Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Painting from photos

This post is about painting from photos including photos taken by other people.

Over on Making A Mark Reviews - you can find a review of a new Ning site called Paint My Photo which is designed to create a pool of reference photos for people who want one to create art - and a community of artists who paint from photos.

Paint my Photo - Robyn Lovelock's Photos of Tasmania
Should you paint from other people's photos?

Now as many of my readers will know, I'm a huge advocate of developing your observational skills and working from real life when developing your art, whether it's a sketch a drawing or a painting, whether it's a landscape, a still life or a portrait.

However that's not to say I don't use photos on occasion!  However I mostly use them in conjunction with sketches I've done plus these days I always (that's ALWAYS!) use my own photos.

I also know that working from other people's photos could cause a spot of bother if you then want to enter your work in an art competition which is supposed to be about wholly original artwork - which means it's not original - it's a derivative work if it is wholly or mainly based on somebody else's photos taken by a photographer who conceived the subject and chose the lighting, colours, composition and crop etc etc.

See Making a Mark: AWS gold medal controversy - the final word for the conclusion of one debacle relating to working from another's photos and claiming the art as the artist's own.

What I do know is that many amateur painters and leisure artists - as well as some professional painters - do prefer to work from photos - and working from photos is a fact of life across the art world whether or not some artists acknowledge that they do it or not.

The issue for me is whether artists are working from photos AFTER they have:
  • developed observational skills 
  • learned how to draw
  • developed a good understanding of what information is missing from a photo and how photos distort real life.
Otherwise it seems to me you can have people who think they are creating realistic art when the photo they're working from does not look like real life in the first place and they have no way of knowing that because they weren't there when it was taken.

That's quite apart from the questions of why would you create a painting which looks exactly like the photo you're working from - which is a whole other debate!

What I enjoy a lot are the challenges created by people like Karin Jurick (Different Strokes from Different Folks) and Bill Guffey (Virtual Paintout) which focus on everybody creating their own artwork from a digital image - whether that's a photograph or a view from Streetview.  Now that to me can have some very real value in terms of creating pictures which work and which do represent original style - albeit derived from somebody else's photo!

Three questions for YOU about painting from photos:
  • Can you create art from somebody else's photo and make it your own?  What do you think?
  • What would be your top tip to anybody wanting to use somebody else's reference photo to create a painting? 
  • Who's your favourite artist who paints from photos?
[UPDATE: Somebody emailed me after I posted this, in a VERY "J'accuse!" way and quoted my "always" sentence back to me and included evidence that I'd created art from other people's photographs in the past - and referenced the photo and art in question.  I think I was expected to quiver and shake!  For the record the image in question came from a community project I led in a forum over five years ago - see Who hasn't had a bad hair day? which was all about learning how to draw hair in a fun context - using copyright free photos from a reference library. I explained that I had used other people's photos in the past - and had found them useful for specific learning purposes (a point which has been made by a number of people in the comments to this blog)  Also that my shorthand statement about 'always' unpacked for people who don't know me well and used in a current context meant "I ALWAYS use my own photos when creating serious art that I can, if I wish, make available for sale."  Unpacked still further - and for the record - I've never at any time exhibited and never sold any artwork created using other people's photos.  I no longer use other people's photos unless joining in on a community challenge for fun. 

I also explained how I'd learned from observation about all the sorts of problems which can arise and just how dull and flat drawings copied from other people's photos can look - if used without the three pointers I've highlighted above. 

I also revised my statement above as follows "these days I always (that's ALWAYS!) use my own photos." to make matters clearer for those who don't know me or follow this blog on a regular basis.

Since "J'accuse" doesn't seem to be in any way satisfied with my answers, would very much like to continue to split hairs in a troll like way (there appear to be no shades of grey in her world!) and is doubtless rubbishing both this post and me to anybody who will listen to her I thought I'd provide this update on the blog - without naming names.  I've probably contravening my own normal blogging etiquette with this so I might take this comment down - on the basis you should always ignore a troll - or edit it.

I puzzled why this issue was quite so important to her - until I found the answer on her website.  Exactly the same photograph of an angora goat that I had used appears to have also been used by her to create art to enter an exhibition in which she appears to have won a prize. C'est la vie!]


