There’s a lot of debate in the art community about painting from a photo. I was at a figure drawing class recently and the topic came up. There were several plein air painters in the group. There were also some newbies who didn’t quite understand the stigma related to both techniques. The debate went something like this: If you paint from life, your painting will be more lively, vibrant, have energy. It won’t look like a photo, it will look like a painting. You will get the colors and values accurate. The other side argued working from a photo allows you to paint on your own terms, in a studio. It offers the artist convenience and more freedom of subject matter. You are able to see details. You can take longer on a work. It may look realistic. The rationale for each goes on and on.
I have my own opinions (as does everyone!). Basically, a painting is a painting. It’s not a photograph. The untrained eye will think the painting from a photo is “so good”. If it is tight and realistic, they may compliment it by saying “I thought that was a photo!” For a long time, I heard these statements. I thought this meant I was a good painter. I may be a good painter, but I want to be a good artist. I have become more aware and appreciative of paintings that show more of the artists brushwork and process. For me, being an artist means I am leaving a bit more of “me” on the canvas; my brushwork, my colors and my composition.
I studied photography in school. I have taken tens of thousands of photos. In fact, I have over 25,000 on my phone from the last year. Yikes, that’s a lot of photos! Anyway, I feel confident in my skills of composition and design. I learned to paint by copying my photos. But is the art in the photograph or in the painting? Recently have I discovered painting from life. I’m still copying what I see, but for some reason, I feel more like an artist! I get a rush from painting from life. I can interpret the colors and make bolder brush strokes. Consider this: If I took a photo of the exact place I plein air paint, it would show a moment in time. A quick snap – a freeze frame. As a photo, it might be wonderful. Ideally, it would trigger an emotional response. Now, if I stay in the same spot, becoming immersed while painting for a few hours, the experience would transfer onto the canvas. And for many artists, they will use the plein air painting and a photo reference together for a studio painting.
It’s all just preference. Some artists have the propensity for details and getting every detail in their painting. There are collectors and art buyers who love to show off such works. Others prefer a more painterly approach, seeing the brushstrokes and the mark of the artist. While both techniques have their merits, here are a few tips to consider if painting from a photograph:
- Whenever possible, create a small painted study to accompany your photo. Not possible? Then draw a sketch. Not possible? Take some color notes. What colors would you mix? Jot down what the weather was like, or some words for your mood.
- If you must work from a photo, at least work from your own. Don’t use other’s photography. All you will be doing is showing your skills at copying. No fun.
- If you use a smart phone, keep it in portrait mode when possible. Also, make sure to keep the phone at same level and perpendicular to your vision. Distortion and wide lens are giveaways that you painted from a photo.
- Beware of shadows and highlights. Your photo will obliterate the highlights. It will make all your shadows black.
- Make corrections immediately after taking the photo, while you are still in front of your subject.
- Take several photos in the same area, all around, all views.
- Compose ON THE SPOT if possible. It saves time and sharpens your vision as an artist.
- Find your focal point and soften the rest. Our eyes see differently than a camera. We cannot focus from one thing to the next. Try it! Look at something, anything in front of you. Now notice the extraneous objects surrounding the item you have focused on. You cannot make out their details. The camera flattens everything and shows you everything in clear focus but, we do not see that way.
- If you do paint from a photo, edit elements that won’t help your composition. Don’t put in every last item or detail. It can really weaken your painting
- Convert your photo to black and white to help see the values. This can be helpful if you are new to painting or just are having difficulty making them out.
Above all, remember that the camera is a tool. YOU are the artist, the one mixing the paints. YOU are the one reading the information and interpreting what you see. And only you can prevent forest fires. (Just seeing if you’re still with me!) All that really matters is that you are fortune enough to paint!