on the benefits of working from life. When I first started painting and was looking for something to paint, photographs were the obvious choice. In a photograph, everything keeps perfectly still and there's always a wealth of detail available to copy. What more could a painter want?

But although I painted as much as I could, my work never really made any progress -- other than to become more detailed and photographic. My paintings just didn't look like those of the artists I admired, such as the Impressionists, both French, American and Russian, and some of my contemporaries.

My self-study painting course involved taking workshops from the best artist-instructors and reading many books. Through them, I came to understand the value of painting from life and how it is different from painting from photographs. Here's what I learned:
  • Painting from photographs improves your skills in handling a brush and mixing color.
  • Painting from life improves your skills of observation.
Photographs, because they can't record the range of value and color that the human eye can see, simply don't contain all the information you need in order to render the landscape realistically.

Once I started to paint from life, I came to understand that photographs, though perhaps a great teaching aid, quickly become a handicap to the student. Because I could see a greater range of color and finer differences in value, I was free to observe them, and thus to use the skills I gained while painting from photographs -- brush-handling and color-mixing -- with more satisfaction.

As I painted more and more from life, I began to question the value of taking reference photographs. A reference photograph has two uses. First, the artist can use a photograph as the sole basis for a painting. He can go from start to finish with the photograph. I did this when I first began painting. Second, the artist can take a photograph of his subject, and then refer to it later. Perhaps he didn't have time to finish the painting, and there's some detail he failed to add. Perhaps he isn't quite happy with the value or color relationships, and the photograph will show him where he went wrong.

I've already covered the first situation. The second situation, though it's a technique often taught by instructors and used by their students, has its problems, too.

Again, the photograph has insufficient information to do all that the artist may require of it. Value ranges are exaggerated. If he's trying to fix a value relationship, the photograph won't help, because the darks will be too dark and the lights, too light. Colors are inaccurate. Even if the camera was properly balanced for the color temperature of the ambient light, the color will still be off. Neither film nor digital media can capture the full range of human color vision.

Really, photographs help only with shapes and details.

I used to take reference photographs while on-location. But the few times I actually pulled out a photograph to help with some "fix-up" work in the studio, I was unhappy with what I saw. Inevitably, I put the photograph away and worked solely from memory.

Let me pause for a moment and describe what happens to my eyes when I paint outdoors. Initially, I spend a lot of time looking at my scene -- even before I open up my pochade box. I try to figure out right away what draws me to a scene. I determine my focus and points of interest. I compose and re-compose mentally and try to find a design to help my main point of interest. Finally, I observe value and color relationships. It's at this point that I open my box and begin my initial sketch.

As I paint, my eyes dart back and forth from canvas to my subject. Early on, I re-evaluate my first decisions and either confirm or discard them. Once I've established on canvas the foundation for the painting, I start looking a little less at the subject. I look only to observe and confirm a value or color relationship or the placement of a key element.

But I found out that a strange thing happens to me here. One of my students noticed it first. I stop looking at my subject entirely! By now, the painting has enough in it that it stands on its own. From this point on, I adjust the elements I've put down, referring only to their relationships and to my internal checklist of what makes a painting good. There's no need to refer to my subject unless my painting needs certain details recorded accurately, such as the architectural elements of a lighthouse or the exact shape of a well-known landscape feature. Otherwise, the painting is my self-contained playground, and I could just as well take it back to the studio to finish it. If I get cold or hungry, that's exactly what I do!

This observation freed me. I realized that, since I stopped referring to my subject about half-way through, there was no point in taking a reference photograph. So, I no longer take such photographs when on-location. I'm much happier adjusting what I have on the canvas until it's a harmonious, balanced whole rather than struggling to make it mirror my subject. (I'm more intent on mirroring the emotional quality of the subject, and not its precise physical characteristics, anyway.)

Only once have I regretted not taking a reference photograph. A client wanted a particular painting that was already sold. She asked me to paint another just like it. I didn't have a good photograph of the scene, but only a photograph of the sold painting -- which I was forced to use as my sole reference. Although my copy turned out just fine, I spent many more hours on it to make it perfect than I did on the original! My client really got her money's worth on that one.

Here's the painting. "Eastport Salmon Festival," 9x12, oil/panel.

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