Brian Cameron said...

Good points all. However I sometimes paint from others photos simply because the photo catches hold of something in me and I know I must paint it. I always see it as an homage to the original artist and I usually make every effort to contact the artist first.
But then I'm an odd creature who sometimes feel compelled to paint for reasons unknown to even me. Another reason I sometimes paint from others photos is that I, unlike many pro photographers, rarely catch the magic in my photos that originally grabbed my eye.
I would like to note that I am not a leisure painter but rather a full time working artist.

Sophie said...

Hi Katherine! Ok, so here’s a subject where I can get really wound up about....LOL...surely in this day and age we are not going on about if working from photos is allowed or not (allowed by whom? the ‘elite’?) or if using other tools is permissible or not? Oh, don’t get me started. Who cares? If someone creates amazing paintings, who cares how they were created? Why does it matter? Is someone working from life a better artist by definition? Of course not. Someone is a better artist if he/she makes good pictures. There are loads and loads of artists out there who shoot their own reference photos and paint from them. I am one of them. There are loads of artists who do this and produce amazing paintings. These high horse people who say you have to work from life should stop looking at method and start looking at results.
Can you create art from someone else’s photo and make it your own? Yes of course you can. You can do with photos whatever you want. Interpret, leave things out, enhance other things. Just get permission to use someone else’s photo.
I have no top tips for anyone - just paint, paint and see where the journey takes you. Just make sure you have permission to use their photo (if you want to sell) although if you stray away very much from the original photo you could even argue it allowed without permission.
Favourite artist...ugh so many....and so many still feel they have to justify themselves by saying they sketch and draw and only sometimes (really!?) use photos.
Working from life is great. Working from photos can be too. Its not about if you used a photo or not, but it is about what you do with it. Different methods for different folks.

Making A Mark said...

Hi Sophie - thanks for your comment and I'm wondering if you misunderstood my post.

There's no mention of "rules" in the post at all.

There's also no question about whether they are "allowed" or not (except in the very specific context of art competitions - and even that really depends on the "rules" which organisers are "allowed" to create for such competitions)!

I'm not saying you can't work from photos at all.

I'm just making the case that - from my perspective - you get more out of them and, in my opinion, create better pictures at the end of the day if:
1) they're your own photos; and
2) you've developed some basic artistic skills which help you create art BEFORE you start making art from photos.

However I do agree there are no right or wrong answers to this - and that it all depends at the end of day on what you do with the resources available to you.

However we are all entitled to our own perspective on this topic!

I'm just very interested to hear what everybody has to say - and was asking a slightly provocative question to generate a response - that's all! :)

Sophie said...

Hi Kath. I did understand....I did not ask all of what I answered...LOL....I suppose I was answering all those that complain about artists that use photos....Sorry!
I think that the ‘no right or wrong’ is in the world of art so enormously wide and all covering that even your suggestions of creating better pictures if you use your own photo and developed some skills does not apply. There are too many ways of doing it. Skills are great. Drawing skills, photography skills too.
I would generally use my own photos too. Other people’s photos is too complicated (permission for a start) and if I would use a very good photo from someone else I’d feel like I’d be stealing their ‘idea’ and their ‘vision’. So I usually don’t. Very rarely I use others for studies or something.
Let’s hear what other say!

Making A Mark said...

Thanks Sophie - I thought you were answering the "usual debate" - which is why I asked.

I'd tried quite hard to make it clear I took a particular view while recognising that a lot of people do work from photos and some of them (but only some) do create fantastic art as a result.

I'd just like to see more people creating fantastic art by using their skills (innate or learned), their own original take on an image and whatever else it takes to make it their very own.

Billie Crain said...

I work primarily from photos for a few reasons. #1)I like to paint moving targets(in my case, animals). #2)I have physical limitations that hinder my ability to walk woods and fields, etc. #3) I'm not able to travel that much for various reasons and don't want my subject matter to be limited to only that which is nearby. I also believe drawing skills are extremely important.

As for photo distortion, that can be a problem if an artist is into realism or photorealism. I'm learning to be more methodical when taking my own photos, gathering as much info as possible by snapping many photos from different angles and taking notes.

