Monday, April 10, 2006

Thoughts on painting from photographs

The debate about the pros and cons of painting from photographs has taken another turn around the block with a post last Tuesday in Artnewsblog (and several comments) and an update today. (Thanks to Karl for alerting me as to the update.)

My personal position is I very much enjoy working from life - but a photo can also be just one of the tools I will use to create a painting I have in mind. However, I do think that it's best not to use photos in this way unless you have also worked from life as otherwise it's difficult to know the differences between the drawings you make and the photos you take from the same spot. Once you've studied an object or place (through drawing) so you have a strong mental image and then produced a drawing as well as taken photographs and then seen the significance of the differences between these different images nobody would ever rely on photos again for the 'truth' of a place or a person. Photos rarely represent tonal values accurately and quite often get colours wrong. What they are great for is reminding you about place and the details of the bits which didn't work quite so well in one's drawing.

Working from a photo is also a great way of learning how something works (eg how do all the bits fit together) before you try drawing it from life for the first time. I think that's why, in the past, art students used to draw the statues before they were let loose on live models!

Digital images (from cameras) are very helpful if you want to try doing a painting with a particular colour theme. I try manipulating photos I've taken on a computer using photoshop before trying to produce a painting in real life - it saves wasting art supplies - and also leads to being more adventurous, for example, in the use of colour once I've seen some of the possibilities of what something could look like.

Photography is also an excellent way of practising one's compositional skills. I frequently take photos in order to try out different perspectives on an object. It's not about using a photo to create the object so much as using the camera and the viewfinder to look at what potential exists to create a piece of artwork from that particular scene or object. The photo then becomes a record of that thought.

But I do think that the artwork of those who work from photos all the time can start to look very sterile after a bit. It's the lack of imperfection which I don't like.

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  1. You've written it down well and I agree completely Katherine.

  2. I have no difficulty with people who work from photographs ( I am the anti-purist in that and many other respects) as long as what they produce trancends the photographic source material and is used to produce a memorable image.

    Chuck Close is an excellent example of an artist who uses photographs as source imagery but goes on to create works that are about the subject, about the the way that photographs capture and translate reality about utterly sensuous mark making and about many other abouts.

    Slavish perfect reproduction for its own sake with nothing more at work - whether from photographs or from life most often leaves me perfectly cold. It may be a very hard and time consuming thing to do but that cannot be the main criteria for judging a piece of art - any more than carving a perfect and comnplete reproduction of the Toronto telephone directory onto the interior of a wallnut - some how translates that eminently useful book ( at least if you live in Toronto) into a piece of great literature.
    Regards, neil
    As usual, lots of wonderful art and writing in your great blog.

  3. When I arrive in a place to draw, I nearly always snap several photos first. The quick response of a camera allows me to play around with composition and explore how I feel about what I see, before I settle in to draw. And sometimes I find that what I see and feel is far better photographed than drawn.

    Other than this simple practice, I've never been able to successfully use photography in my drawings. I've simply never been satisfied with the result. I do wish I could figure it out, though. I have way too many pieces left unfinished because a thunderstorm kicked up, or I had to stop drawing to pick up my son from some place, or the sunset simply didn't last long enough, or I simply couldn't finish in one sitting and was never able to return when the light was the same.

    There is a pastel artist here in the Southwest U.S. who does stunning work from photographs. She takes closeup photos of flowers with great depth of field, then turns them into pastel drawings. She's not bashful about her practice, and the effect is stunning. So, I don't think we can say creating satisfying paintings or drawings from photos is impossible, but it most certainly is very, very challenging. Much like drawing from life, creating art from photos is its own genre, a genre that can only be explored and developed by a willing artist.

  4. Thanks for all the comments - they contain some really interesting notions to reflect on.

    I've listened to Chuck Close recently at a lecture at the NPG in London - and he struck me at the time as being one the most observant of people. He is also very definitely somebody who is able to transform a photo into a work of art - I wholeheartedly agree with Neil's thinking.

    I agree with Elizabeth also that using photos to develop artwork is a very challenging process. For me, it's also a process that can only be used successfully by those who have developed skills in drawing and painting from life - without using photos.


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