Especially since the advent of good, inexpensive digital cameras, the debate about whether to use photo references has become almost sectarian. Purists admonish us to paint “only from life.” Yet the instructional art magazines regularly feature artists whose methods start and end with a photo reference. Certain subjects (squirmy kids, transient light effects, horses in motion etc.) almost demand photographs. Even great masters like Fechin and Zorn clearly used photo references for some of their paintings.
There are a host of good reasons to use photos:
- They’re convenient
- The light doesn’t change
- You can blow up small details
- You can be comfortable
- There are no bugs, wind, interrupting strangers etc.
- The model doesn’t move or get tired
There’s only one really good reason to work from life – it will make us much better artists.
Over time, we representational artists become skilled at rendering what we see. The problem is that even high-quality digital photos lie to us. Think of the four elements of a realistic painting: shapes (drawing or proportion), values, color temperature relationships, and edges. Three of the four are always wrong in a photo… and sometimes it’s all four.
The two or three darkest values turn into black and the lightest values become white (photographers call it “blowing out” the lights). The color temperature relationships are limited by the dyes used to make the prints or the phosphors in our computer screens. Also, the camera sees edges as equally sharp (not at all like the human eye which focuses on a sharp area in the center of our visual field surrounded by fuzzy shapes on the periphery).
Even the shapes may not be accurate. If you photograph a person six feet away, you will probably get an image of a normal-size face but legs and feet that appear tiny. In other words, the foreshortening distorts the proportions. So, if we work exclusively from photos, we become extremely proficient at painting subjects that don’t look real. We don’t even notice the errors.
When I critique portfolios at various art events I often see paintings where the shadows are black, the lights are white, all the edges are hard, and the light and the darks are the same temperature. I ask the artist, “you work mostly from photos, don’t you?” I often get the astonished reply, “how did you know?”
The pros work primarily from life: For one, it’s much easier to develop good edge control. Also, our sensitivity to nuance of color and temperature improves exponentially. We just can’t see those nuances in photos… I know; I’ve tried! Working from life, we learn to see the elusive, sparkling color in half tones. Our shadows start to have a sense of light and air in them instead of being dense, opaque blobs.
So, if you’ve decided to go the extra mile, how do you break free of the photo? The still life is easy. Just set it up and start painting. Likewise, there’s little excuse for trying to paint a landscape from a photo. If you’re nervous about going out alone, find a painting buddy or group. There are Plein Air groups in most areas now. OPA sponsors paint outs all over the country. Seek, and ye shall find.
It’s a little more challenging to find place to paint the live model but a little digging will yield results. Local colleges or art centers may sponsor open studios. I paint with a number of groups in my area. In fact, I started hosting a group in my studio. We all chip in to pay the model. If you can’t find a group, start one. Finding models is relatively easy. Most people are flattered if you ask them to sit for you. There are even model websites.
Once we start to see the benefits in our work, we want more. The little bit of extra effort to paint from life, pays off tenfold.