Painting from Photographs

The ARTnews magazine has asked a question that has been around for a while now.. “Why should a painting based on a photograph be considered a less legitimate work of art than one painted from observation or one that is simply abstract?”
Everyone from Edgar Degas through to David Hockney does it, so why do artists sometimes hide the fact that they paint from photographs?
I think it’s because of the romantic idea of an artist sitting in the landscape or in front of the model, trying to capture the life of the subject before them.
It’s like replacing wine corks with screw caps. Easily twisting a new cap off a wine bottle is just not as romantic as using a corkscrew to to get the old cork out of the bottle of fine wine. Even though the new screw caps prevent the wine from ever going bad, they’re just not as cool as a cork.
That analogy probably isn’t the best one, but the fact is that photographs are a great tool for artists. I know I don’t advertise the fact that I use photographs to paint, but I also don’t hide it. It just makes sense. Especially if you work in oils and build your paintings up over several weeks or months. It’s not going to be very practical to plonk your giant canvas on the sidewalk in a big city everyday for two months if you paint cityscapes.
The thing that I can’t understand is artists using projectors to trace a photograph onto the canvas. Not because the finished work would look like a photograph, but because it takes all the fun out of creating the work in the first place. I can’t see why someone would waste their time on such an activity.
Slides and Prejudice
Over the last few years, artists have made increasing use of Photoshop. Eric Fischl, for example, who is best known for his voyeuristic, psychologically charged paintings of amorous couples, employs it to collage together different images until they register as something he wants to paint. “I am part of a generation that was schooled in the belief that discovery and execution should occur simultaneously on the canvas,” he says. “For nearly 25 years I had held on to that belief, feeling that were I to know what I wanted to paint before I discovered it, the painting would lose its vitality. When I began working in Photoshop, essentially separating the discovery process from the execution, I feared it would kill the painting. What I discovered instead was that it freed me to explore painting itself.” ARTnews
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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.

Comments

  1. This is what I think it is: 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 guess what people think then is this: ‘where is the challenge in painting something still?’ (as in a photograph).

    One can argue then, where is the challenge in painting still life? Sure, it’s not a photograph, but it isn’t moving either. Except that there might be lighting/environmental changes which pose a certain challenge.

    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.

    As for projecting work onto a canvas…for some, part of the fun is in the tracing onto the canvas. For the artist, it’s not a waste of time at all.

    To each his own I guess.

  2. 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!
    There are no rules in art, you are free to use and do whatever your imagination wants. Instead of worrying what others think and say, just listen to your inner self and let your work flow. And most important, enjoy the process otherwise you’ll never create your master piece.

  3. In the end, the finished painting probably speaks for itself. If it’s a good painting, who cares where it came from or how it got here, it now exists on a piece of canvas.
    Painting from life doesnt make it a good painting, just as using a photograph doesnt make it bad.

  4. Anonymous says:

    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 verca. Imagination is whats needed. An artist I admire is the UK’s Nicola Slattery. Her paintings express feelings and emotions that make you want to look again and again at them. Check google for her web site and see for your self. Paul

  5. Wonderful wine comparison!
    Some of my mom’s best impressionistic work is done from photographic inspiration. 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. – As for overheads – when you’re in a BIG hurry they’re a God Send. [I've used them for painting church banners] Just indicate the proportions and complete the piece with your own details.

  6. 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 (for example, this painting. 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.

  7. Sorry, invalid link in last comment. The painting is here.

  8. 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.

    When I create illustrations…what I like to do is desaturate the image- and use the image strictly for drawing & tone reference. This way, the design is all mine (as if I were drawing from a model,) and the color scheme is mine also.

    In the end, I consider this type of work illustrative. It’s okay to produce illustrations, but in my opinion-true fine art can only be created from direct observation of your subject.

    respect ~

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. jennie Rosenbaum,

    Who do you take pictures of? yourself? i think it’s great that you so passionate about your art.

  12. I know this is a highly debateable topic, but I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about? If the artist enjoys what they create and is pleased with the end result, what difference does it make if it was created from a photograph – and what difference does it make what anyone else thinks of the work? There will always be people who love a piece of art and other people that hate it – why should an artist be made to feel less of an artist because they use photographs, to me that is like saying using a pallette knife can’t produce as good a piece of art as using a paintbrush!

    As artists we should be free to pursue our own vision using whatever tools are at our disposal that will facilitate this (with the exception of copyright infringements of course).