When using other's photos I've found sometimes I can use photo distortion to my advantage and take the subject to an entirely different place, so to speak. In other words, the distortion can become the inspiration. IMO, being a slave to a photo isn't the way to go. Being able to tweak any subject to suit a vision, whether working from photos or from life is the fun of being an artist!

I don't usually take notice if an artist works from photos or not so I can't provide a favorite artist. If I like the results it makes no difference to me how they choose to work.

Julie Douglas said...

Can you create art from somebody else's photo and make it your own? What do you think? -I think NOT, never ever no no no.....

What would be your top tip to anybody wanting to use somebody else's reference photo to create a painting? - DON'T... Eek! I did it once, with the permission of the photographer and it was a soul less experience. Never again.

Who's your favourite artist who paints from photos? - Neil Hollingsworth is a bit marvellous, as well as Carol Marine, who mostly works from life, but occasionally the photo,and you'd never know the difference, because she understands light. Karin Jurik is a genius..!

Lisa Le Quelenec said...

Question 1 - I think you could because you would still be bringing your skill and vision to the artwork. Slavishly copying a photo doesn't make great art whether it's yours or someone else's - I think it makes a poor 'photo-copy' and a poor painting.

Question 2 - Firstly get permission, it's morally wrong not to. Think very carefully about why you want to use the photo and make this the total emphasis of the painting. (eg a colour, shape, texture, composition)

Question 3 - I think a lot of artists paint from photos up to a point even those that don't admit it.

Thank you for such a thought provoking post. It will be interesting to come back and read some more comments.

Theresa Taylor Bayer said...

I like those reference books by Dover publications, which allow artists to use images, copyright free. I always do something to change up the reference image. I do that as a point of pride, because other artists are going to be using those same images and I want it to not be recognized. I also shoot my own photos for reference, and I also make drawings.

I like any good imaginative realism, fantasy, children's illustration and surrealism. This type of art is much easier to do with the aid of photos, so I wouldn't be surprised if a number of artists in these genres work from photos.

Brian Cameron said...

I might also say that I work from my imagination many times and that is probably for me the most honest art I produce but if you are painting daily (and I do) you need many sources to draw inspiration from. I say whether it's an encounter w/nature, a photo I've taken,a photo from another artist a daydream..whatever! If I find that inspiration I'm just thankful to be experiencing it.
Another thing about painting from photos..not every painting is destined for a gallery. Sometimes I just paint for the practice..the experience of turning off the logical side of my brain..the feeling of moving paint over a surface. So who cares if the subject matter is in a photo or real life. There is sooo much pretense in the art world. Anyone who would look down their nose at another artist for painting from a photo is way too serious about art. Art is to be enjoyed ..both by the artist in the experience... and by the viewer. more than that is nonesense.

Don McNulty said...

There are no rules, no right or wrong, you can do whatever you wish, so long as it is all yours, including the photo.
However, remember that when you paint from life you are putting a 3d image into two dimensions. Your input is big here. If you paint from a photo the camera has done that and you are copying.

Making A Mark said...

I think the point I'd make is that if you copy from photos - without knowing what it really looked like - then you're bound to copy the problems that photos have

Such as the flattening of surfaces and the total elimination of the full tonal range which is what gives you a proper understanding of form.

I think photos are great for getting shapes and proportions right - so long as you haven't done anything to introduce a distortion! ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,

Wonderful questions! My personal process is to draw from life or imagination. I have rarely been pleased with MY work when using reference photos.

I realize my point of view is tainted. I get a little bit frustrated when other artist assume we all work from photos and ask to see the reference. Don't have one; don't use one. I take tons of photos; they're still on my hard drive.

I think your three points are great advice. I'd say to the novice, use your own photos and also draw from life.

I realize that portrait artists, landscape artists and others who like/need special lighting often rely extensively on photos...and it makes sense.

I understand that Pierre Bonnard was influenced heavily by photography and I like his work very much. I read recently that such artists as Degas did too. I love Degas' work too. But, I also think they could draw.

I have done what I thought was artistic work from someone else's photo. It was a study. I used the photo as a point of departure, not as something to make a replica of. Since I did not have permission, it sits in my studio, not to be ever shown or claimed as solely my own. But, yes, I think you can make a piece of art from someone else's photo if at some point, you leave the photo and add your personal statement. And, it's got to be a lot you, and less photo.

