View Full Version : Question - photos versus real life

10-06-2005, 12:20 PM
Okay, I know my eye still needs lots of training (and my hands, and my brain, etc). But I'm seriously trying to learn. I would not be shellling out $250 to the local art museum for each 10-week life drawing class if I was not serious about getting better!

But I've been reading a lot here on WC, not only lately, but often over the past six months that I have belonged here, that one (with a better eye than I have presumably :D) can tell when a picture is done from a photo instead of from life. Now *I* certainly could never tell, so I'd really like to know what things one would look at. People talk about all the distortions of the camera, but I guess I just don't see it. Maybe my eyes still need more training, or maybe I'm just blind to that sort of thing, like color blindness. :)

Now as an example I'm going to be brave and post two pictures of mine. I say *brave* because they are pretty dreadful and I have never posted them on WC before. One is done with soft pastels and one done with oil pastels. They were both done last spring when I was pretty brand-new to pastels, and months before I discovered WC.

But even then I really wanted to learn, and I decided to set up a still life in my house so I could practice my "real life" drawing and painting skills. I draped a red apron of mine over a big piece of cardboard propped up on a dining room chair, and then grabbed three objects in the dining room and plunked them down on the table in front of it. I didn't worry about whether the objects "went" together in any way. I didn't worry about composition, as I knew that was something I still needed far more study on. I was just interested in the pure mechanics of drawing and painting, and the need to practice (and as these painting show, I did need it!). So I set up my still life, and did take a quick reference photo of the scene, but then put the camera down and at that point did the painting entirely from life.

Well a few weeks later I decided I wanted to try the other pastel medium, and rather than set up a new scene I decided I wanted to see how the previous still life looked when done in the other pastel medium. So this time I printed out the original reference photo I had taken, and painted the picture entirely from the reference photo, without looking at the first painting at all, so as not to "contaminate" my view, LOL.

So neither are very good - lopsided objects, poor composition, etc. But for the life of me I don't know what would give one away over the other as being painted from a photo, and I would like to learn.

10-06-2005, 12:44 PM
Well, one COULD argue that, in this instance, it's not a fair comparison because you did this subject FIRST from life and therefore "knew" it from life even when you later did it from the photo...I'm sure there was at least some influence there. But that being said, I think what you are referring to is some of Jackie's and others' comments about life sources always being better to learn the craft of pastel painting than using photos. The reasons for this are myriad, but well-founded in fact.

One reason is that the camera is never as good an observer as your own eyes would be. It flattens colour, ignores the nuances within shadows, and can even distort shapes, etc. in perspective. Judging depth of field is far harder with a photo than real life, as well. While MY eye is not well trained enough to spot these problems every time, someone like Jackie or Deb with years of hard work and practice can spot the little flaws that show up in a photo reference, leaving the painter to either slavishly copy the flaws or "guess" at what would really be there, something you can apparently learn to do over time.

For you and I, the differences are likely to show up in how elegantly we handle the shadows, the reflected lights, and the sense of space within the subject. While we both are "good" enough to wing it here and there where needed, we'd both be a lot better off seeing the real thing and learning the "real" deal. Perhaps that shadow behind the bottle has colours in it that get lost in the photo; etc. I can "fake" that, perhaps, but....

Both your still life paintings are lovely...and since I wasn't there to see the real setup, I couldn't tell you which was which, but I tell ya what...in a year's time, try replicating that setup if you can and doing it strictly from life, using the eyes you've developed by then and just see....I bet there will be a lot more "life" in the new one. Could be a really interesting experiment!

10-06-2005, 01:03 PM
Well, one COULD argue that, in this instance, it's not a fair comparison because you did this subject FIRST from life and therefore "knew" it from life even when you later did it from the photo...!

LOL, with my memory? No way. I can barely remember what I painted three days ago in that sort of detail, or even three hours ago. But three weeks ago? Now *that* is an eternity. I could remember I painted the scene, but that was it. :)

I tell ya what...in a year's time, try replicating that setup if you can and doing it strictly from life, using the eyes you've developed by then and just see....I bet there will be a lot more "life" in the new one.

Now *that* actually does sound like something fun to try!