    Personally I work from life, from memory, completely from my imagination and also from photos. The level of satisfaction I reach when completing a piece is totally unrelated to which of these tools I use, it rests solely on the end result I have achieved. I think the end result speaks for itself, irrespective of which ‘tool’ was used to achieve it.

    Michelle

  13. I agree Michelle. If you’re enjoying the process.. having fun creating, it really does not matter what others think.
    It’s all about creating work that you’re happy creating. It really doesnt matter if you’re working from a pair of shoes in your studio or a photo from a recent trip to Paris.

  14. Last year, I visited a friend in Melbourne. I didn’t have a digital camera at that time, so only took a few happy snaps here and there. I was walking through the Botanical Gardens one day, and took some pictures of people and families by the water and also some of the areas surrounding the gardens. It was in the back of my mind that I may be able to use some of these pictures as just ideas for some paintings, but because my camera wasn’t digital, it wasn’t until after getting back from Melbourne, that I realised how powerful and beautiful to me the images actually were.

    I’ve used those photos from that holiday and made a series of four paintings using pastel pinks, blues, purples and the like. I’m thrilled with the results, and the fact that I was able to use those pictures as a basis for my artwork. I could not have done that from memory (and I didn’t have my easel or paints with me on the holiday!).

    A photograph captures that exact moment, and whenever you look back to it, an amazing wave of emotion floods back into you. I believe it’s only natural to incorporate that feeling into one’s own artwork. Carrying a camera is much easier than spotting an idea for a painting and missing the opportunity because you had to run and get art supplies.

    I think that after working from photographs, my perception of subject matter and their interconnecting relationships has become much more accurate. When subjects are moving, it’s not possible to capture that exact moment again, whether it be of a figure, flower, or whatever.

    Yes, it can be argued that it’s not as good as life artwork, however it’s an easier way to study the form of the figure, for example, without muscles flexing or facial expressions changing every few seconds.

    I’m so glad that I did take those photos, because I could never recapture that particular atmosphere surrounding that day or the emotion I felt when I was there.

    It seems that anything, and I mean ANYthing goes these days – and isn’t art all about the aesthetics of the end result? If someone is able to throw dirt over a white box painted with flowers in the middle of a town square and call it ‘art’, I think then, that painting from a photography is quite artistically permissible.

  15. Yeah, they’re just too useful to ignore. I think having a digital camera makes it even better as you can take a couple hundred pictures and sort through them.
    That doesnt mean that sitting in a landscape with a sketchbook isnt a good thing. Just that it isnt always that convenient to sit in a landscape all day.
    The last thing on my mind when Im walking through an art gallery is whether or not the artist used a photo to do the work.

  16. I am always so surprised that people are surprised or think that it’s radical to paint from photos.

    People are so caught up in “painting from life” as if it is more nuanced but I’ve found that you can actually get more content, both formally and in terms of subject by working from photos. Especially if you set up the shot and do lots of detail images.

    I even wrote an article about it and published it to my site:
    http://www.kenney-mencher.com/article/article.htm

  17. This discussion of painting from photos inspired me to interview Dan Bodner, who not only uses photos, but revels in using them. After the interview (part of which is finally on-line) I had a new appreciation for artists who work from the photographic image.

  18. Personally, I agree that it’s the end result that matters the most. Working from photo’s enables greater reference subject accuracy, though perhaps does not encourage artistic creativity.

  19. annie oils says:

    Hi I am new to the site, and thinks its wonderful. As a illustrator for over (cough) twenty years Hurray people admitting they use photos! Any one out there who thinks that the big names off the last hundred years havent and dont, needs a wake up call. If today you have the time and the money to hang around, (before you get moved on, or called names) to draw and paint anything from real life then you are a rare species. Photos and computer technology are fantastic My generation would have loved them at art school, and as for making arts in general available to anyone of any ability Hurray Hurray ! And as a life long student and follower of Leonardo, well said! he would have had a room full of computers, and propably become a performing artist to rock stars, with lazer light shows. Real life is great guys, but we dont all have acess to the rural ideals of Constable, or the stable of beauties of Picasso.

  20. I’m trying to find out if it’s legal to use a copyrighted photo (i.e. in a calendar or a postcard) for the subject of a painting. Someone told me it was illegal, but I can’t seem to find any information about it. Do any of you know?

