The Problem with Working from Photographs

Did that heading turn your head? Did it catch your attention?

It was meant to!

This isn't an unknown subject for artists, indeed, there's a lot of articles already about this very subject, so why am I covering it? Well, because I just want to and I want to put in my own little two cents into this subject as well.

First off, I'm not going to throw away my camera and never work from photographs, that's not what I intend to talk about. Instead, I'm going to offer some ideas that may help to be more creative. This is also a kick in the pants for me as well to strive to be more creative!

I work off of photos quite a bit. In fact, when I'm working on a commissioned painting, I'm usually working off of photographs that a client has sent me, good or bad, hopefully not the latter.

Photographs, while great for references really only tell a partial story. Our eyes are not like a still camera, but rather closer, yet far more advanced, to video cameras. We see a lot more color and light with our eyes than what is seen through a camera.

There is no way to get the depth, atmosphere, color, light, and shadow that our eyes see. Things we photograph are always distorted to one degree or another compared to reality. Our eyes never see like a telephoto lens where distant and close objects are mashed together into a single frame. There is so much distortion when using a telephoto lens.  Also, our eyes see so much more of the color spectrum and so much more value between lights and dark than any camera could capture. We may even take a photo and post process it to something closer we know our eyes could see, and that may help a great deal, but again, it's far from reality.

This is why engaging in plein air painting is very important for artists - as it helps them see the whole world around them with their own eyes, instead of only relying on photos.

That being said, photographs can help artists in remembering a particular scene they are painting. The sun does not stop for anyone and everything in the world is constantly moving. Light and shadow are constantly moving. A photograph does seem to help stop a moment in time for an artist, but it's best that multiple photos are used.

I think it's wise for an artist to capture all kinds of references of a scene they are painting. If you're painting an old oak tree, take several photos of the tree in the moment, but also scan around and take photos of the sky, the bark close up and the surrounding area around the tree. Play with the settings of the camera and capture dark areas and light areas. Create small studies based on your scene and take notes.

If you can help it, don't use just one single photo as your only source of reference because that one photo is not telling you the whole story, and your art off, will most likely show those tell·tale signs that you were using just one photo. Get a better story by doing more research, capturing different angles and lighting conditions. Create small color and value studies. If you can, come up with your own composition rather than just going off of just the single photo.

Keep painting!
Dale Jackson


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