Why The Negative Reaction To Painting From Photos?

Exposing Judgmental Narrow-mindedness.

Using photos for reference purposes remains a hot button issue and I’m not exactly sure why this is. Many artists blamed the negative response to Kate Middleton’s official portrait on the fact it was created from photos.

To me, someone who has worked from photo reference for 40 years, the issue is a non-issue. I see it for what it is: one of many tools available to artists today. In fact artists have worked from photos for a century and a half so you think the nay-sayers would get tired and just shut up.

Unfortunately, there are many who do not share my point of view and they tend to demonize those who choose to use photos in their creative process. Yes, there are legions of bad paintings done by artists who work from photo reference, but there are multitudes, every bit as ill-conceived, painted strictly from life. Cluelessness is an equal opportunity malaise.

The truth is, in the hands of a skilled artist, cameras can potentially offer great help and I find it hard to understand why anyone would choose to summarily dismiss such a helpful tool. The camera can be a huge time saver. Yes, there is potential for misuse and abuse, however, if used intelligently, the pluses far, far outweigh the minuses.

One great thing about the camera is that you can record bucket loads of visual information in the blink of an eye. As a portrait artist, using photos gives me access to movers and shakers who have neither the time or patience to sit the number of hours it takes for me to paint one of my paintings.

Photography makes it possible to incorporate elements in a painting that would be impossible to do otherwise. Certain fleeting lighting conditions for example would long be gone before most artists had the opportunity to set one’s palette, let alone collect the visual data necessary to replicate a scene in the style of high realism.

To this end, the amazing 19th Century Academician, Jean Leon Gerome, (see image above) used photographs extensively in his process. In fact, he traveled with a photographer on his numerous excursions to the Middle East, specifically for the purpose of gathering the degree of information necessary to execute his brilliant Orientalist paintings.

Would it have been possible for Gerome to create these paintings without using photography, by simply working from life? Personally, I don’t think so, because before Gerome, no artist had ever achieved anything near the same level of illusionistic atmospheric realism so effectively and prolifically.

Before photography was invented, artists used a vast array of devices and strategies to augment their ability to record the world around them. Once photography appeared on the scene, however, realism “coincidently” took a big leap forward.

So why is it that so many people get all sanctimonious and holier than thou when the subject of using photo reference comes up? Why all the negativity?

There is no dismissing the importance of working from life? As a teacher, I firmly believe it’s the ideal way to train artists, because instilling a spatial three-dimensional sensibility is a crucial to creating life-like paintings. I think the fastest route to being an exceptional realist is to first learn to perceive the dimensional aspect of reality before you can hope to replicate it, let alone interpret it, on a two-dimensional surface.

I took a much slower route. My initial training as a realist was self-inflicted and based solely on working from photos. I was working as an illustrator and needed to meet deadlines to pay the rent. I didn’t have the luxury of going to an Atelier, nor did I even know they existed. I had drawn and painted from life in my first two years of art school, but the model was merely considered a creative departure point, not as a way to understand structure, light and atmosphere.

Initially, I used reference from books and magazines — the internet wasn’t even a gleam in its mothers eye, at that point. Working from photos, two things became abundantly clear. First, if I would merely copy a picture, the result would be flat and lifeless. With no understanding of my subject’s structure, my rendition lacked a certain authenticity and snap. Secondly, if I relied on photos taken by others, my control over compositional elements was moot. I needed to insert myself deeper into the process by taking control of my source material. .

So while attempting to learn the ins and outs of painting realistically, I was also teaching myself how to use the camera to my best advantage. I started with a Polaroid camera and eventually, wound up building my own darkroom. When I painted I was using the Munsell System to control my values and colors. At the same time, I used Ansel Adams’ Zone System of Photography to pre-visualize the values in my reference. These two modalities formed an awesome symbiotic relationship and I learned so much. Additionally, taking my own reference pictures enabled me to shoot my subject from multiple positions, enabling me get a more complete view of my subject and have a better sense of its intrinsic structure.

After ten years of working things out on my own I was fortunate enough to find a former student of the late great Frank Reilly, John Frederick Murray and John eventually introduced me to painting from life. I studied with John one day a week for ten years. The awesome thing was, the method I had developed on my own synced perfectly with Reilly’s teaching.

Now I use painting from life as the basis of my teaching philosophy, but I don’t regret for one moment my circuitous path. If the intent is there the path will reveal itself.

What you do and how you go about it is up to you, but if you want to be a realist painter, I think it would be most beneficial to learn photography. The rational that “I’m an artist and technology give me a headache” is lame. Get real. The technique of painting is a zillion more times complex that photography.

There is no reason to work from bad photos. Learn to take pictures that appear as close to the way the world appears to the naked eye. Today’s top flight cameras are so far beyond what film was ever able to yield, with respect to that. Plus, you now have the ability to review your pictures instantaneously and make sure you have exactly what you need. When I shoot reference, my camera is tethered to a laptop which allows me to scrutinize my images at a far greater magnification than looking at the LCD screen on the back of my camera.

There is an acronym used in computer programing: GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage out. Understanding how to take good reference photos will go a long way towards eradicating the misconception that “using photo reference results in flat boring images.”