10-06-2005, 01:09 PM
The problem isn't "from life" OR "from photos", it is knowing the limitations of both, and knowing how to compensate for these limitations. The camera seems to lose nuances of value and colour, but so do your eyes- especially if you have any vision problems at all; (even "corrective lenses" don't correct to "perfect" vision- there's no such thing as "perfect" vision). If you have a depth perception problem (more common than you think, and very common over age 35), then your eyes don't do as well "flattening" a real life object so that you can draw it unless you already know and understand the hows of drawing in the first place. If you use a photograph, the object is already flattened for you, but if you copy that exactly, the form will not be correct unless you already know and understand the subtleties of the value placements which the camera exaggerates.

It isn't one OR the other, it is knowing how to compensate for either.

If we look at a tallish building, and we could record exactly what our EYES see, it would have the very same distortions a photograph of such does. But, see, we have this marvelous organ called "a brain", and our brain takes the visual cues and information from our eyes and "reinterprets it" so the building now "looks right" to us- the camera lens and our eyes see exactly the same way, but the camera doesn't have a brain reinterpreting for it, so photographs of such things look "wrong". In order to work confidently from a photograph, all you need do is teach your brain how to "reinterpret" the information the photo displays, same way it does when presented with 3-dimensional information.

This reinterpretation is no different for colour or value or perspective- people say "The camera lies", but it doesn't, really- it's our brains doing the lying. Saying a photograph distorts colour and value- say, making shadows appear black rather than dark coloured tones- isn't quite true- that's the fault of the print making process- the same photograph done in slide form (transparency) easily reveals the subtle tones in a shadow. This is why we are told to gamma correct (or use histogramic functions), or hold it up to a bright window, or whatever to "see" into the shadows; the colours and tones ARE there, but the printing process distorts them. But you have to KNOW to do that, so that you can compensate for it. It's one reason Dawn's portraits are so colourful- she works from an image on the computer screen, so there isn't the same kind of colour and value distortion for her as there is from a printed piece of paper.

If you think you need to practice some art skill, practice drawing- from life, from photos, from your imagination, from everything- drawing is perhaps the best skill any artist can have.

10-06-2005, 06:38 PM
And how many times have I heard, "Oh, I don't want to DRAW!!! I just want to get on with painting!" I always figured painting IS drawing...you just do it with a brush (or a pastel stick) rather than a pencil...

10-06-2005, 08:24 PM
Julie, says it well. It isn't an" either or" question.It's a matter of understanding what is in front of you and how you will translate it into your painting. Life subject's first off are 3D with a front sides and back that is discernible in some fashion. a photo is 2D with only a flat front surface. What is printed upon that surface does indeed convey the illusion of front, side and back, just as we are trying to convey in our paintings. There are more options and more selections to define from life simply because we are viewing it in situ and in life scale. I think the big difference is that photography is an art medium just as watercolor or oils are. If I am using a watercolor painting as my reference for a pastel, I have to understand the differences in the medium. My pastel translation will not end up looking like a watercolor but a pastel interpretation of the watercolor. The watercolorist has already made a number of the choices perhaps from life, and I just reinterpret them as a pastel.. similarly with a photo, a number of selections have already occured and I'm reinterpreting those as a pastel. Using only the watercolor or only the photo, I miss out on some of the information that was available in the real life scene. I also, I think, miss out on the energy that lives in the real life scene.
There are indeed some obvious artifacts in photography that has to do with the mechanics of a camera and the lens. One example is that if an animal is walking in front of the camera as the picture is taken the moving leg will lengthen. This has to do with time lag of the opening of the diaphragm on the film cameras. Whether this happens on digital, I'm not sure. Digital's produce a different depth of field than the old film cameras and introduce more detail sometimes than the eye would interpret from life. Contrast is not the same as the eye perceives. sometimes it is more, sometimes less. color is not as accurately recorded on film or in digital as the eye percieves it. Most folks do not compose photos in the same manner a painting requires. I can go through Webshots.com art albums and often tell when a painter has copied photos just from the compositions used. There is nothing wrong with using a photo for a reference. photos are valuable tools. But there is a difference in copying a photo and using it as a reference. If doing a building from a photo, use the horizon line and a rule and check out the perspective. It may or may not be distorted. Compare a photo of an animal with a real life creature and measure out the proportions. Most likely, depending on lenses and angles used there will slight misproportions. Learning to focus the eye on a 3D form, to convey that energy to the hand and get it onto paper interpreting the roundness and livliness of the subject is the best training for art anyone can get. Ideally we do sketches from real life, take notes, really see and begin to make the selections, then take a lot of photos from different angles to use as references and reminders. The results are simply more lively. IMHO. I do use photos a lot. My work is about 50/50 from life and from photos. I am thrilled when someone looks at my work and the references and says "but your painting says so much more than the photos". Otherwise why even do the painting when I have the photo?
I think the artist's mission, even the photo realist's is to transcend the subject.