Donna Zagotta has publicly stated that she uses her own photographs. She says she makes sketches and studies. But, her personal vision includes working with camera. I love her work; she adds life, expression, empathy. I think she is a great example of using your own photos to make art. Myrna Wacknov is another.

Great discussion and thank you!

Theresa Taylor Bayer said...

I would also like to add that good drawing skills reign supreme. As you pointed out, the camera distorts, especially figures. Good drawing skills are also a must when working from imagination, as well as when working from life. I love working all three ways, and many times I use all three in a single painting.

rbfineart said...

Hi Katherine. Thanks for the great post and great questions. I wanted to chime in on this one because I work almost 100% from photos at this point in my career. However, with that being said, I take almost all of the photos myself - with the exceptions being an image of something that I might have trouble finding to photograph (a certain flower type for example). In that case I may look for another reference source. But, I am also creating my images by cobbling together bits and pieces from various photos to form one single image. There also tends to be a fair bit of translation that occurs between the cobbled together image and my final painting. But I enjoy this method of working and I've had great results from it.

You also mention that working from photographs can "flatten" your painting and hinder the artist in other ways - which to me, is something I seek out in my work. I work in acrylics primarily to amplify that flattening effect. I want my images to have a very produced, contrived feel to them.

Would I paint something that was simply a copy of someone else's image? No, because it wouldn't fit me or my work. Would I use a small aspect of a found image and incorporate it into a new image? Yes I would, because it fits what I'm doing.

Thanks for bringing this up! It's an interesting subject.

Making A Mark said...

Thank you for all the really great comments. They've been most interesting and I'm very interested to hear what you all have to say.

Keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

Whew! Alot to take in here.
First, thanks, as always Katherine, for posing such interesting topics for debate.

I will proudly say I use photographs many times, though I am aware of the distortions and correct as needed. However, they are always my photos.

When I take a pic I do so to try to capture what the image is saying or creating in me. If I were to try to work from someone else's, much can be lost in the translation.

Simply transcribing someone else's exact image is not involving the Creative Process in my book. It's practicing the skill of drawing/painting/whatever. Guess it all depends on if you're looking to replicate w/ photo-realism the goal, or trying to capture the sense, the feeling, the overall message.

(How's that for grey, fuzzy, and nebulous?) :)

Anonymous said...

I am a believer in learning how to draw to your very best ability. Then use all tools available to create the images that speak most passionately to you.
I would never use someone else's photo for work that was submitted into a show, or competition. Yet I don't see any problem with using them to practice with, or if you have an agreement with the photographer, and make major changes, it is a useful tool.
I personally study light, composition, color, from good photographs. It helps me to consider my options when setting up a still life.
If I know that I can not do a painting from the original, I will take a photograph. There has to be exceptional lighting or it won't be worth painting. I also have the ability to see the photograph in 3D and to correct any distortion, or missing pieces. There also has to be an interesting story to the image, or it is meaningless to me.
My favorite artist that uses photographs is

I just finished a watercolor, worked from a photograph I took this summer. It is posted on my blog.

Anonymous said...

i work from photographs almost exclusively - mine or others. i do ask for permission when they are not mine. You cant always catch the light, shadow or drama in the pictures you take or visit the place or be present for an occasion. It would be a shame to rule them out because "you" haven't taken them.

Would you say that a Degas who did paintings of ballet on stage should not have used those references as the colour and drama belong to the director who made the choices on lighting, dresses and production? where does one draw the line?

As artists we all learn from work made in the past (sometimes present) - composition, colour schemes etc. even if you don't pick one painting specifically to copy it stays in your mind, assimilated like other experiences and used in your work. i do agree though that you should paint or practice from life and continually improve your drawing skills but this again would be the artists choice as some like the flat appearance, some do posterised paintings (shepard fairey).

My paintings now are usually not a close copy of the photograph used. There are deviations in the crop taken, the colours used and sometime there are other changes which i keep if I like them better! Sometimes I use the same reference for several paintings each of which is different! : )

In the end I find that for me painting from photographs holds too many advantages.