  21. Photography is a piece of art, where the reality is transformed and simplified. In drawing and painting you have to simplify and to transform the reality as well, but quite a differently than the camera does. The photography is more flat, in drawing and painting you have to create a feeling of space and depth. If you learn photography style of transformation of reality, you go astray in drawing and painting. It is my opinion.

  22. I am sure there were many artists that complained about Vermeer using his camera obscura. I am sure he would have used photographs had the medium existed back then. He actually anticipated many photographical effects in his work. Tools will be tools. I think using good materials that will last is more important than what tools you use to make a great work. I for one would never use a shark.

  23. Photos are appropriate tools in painting. After all, if you want to paint scenes from a trip you’ve taken, you’ll have to use photographs. The idea is to have enough outdoor or direct painting experience to ‘translate’ the photo, which is dull into a painting that has a life of its own.

  24. i didnt realize it would be so difficult to get into a gallery.most of my paintings were inspired from photos.I didnt think i was doing anything wrong.what trouble can u get in from painting a public person.this seems so unfair to restrict an artists creative edge.The gallery is concerned about copyright.any info for me?What can i do with my paintings, am i allowed to sell them? thanks for your advice. Sandi

  25. Anonymous says:

    Maybe it’s too late for another opinion on this matter but I think it is important to mention the followuing aspect: Porbably others have made a reference to it as well… Painting from photos, in my opinion, has brought allot of artists to simply imitate the photographic effect (by habit or without having a choice) instead of using a poto as a reference. And I am not speaking about the photorealistic or hyperrealisic style because this a different debate/story… Many talents out there create “classic” portraits for example with lights and shades that are a simlulation or a tentative of simulating a specific photographic condition; the one they have as a reference… I use photos but only as references and the big challenge in that matter is avoiding the photographic effect. The thing about a photo is that it did the job of flattening the 3D world depending on the light condition at the time of the shot… And I do not want to mention photos using Flash because they are a catastrophy for painters especialy if handed to them by a commisioner… Unless a painter is also a professional phtoographer who creates natural light conditions photos for his paintings, the digital snaps are just to be used a references… I think, what makes the old classic master paintings unique is the stylish touch that is put over the true to life aspect of the paintings… These days, we see allot of “academic” painters that reproduce photographies… They just flatten what is already flattened or copy the flattened shapes and traits of their photos!

  26. As a photographer who has been supporting many local artists copying my photos without my permission, I think the BIG question is ‘Are you using your own photos or basing your paintings on another’s talent, through their photography.’

    Yes, I admire plein aire artists, but I have never seen a painter out in the severe weather I brave for my photos. So my opinion is… paint what you see, take your own photos or develop talent & imagination in painting.

    chessie

  27. Photographs are useful, but als misleading! When you are actually on the spot, you do not see the scene the way a camera would record it because you are constantly moving your head and eyes. Things that catch the attention, become more important, colours become more vivid, etc. The camera tends to even things out.

    When working from reality, I alway try – at the very least – to compose the painting directly from observation onto the canvas. Photographs can provide useful information, but more as a memory aid than as the primary source.

  28. As a painting instructor as well as painter, I must say that any tool can easily become a crutch. Once you have spent a few years drawing from life your skills are often developed enough to use reference photo’s taken personally by the artist along with sketches. Having spent much of my life paying for my art habit as a carpenter, I’ll use a carpenters analogy: Journeyman & master carpenters often use power nailers but they still need to know how to use a good hammer, a square, (especially a framing square which few young carpenters understand), a power saw and a handsaw. Otherwise they’re just an apprentice with cool flashy tools and a big mouth. They never last, or excel in the long run.

  29. Anonymous says:

    The many comparisons mentioned are interesting.

    I wonder why a former teacher has
    not brought up the comparison of
    math students counting using their head as compared to others using their fingers and toes. Both ways will get you to the same answer.

    How about the early Unacademic use of the slide rule in math class;
    or the early Unacademic use of the hand calculator in math class; each of these examples were advances in technology.

    In Art there was the technological advance (sic) of art using the camera obscura (sp).

    Rgarding computer art, if you like it, buy it! You are free to do anything you wish with your money; but don’t tell me what to do with my money. I’ll able to make my own decisions, thank you.

    A word to the wise; if you want to buy some very expensive computer art, consider the hobby of stamp collecting. Many postage stamps have great monitary value not to mention their historic and beautiful art work.