10-06-2005, 08:33 PM
Oh I totally agree that drawing this basis of everything. I admit I love to paint too, and love the color, but knowing how to draw is the key to everything, and still something I struggle with daily, but keep trying. I do try to draw something every day, even if it is just 5 minutes worth of quick gesture drawings while sitting at my desk at work. Can't tell you know many times I've drawn my coffee mug. :)

But even drawing 'from life" is a struggle for these old eyes. I freely admit that most of the things I draw from life are far more sketchy and tentative than anything I draw from a photo, mainly because I just can't make out any details, and that's with top-quality corrective glasses. In the Soft Pastels Studio I posted this week the portrait I started from the life model in my art class, but I'll tell you frankly I just "made up" her eye and her lips, because from where I sat (about 10 feet away, as close as I could get) her eye and her lips were just indistinct blobs of color, but nothing I could see well enough to really draw. :)

And SweetBabyJ, I'm afraid your stuff is just too deep for simple soul like me. Maybe nothing is anything like we see it at all and it's all an illusion. :D

I *know* eyes can be trained to see things with practice. As an example, when I was a teenager I worked as a riding counselor at a summer camp, and we had two buckskin horses that outsiders all swore they could not tell apart, yet for those of us who worked with the horses every day it was inconceivable that anyone could ever mistake them, they were each so obviously unique! I never understood books or movies with a plot point that hinged on switching one horse (or dog) for another, as I was sure anyone who knew the animal intimately would spot the substitution in a second!

So I guess I can understand, objectively, that photographs distort things, but it is one of those things that I guess I will just have to accept on faith alone, sort of like a religious experience, as from my own personal knowledge I can't say that photographs distort reality (unless the photographer is obviously attempting to) since this is something I have never been able to grasp. I guess this means I could never hope to "correct" from a photo either, since I would not have the least idea what was wrong. :)

10-07-2005, 12:53 AM
Well, I appreciate all the wonderful and detailed replies to my query, and the thought and effort that went into them all! Unfortunately I'm afraid it's sort of like trying to explain Handel's Messiah to someone with a tin ear (to borrow from another of my worlds, as a singer). You're trying to explain with *words* something that I only would have a hope of trying to learn by seeing. That's why I was hoping I could post a couple pictures, one done from life and one done from a photo, and have someone be able to point out the things that distinguish one from the other.

I mean TJ, for example, says to compare a photo of an animal to a living animal, and there will be misproportions. I feel like I'm beating my head against the wall because I just can't see it. As we speak I'm looking at my dog who is laying at my feet, and I'm looking at a photo of my dog on the beach in Canada that I took this summer, and if the photo distorts her I certainly can't see it at all, and I know I could never measure it! And as for a photo showing distored perspective of a building? That's just far too subtle for me, unless the photographer is using an obvious distortion like a fish-eye lens.

Maybe I just have to accept the fact that perhaps I'm "photo blind" in the way that some people are "tone deaf". I mean I have sung with people who have sung for years yet not only can they never match pitch, they don't even know their own pitch is off! I hate to think that maybe that's *me* in the art world, but maybe it is.

10-07-2005, 04:25 AM
No, you aren't "photo blind" at all! What you do not have is the INFORMATION you need to understand when a photo is inadequate. I will try to offer you some basic information which might make things a bit clearer.

1. The Figure. If you take a photo of someone from a distance, their proportions might well be OK. If you are close to that person, and the camera is on a level with her head, HER LEGS may well be foreshortened by the camera because the camera cannot accurately show the proportions when you are close up to a person. Now, it may not be VERY obvious in the photograph, but if you had been working for a while from life, AND HAD BECOME VERY PRACTICED AT MEASURING - this is the crux of the matter - you could look at the photo and realise that the legs are too short for the body. But you might only spot this, because of the experience you had gained with working from life and doing careful measuring to check your own drawings.

