On Painting Using Photographic References

Over my years of pursuing art and being an art student, I’ve encountered many people- and they all often had strong opinions about using photographic references for making work. In my experience, the “older” instructors I met were more hostile towards using any kind of reference other than “real life” to make a painting. My younger instructors, mostly graduate students, were much more accepting and even emphasized that good photographic references could be necessary for a successful painting. The thing is, I agree with both of these sentiments, to a degree.

I absolutely agree that there is really no replacement for drawing/painting from life. Being a student, and therefore having participated in many critiques, it’s often immediately obvious when the entirety of somebody’s drawing “skill set” is essentially derived from their finding cool pictures online and copying them. The images, although of real life objects or people, become flattened and dull because of their limited source material. I’ll provide a picture of a horrible drawing I did in middle school as an example of this:

You can see the flatness I’m talking about (in addition to other problems…) They may be well executed copies of another 2-d image, but the aren’t great works in their own right. Seeing this kind of stuff is depressing because these people don’t realize that they pretty much don’t have any real drawing skills. I mean, drawing pictures from magazines or of your favorite actresses or whatever can be helpful in developing a more accurate eye/understanding of proportions, but being able to copy a 2-d image accurately isn’t exactly a difficult feat (although, maybe to a middle-schooler…) I mean, I was in an art marketing class this semester where a student was seriously shocked- SHOCKED! that he was violating copyright by drawing a favorite album cover and selling it. Or a girl who was SHOCKED to learn that making batman fanart could never (legally) make her any money. I weep.

Which is why, of course, one has to develop fundamental drawing/painting skills- and that means working from life. Transferring 3-dimensional space into a 2-dimensional composition presents a more involved challenge, and requires a higher understanding of space, lighting, anatomy, etc. than just working from a photograph. And it’s these skills that will make working from photographs when you need to much more successful- the idea is to make it look like you drew/painted from life, even when you didn’t have the opportunity to for whatever reason (models are expensive, for instance.) Understanding what a photograph does to a 3-d object and working with that knowledge, and the actual skills you have from working from life, is what it’s all about.

Megan Koth- Pointe Duc Hoc (16×20)  © 2011

For example, here’s a pretty recent painting I did based on a photograph that I took on a 2010 trip to France. As you can see, I didn’t exactly replicate the lighting and color. Instead, I created a more apparent and appealing cool/warm contrast with the rocks in the foreground and the grass in the background. I also decreased the blinding whiteness of the sky to a more neutral grey (part of that is just the bad lighting in the photo of the painting.) It’s not perfect, but is more interesting to look at than if I had directly copied everything in the photograph, especially if I had done so with no knowledge of working with 3-d space.

At the end of the day, a photograph is a captured moment in time- whereas a painting isn’t (although some mistakenly claim they are). For instance, when you look an someone’s self-portrait (not from a photo, of course) you’re usually seeing the face of the artist in intense concentration, and their face after making any number of small or large adjustments along the way to subtle changes in expression as the process goes on. In other words, a painting is an image that constantly changes- until it’s finished, that is.

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4 thoughts on “On Painting Using Photographic References

  1. Yeah, the painting definitely looks more alive than it would if you simply copied. When I tried painting outside, I wasn’t satisfied unless I took multiple angles to reference. 😀 There really is a difference!

    1. Thank you! Yeah, taking multiple references of the same thing is even better too! When I do that, I feel like I’m not finding myself “falling back” too much on the photo and am thinking more of the painting itself and what I want it to be. Good point!

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