  30. It’s okay to use photographs and just about anything else for inspiration. And if you are using your OWN photos as reference, that’s okay, too, because you took the photos. But never use someone else’s copyright photos without their permission. It’s unethical and considered infringement on the photographer’s copyright.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I learned how to draw the figure using many photo-books of nude models. It was excellent. However, now that I’m composing figurative paintings with more than one figure, these photos won’t do, because it’s almost impossible to find 2 figures I want to use, with the same lighting and perspective, not to mention they’re nude, which means if I want to give them some drapery, I must either make it up, or drape myself and paint that. Therefore, I’m now hiring models to sit, and I draw from them, and use the drawings in the paintings, just like the old masters. But it’s not because I am a purist, it’s only because I cannot get the compositions and poses I want unless I control everything. But in general, photos have helped me a great deal, in seeing the flaws of my figures drawn from my imagination! Often, I’ll draw a head or body from imagination, and I’ll be ecstatic, until the next day, the blinders come off, and it looks crude in comparison to my life drawings, which often take much less time to do! So photos are a great tool, but there are some limitations. If I was a professional photographer, I would paint exclusively from my photos.
    In the old days, Sargent was able to have someone sit for several hours over a period of weeks for a portrait. Try getting a friend to sit still for more than 5 minutes! Times have changed, and so should we as artists. Use what you can, but stay away from photorealism, which leaves nothing to the imagination, and is a dead art, in my opinion.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Well i would be interested in the answer after twisting the question:

    What should a photographer do after receiving a request of a painter who wants to paint loads of his images’?

    -a fee per image?
    - % when painter sells this painting?
    - just agreement about a credit line for the photographer?

    I consider my photography as art on its own and somebody would like to do his/her art with my art.
    Any suggestions?
    I have no problem wiht 1-3 images painted and a credit line but more than 20???

  33. Anonymous, I posted your question On this Post Here.

  34. A photograph is only a limited perception of reality. It captures an instant in time, trapped within the specific lighting conditions and pose of the subject matter. Why copy a limitation? Could the reason be to impress people with a technical skill? Of copying?

    To paint from life is to experience the subject matter yourself. Its the difference to me of going for a walk or watching the walk on TV. When painting from life, it may be harder, the light more fleeting, but the essence of the experience affords a richer perception and appreciation, which is what painting can achieve, and photography rarely to never.

    Using photo as reference is ok, but even if you made a ‘mistake’ because you didn’t have photos. That ‘mistake’ would come from your imagination, how it was mixed. It would be interesting thing to see, how the artist thought it would look like from inside their imagination. More interesting than copy of photo.

    Maybe the difference is in peoples attitude to photography. If you believe it is ‘real’ of that moment in life, and has more to offer than a frozen instant of light, or the emotional connection you make to the subject matter, then you can worship the photo by copying it. But perhaps if you believe that seeing and understanding is more than a brief frozen instant in time, the photo will not be enough.

    I believe art is more than copy of frozen moment. Otherwise we only have photography. Painting dead.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Michelangelo sketched from a real model, took the sketch up on his home-made scaffolding, and redrew the image, or painted from his sketch. This seems to be a common idea, as in using a “thumbnail” sketch. You tell me what the difference is in using a photograph or a sketch, and I will say that the sketch has less reality, but more imagination. But I see nothing wrong with using a photo for reference of how the shapes were in reality. I can also see where the photo can limit you , because the things I see in real life are much more beautiful than any image, digital or not.. This is a question I have had for a long time now, but I can say that I have had good results from using my own imagination sketches to make the final result from. Just as I would use a photo to get the final result. REally not much difference, except for the imagination put into it. And who decides wether or not imagination of the artist is what defines a good painting?? I mean really? I have seen a lot of paintings that are great that look realistic, like a photograph of real people. What is different is that some people don’t think that realism is as interesting as one’s iamagination. I tend to like the realism lots of times, and I also think that only a few can reproduce realism on a painting.

  36. It is moronic to even consider that there should be a hierarchical structure of process. Why even contemplate such a thing. There are no rules, on anything. Photos, real life, imagination, it just doesn’t matter. Why bother trying to justify or legitimize anything? The only critiria is that it has to work however way you need to make it work.

  37. Are there guidelines for purchasing a photograph of someone else’s work and using the photo for reference after paying a royalty free fee.
    I don’t want to travel to Africa to paint a silver back gorilla.
    Any input is appreciated.
    NW Grown

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