2. Colours in a landscape. Now, you know that a camera will expose for the light, if you point it at the sky, or if the sky figures large in the picture. This often means that the land masses are printed out too dark. A line of trees on a distant horizon, for instance, will often show as being quite black ...but if you were there, in real life, you would be able to see the subtle difference between the tone of the distant trees and the tones of the things in the foreground. In a mo, I will find a photo or two for you to prove this. Now if you never work from life, you would think there was nothing wrong with the photo.........it probably looks fine. But if you had spent a lot of time working from life, you would know that the tones in the distance are always lighter and softer than anything in the foreground and so you would be able to compensate for that in your painting.
In this photo, the distant buildings, and the gondolas, seem to be very close in tone, equally dark really - you cannot really see the tops of the poles against the distant buildings, and the water looks almost as dark as the boat, on the left of the pic:


Now this one is MUCH closer to what the eye would see, I adjusted it on the computer. The difference is startling, I am sure you will agree. The distant buildings are much lighter in tone, and look how much colour, and contrasts of dark and light, you can see in the gondolas, and see how much darker the poles are, than the distance! I remember it like this, not like the top photo, which is what came back from the processors:


These photos show clearly what SBJ was trying to explain to you. The information that the eye can see, is often "there", in the photo, but in the processing, it gets lost. When we work on the spot, we can see all the things that the photo sometimes doesn't show us, and that is so often why we are disappointed when we get our holiday photos back! We cannot always pin down why we feel that disappointment, but these photos show why.

3. Shadows. Same thing as above really. Shadows in photos are often very dense and black because the photographic print shows them like that - it is becauswe the camera has exposed for the light areas, and tried to get those right, rather than provide a print with overexposed light areas, which customers would fling back at the photo processors!
Here is a photo, straight from the caerma:

Now here the lights are over exposed - I cannot see the cracks in the paving now, and I could in real life, but the shadows are much more what I could actually see with the naked eye( adjusted on computer)

These are just three examples. Perspective distortions is another issue; flattening is another,( tho personally, I think this can often be an advantage!) But I wont go into those because this will end up being a book!

As for your two examples, it really isn't a fair comparison. You say you cannot remember things well, so you would not have been influenced by your work from life...this simply is not the case. YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS mind would have taken in quite a lot of information, and whether you know it or not, it would have affected your second picture. Also, a still life is not always the best subject for someone to use, to see if the viewer can tell if the images was done from a photo or not, because the distortions are less than they might be with other subjects. I hope the above examples might help a little to give you some relief to your confusion. Don't worry too much about this; as you grow, and learn, as a painter, you will gradually start to discover the differences for yourself. You will learn, for instance, that a photo of a tree trunk, taken from a distance, will look dark - whereas if you go into your park, and look at that same tree from the same distance, you will actually see the texture of the bark and the variations in the colour. Whether you want to PAINT all of that information is another matter, but the fact remains, there will be a difference in your vision, and your perception.

Just one last thing, which I feel is fairly easy to understand too. When you work from a photograph, certainly of the landscape, or the figure, you have all the time in the world. You can take hours and hours over your image, recording every tiny detail if you want to. Nothing will change, nothing will perish. In the landscape, shadows shift and change; the figure shifts and wriggles and sags in the seat, flowers open, droop, wither. We KNOW that these things are likely to happen - and so, when working from life, we speed up automatically. The adrenalin starts to pump in a totally different way. This has to have an effect on our painting process, whether we want it to or not. And that is why something done from life often has a kind of freshness, an immediacy, it's difficult to use the right words, but nevertheless, this is a fact - there is a difference that happens automatically. Sometimes for the better - sometimes not. SBJ, for instance, works a lot from photo reference, and uses her great experience to adjust what she sees to great effect. The pace of her work is slow for all sorts of reasons, and it is what she needs to get the effect she wants. There are others who achieve photographic realism by working for hours and hours from a still life - Google the work of Andrew Hemingway, for instance - now he will take months and months on a still life, but never, ever, uses photos. If there is fruit in the image, he will have replaced it as and when he needed to. Everyone finds their own way to work, and you will too. But working from life will feed you with information that you can then use, to see any inadequacies in your photos. Learning all you can about painting will help too - read all you can about the process of painting. A confession for you - I have been painting for more years than I care to remember, but it was only a year or two ago, when I was doing my dancer series, that I learned about camera distortion of the human body when taking photos up close! It was a hard lesson to learn, I felt really quite stupid, when struggling for ages to get a picture right, feeling there was something wrong but unable to sort it out, only to read up about working with photos in the end and learning this fact. Then, all the problems suddenly became obvious and clear!

I hope this all helps a bit.