Until next time…

Comments

  1. This post really hits home with me. I always get annoyed when people ask me if I work from photos. I paint a lot of animals and a lot of surreal images. Unless I’m going to kill every creature I want to paint and have it stuffed I’m going o have to work from photos. I constantly mumble to myself “Use what you know from Marvin’s class, don’t just copy the info in the photo” sometimes I succeed at that and sometimes I fail but I always get the best photo reference I can. I’m in charge of what goes in the painting, the lighting, the composition etc. etc. not the camera. I never wind up copying someone else’s photo either. I simply can’t find photos that would match my imagination.
    Thanks

    • Thanks Phill. Your work is so imaginative and outstanding. It’s really a shame that these foolish prejudices come up. I think a lot of it stems from lesser artists who try to build themselves up by invalidating others.

  2. Another EXCELLENT article! My journey has actually been similar to yours, in that I started out working from photos, but eventually had teachers who pushed me to work from life. Since then I’ve learned how to employ both, hopefully to their best advantage. I’ll be sharing this post. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for another well written article, Marvin. I’d like to read your analysis on the downside of using a camera, as in foreshortening, black holes for shadows, etc. in other words, what do you have to compensate for?

    • Thanks Vicki, originally this article was considerably longer. I had so many things I wanted to include so I decided to spread it out over several posts. Addressing the potential pitfalls of using photography and how to circumvent these seemed worthy of its own post. I’ll be addressing these issues in the not-too-distant future. Thanks for responding!

  4. Kitty Wallis says:

    I second Vicki’s concerns and I add color. I have used photos for years and I’m very glad to see you standing up for the practice. However I gradually found that color was distorted/hidden in most photos. As a colorist I know that photos will lead you astray. They see far fewer colors than the human eye.
    A good color repertoire will go a long way when working from photos and we can use plein air experience to install that into our brain.

    • I think the technology of the digital camera is far superior to that of film with regards to faithfully reproducing colors. That said the human eye is the finest instrument for measuring color. Color is one of the areas I will be covering. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Natasha Kinnari says:

    Thank you! Very well written article, I am looking forward to reading all of your posts.

  6. Marcia Gorra-Patek says:

    Thanks, Marvin. Enjoy reading your thoughts and ideas.

  7. Awesome post Marvin.

    I studied at ateliers, but now work a lot from photos. I still paint still lives from life (particularly for practice). But doing a complex composition from life is quite difficult to set up, hire the models, have the space, etc.

    On top of that, we seem to forget that most realist painting from the Renaissance until now wasn’t even ABOUT painting naturalistically from observation. Sure, there was a level of naturalism. But when the Old Masters were painting mythology or biblical scenes, they weren’t taking pride in painting from life exactly as they saw it per say. A lot of that was imaginative. Even portraits were idealized to an extent. Most of those paintings could never have been observed. They were often almost like ancient photoshopped collages– a combination of observation, idealization, and imagination.

    Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t be painting naturalistically– different people have different aims. But the idea that the great realist painters of history were just hiring models and sitting down in front of them in order to paint them as accurately as possible just isn’t true.

    That said, I love painting from life and think it’s the ideal way to learn to paint. But I think if you want to do anything more complex than naturalistic rendering of simple subjects like still lives or portraits, you either need to 1) paint more idealized and less naturalistically 2) use photography or 3) be rich enough to hire all those models and/or travel to wherever your subject is set.

    Anyways, sorry I’m rambling. I really enjoy your posts!

    • Thanks for the reply Keith. It’s my earnest belief that the great artists did whatever was necessary to acquire the information necessary to make their work as believable as possible. I think that once we get past our considerations about what is or what isn’t the “right” approach, the freedom to discover our true selves will begin to manifest. I can’t imagine that the artists of yore were anywhere near as uptight as some of those who profess to carry forth the mantle.

  8. Hi Marvin,
    I enjoyed reading your perspective, thank you! I have also illustrated with deadlines quite a bit and did not have the time nor ability to go on safari to take photos before painting! Some ask if I use photos, and I explain how many days/hours it takes to paint certain things, and how wild or domestic animals DO NOT stand still. I’ve gotten a cold shoulder from some who don’t understand. I take my own reference photos whenever possible because otherwise I don’t feel an attachment to gain inspiration to paint. 7,000 photos while in NZ – and yet I don’t consider myself a photographer – most were taken with the thought I could paint the scene someday.
    When I was little I was SURE artists like Norman Rockwell must have incredible minds, to imagine such details…then I learned he’d clothed and posed his models! I found a B&W photo in an old Audubon animal encyclopedia and KNEW the artist who had taken this image and painted it in color. Wow, did it change how I thought and free me to use photos!
    May your summer be full of color and light!
    ~ elise

  9. Chris Gonzales says:

    Rockwell at his best certainly improvised beyond his models and references. Frank Frazetta claimed to almost never use models or references, and he could draw both figures and animals – and creatures that never existed – exquisitely.

    The danger of the photo is to those who are obsessive enough and skilled enough to literally make a photo duplicate with paint. Human scanning machines. Many TRY to duplicate the photo and what is lacking passes as artistry. The trick is to use the reference and bend it to your will. Certainly purist’s who eschew the photograph entirely are limiting their options.

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