Painting from Photographs Update

The recent post about painting from photographs created some friendly debate. Some believe it is fine to use photographs as they’re just another useful tool for the artist, while others believe it’s almost cheating, or certainly taking a shortcut.
My opinion is somewhere in between as I think both should be used. I think you should be there in front of your subject to get a feel for it, but I also think it’s fine to take a photo of that subject to complete the painting in the studio.
Here’s a few opinions of visitors to artnewsblog.. (See all the comments here and here.)

  • Atims said.. “Painting from a photograph isn’t so much the same thing as painting from ‘life’ shall we say, because the material in the photograph is not moving; is not changing.”
    “I think photographs are a great reference for a painter especially of people he can no longer see, or places he cannot get to. Of course looking at a photograph is definitely not the same as seeing it in person. And no one can argue this fact. What you see is never really exactly what you get.”
    “A photograph captures fleeting moments better than your eye can…like a flying bird perhaps. So, using photographs is helpful in maybe getting detail. This is not to say that going out and drawing/sketching/painting real life gives you less detail. Those are two completely different things. Like art news blog said, photography is too useful to ignore.”
  • Zichi Lorentz said.. “I have been an artist for 40+ years. Photographs, like a pencil or a brush, or even a hammer, is just a tool. You are free to use whatever, whenever you want. I enjoy painting outside but it’s hard work. If da Vinci was alive today, he would be using a Mac laptop!”
  • Anonymous said.. “The end result is what counts. Bad wine in a bottle is worse than good wine in a box. Some artists produce boring pictures from real life. Others are equally boring from photos and vice versa. Imagination is whats needed.”
  • Adrienne said.. “Personally, I got “hooked” on photo-reference when doing a child’s portrait. They don’t fuss move or cry! Yes, I check back for details when possible. But I found it easier to get portrait contracts from anywhere in the world! Warmth, depth & character are still attainable.”
  • Karl said.. “I never work from photographs. This forces me to either work from imagination, or to seek real examples of what I need to draw or paint. I find that this gives good results. The problem is, when I look at other people’s work, I do not know how to interpret it, because I do not know if it is made with photos or not.”
    “In my own work, I see the same effect. If I have birds in a picture, and they look realistic, it means that I was walking around for days with a sketchbook, making quick drawings of birds, and that I used those studies to paint the birds. That is different from copying from a photo. More difficult, and more fun.”
  • Jiva Soul said.. “As far as I’m concerned, If you’re simply trying to copy a photo realistically…you may as well just use the photo & put down the brush.”
  • Anne Manley said.. “I never work straight from a photograph. I keep them around for inspiration. To remember places I’ve been, people I’ve seen. Simply a reference. I must agree with Zichi Lorentz, there are no rules in art. Ultimately, the final piece is from what’s inside of you.”
  • Jennie Rosenbaum said.. “I think its great to finally admit it. I take photographs and use them for muscular reference or light values all the time. Being disabled it is hard for me to go out to life classes and I cant afford a model at this stage so photographs combined with imagination are the best thing for more! a digital camera, printer and imagination are all I need.”

I think generally artists are accepting of the camera. Some may be closet camera users, but there are probably very few purists that never use photography as a tool to paint. Unless of course you’re an abstract painter.
>> Photography, Art News

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. I have lost interest in photography as “source” for paintings or drawings completely. Reality is much more interesting.

  2. From a practical standpoint, is there any benefit in avoiding photography altogether? I believe the no-photo position has solid advantages. I will describe one here — that drawings become immensely more valuable as a resource. Imagine traveling to Italy for a brief visit. If you are not going to take a camera, then you know your drawings and your visual memory will be all that you will have when you return home. In this situlation, I believe there is an incentive to look and draw more carefully. How much this affects any individual artist, I do not know. For my own part, it is a big stimulus to study the real world with drawing.

  3. Karl, I never thought of it that way. Of course, if you can’t draw you’re left with only your memory to turn to.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s not what you’ve got its whats you do with it

  5. I like your drawings Freiluftmaler. I dont understand a word of German, but that’s the good thing about art.. we don’t need words to appreciate it.
    I would still like your drawings just as much if you used photographs to make them too ;-)

  6. piller99 says:

    To use a photograph when painting and then not identify or acknowledge that usage somewhere in the artwork is to completely ignore the modern and post-modern art movements. When making a painting, can you really ignore all of the rhetoric that has been brought up in the past about this subject?

  7. The British artist Atkinson Grimshaw was one of the first to work from photographs, and he did so brilliantly. There aren’t many artists who can turn a street scene into a work of art, but he certainly did. Even in thos days there were dark mutterings about his working from photos! The debate continue…

  8. I paint on location several time each week and also paint from photographs applying what I have learned on location

    Here is an example of one process I use for photographs

  9. That’s the way it should be done Bob. Be there and experience the location, and take some photos to work with in the studio. If its possible to do some sketches or a painting at the location, than that’s good too.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Digital photography is a great tool for artists, though purists may disagree. (What is purity anyway?) I take thousands of digital photos on location and gather unending inspiration from them. A good 35mm digital camera can record subtle nuances of light and shadow. One can see immediately whether the correct light effects were recorded as you take the picture. Camera settings can be adjusted to record the scene as it was. A small photo is difficult to see and you are dependent on the development quality. I paint on an easle looking at the illuminated computer screen far away. The large computer screen makes it possible to look across the room as well and see the tones and shadows in their many variations. It’s as if I was looking out the window. I am extremely happy with the results since I started this method and it has increased my output and improved my skills considerably. I used to work alot more from life but grew tired of still life and portraiture. I love to do landscapes and this is the best way to gather material. I have very sensitive eyes and skin have trouble with bright sunlight and sunglasses are no good to paint in. I paint directly on the canvas and do no preliminary sketches. Must I prove my self by lugging all sorts of equipment out in the field and put myself in danger of strangers in remote places.(as a women that is a consideration and once found myself in a dangerous situation sketching in the woods).


  1. […] Karl at Art and Perception revisits an old post, talking about painting from photographs; is it good or bad to paint from photographs? […]

  2. […] I have used Photoshop quite a bit and feel comfortable using it as a creative tool, but I could never imagine putting away the paintbrushes for a mouse. It’s probably best used as one of several tools, rather thinking that you have to be either a digital artist or an anti technology artist. The two can be used side by side, just as pencils and photographs are used by painters. […]

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