Making A Mark said...

We've had a couple of points on the flattening issue

To clarify what I meant - it's not the case that flattening as a positive choice of style is 'bad' per se. Far from it - I for one love some artists who produce work in a flattened style.

However less than wonderful art can be produced when people are copying from photos and reproducing the flattening effect - without even realising that's what the photo has done.

It relates to my third point - that artists should use photos only after they have "developed a good understanding of what information is missing from a photo and how photos distort real life."

So, for example and in relation to another distortion introduced by photography, I can often tell when a work has been copied from a photograph by looking at the tonal range in the shadows. Photographs often produce very dark shadows when none there are none there. That's because they all too frequently compromise the tonal range which exists in reality. The eye is far more sophisticated than the camera in terms of recording 'real life'!

So then we get artists learning about how to compare their art to a greyscale version of their reference photograph. Not realising that this greyscale in a photograph is actually nothing like the actual tonal range in real life.

One of the huge advantages of digital photography is that we can now compare photographs we take with what is in front of us (by looking at it on the camera screen) and can see the differences while we are still at the place where the photograph was taken.

Try it sometime - it's very ('scuse the pun!) illuminating! :)

Making A Mark said...

For those following these comments you'll be interested to know there's an update to this post added at the end.

For the record I've very definitely concluded the email conversation with the person in question.

Anybody else can comment on this post though!

Malcolm Cudmore said...

My ideal situation would be always to work from life. However, photo references have to be a practical and necessary resource in some situations. For example, my larger CP pieces take many days to complete - but they're not pieces from my imagination and I need accurate references. Portraits cannot always be done from multiple sittings. However, I did decide a few years ago that I would only work from photographs I had taken myself - supported where possible by sketches. The only exception (so far!) was a recent oil portrait commission from a b/w photo of a young girl to be presented to her after her 50th birthday! In this case, I still did a tonal drawing first before putting paint on canvas to help me work out the differences between local colour and tonal range. I'm not saying that it is impossible to get good work from someone else's photos. However, direct observation is important to me and usually what inspires me to make work in the first place!

Sarah said...

I use photos but usually with sketches, my own photos as I am a bit of a freak about all the other senses being condenced into a painting (in my mind I suppose). I have done work from other peoples photos for a commission but I really dont enjoy it.
As for trolls...well, what can I say, send em back under their bridges.

Bridget Hunter said...

I also use photos sometimes - walking with friends, when family life has just not allowed me time to sketch, health issues etc. But its always the composition that I'm after. I remember colours but change these anyway to capture the essence of the place. Frequently I print the photo in black and white as I find this the most helpful to the way I work. I never thought of using my digital camera when painting outside to seek the best composition - so thankyou for that idea.

Kerry Daley said...

Thank you so much for this post, Katherine, you make some very thought provoking points, and I am following the comments with interest. I am about to create the second link to this discussion from my site, and I am sure that it will not be the last.
As a school teacher and teacher of amateur and leisure painters, I have always worried about the reliance on photos. Drawing and painting from life is a time consuming but valuable skill to acquire, but in our haste to get good results in the past, I have supported students who wish to work from photo references.
We did almost all of our drawing and painting from life when I was a student at university, and I value the experience. That said, for the paintings I am working on at the moment, I have set up my subject matter and photographed it myself to work from...

Barney said...

A student in my class continuously uses my photos in blogs, emails, paintings without permission and without giving credit to me for the photos. I have already informed him that i have not given permission. He says he thought he took the photos, even after i provide photo proof (via photo info on my computer giving date, time, exposure, camera used). Saying I THOUGHT is not an acceptable excuse.This student is not selecting based on ownership but based on liking it and wanting to paint it. I no longer show or share my photos. What else can I do?

Making A Mark said...

Barney - I've come across people before who are genuinely forgetful but it does rather sound as if you've got a "wrong'un"

I'm wondering whether sending a very FORMAL cease and desist letter to this character might just do the trick. Every time I'm ever sent one it worked like a charm. But it does have to be very formal. I find with the very stupid, the follow up which points out that your next email will be to (1) Google and (2) his IP provider in order to get any website he owns de-indexed from Google/removed from the IP host normally does the trick ! :)

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