10-07-2005, 11:19 AM
Thank you Jackie, the photos were certainly very helpful! I guess this is just one more thing to add to my long list of things I'm trying to learn. I guess that somewhere on a subconscious level I realized that the camera does darken things, etc, as when I have done some work from photos I have always used Picasa first to lighten up and enhance to image to the way I thought it ought to look, but I always thought that was just me and the fault of my eyes, not the fault of the camera. :)

But it is certainly true that working from life, especially plein air, is a different experience. When I went to visit my family in North Carolina in May I made a goal to do a plein air painting every day, and I actually did. They live at the beach so plenty of lovely plein air opportunities. But it was quite stressing for me. I think of the very first one I did. I worked very fast - less than an hour on the painting, but in that single hour just about *everything* changed more than once.

At first there was a clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Then the clouds rolled in completely covering the sky and sun, and eliminating all shadows so that there was just a very flat gray light. Then the clouds broke up so that there were big puffy lumps all over the sky, and the angle of the shadows shifted dramatically, and the clouds kept passing over the sun and blocking out all the shadows. And all this in just 45 minutes! I found it quite stressful. :) And I can't say that I was very happy with the picture I did either even though I tend to be a very fast painter anyway.

I guess it's similar to how stressful I find my life drawing classes because I can't see the model well enough to make out any details of her face, even when sitting as closely as I am allowed to. And it's hard to be told to do a close-up portrait when her eyes and lips only look like indiscriminate blobs of color!

But I'm still a newbie, so in May I was even far more of a newbie than I am now, and I think I was trying to do something beyond my skill level with those plein airs, but I was trying to "push" myself, and I still think that's a good thing. And I like to think that maybe I could make a better job of it now.

But I guess I can keep trying to learn, and the wonderful advice I had received here on WC in the last few months has surely helped tremendously, and helped me learn things I might never have discovered otherwise. I think I have grown a lot in the months I have been on WC - far more than I could have hoped to without WC.

But I accept that I will probably paint from photos in the future. This summer I went to Canada's Gaspé peninsula for a brief vacation, a very paintable place, but I was only there a few days and had no time to do any kind of plein air painting. If the weather was nice we were constantly on the go seeing things, and if the weather was bad I didn't want to do plein air - hard to do in the rain anyway! On those rainy days I did do several indoor and still life paintings "from life", but for the outdoor scenes I just snapped photos and hoped to be able to recreate some day what I had seen.

Likewise I had a wonderful trip to Greece in 1994, and I know I will never get there again (since I have given up flying, LOL) so it's nice to think maybe someday I could paint a Greek image from my trip photos.

I know someone who is an artist, and does wonderfully lovely oil paintings, beautiful moods and lightings. I'd love to hang one on my own walls but cannot afford them. :D She confessed to me that as someone who went to a prestigious art school, and has spent years teaching art to children, she *knows* it is best to work "from life". But she said that she finds if she tries to work from life herself she becomes too obsessive-compulsive about it, and feels she must try to reproduce every blade of grass and every leaf on the tree - so the only way she can get herself to produce the very loose style she prefers is to take a photo of the scene she wants to paint, then manipulate it in Photoshop to create a loose, painterly image, and then tries to paint exactly what she has produced on Photoshop!

But I keep telling myself that the reason I do this is because I love it, and that is really the main thing to me. I'll never be the world's best artist, but I do want to continue to love it. Part of loving it is trying to improve, but I can also accept that there are people who love something but seem to have no natural gift for it. I've always loved the piano and took lessons for years. But I was never much good, and one day I had a party at my house, and a man at the party saw the sheet music I had sitting on my piano, and sat down to try to play it, and on a first read-through he played it *far* better than I could ever hope for, and I had been practicing the piece every day for six months! That's when I knew I was really not cut out for the piano, and I have never played it since (and just how do you get rid of a large upright piano taking up valuable space in the dining room that could be used for art supplies!)

But I do think I have more of a talent for art. My art teacher even told me this week that he thought I had nice drawing skills and a good eye. Boy, was I chuffed. :D And I can see big differences in my work just in the last six months, so I think I'm more likely to progress here than I was with the piano. But not all learning is linear, and we don't all learn in the same way. Just as long as we *do* continue to learn, that's the main thing. Have to keep those old brain cells on the hop.

10-07-2005, 11:54 AM
Debbie, can I ask you a quick favour...quit disparaging yourself. I went through all of your responses in this thread and you are constantly blaming your "old eyes" and their shortcomings. Your memory and it's shortcomings. In the quote below, I copied everything you said these were keeping you from doing.

with a better eye than I have presumably

But for the life of me I don't know what would give one away over the other as being painted from a photo, and I would like to learn.

with my memory? No way.

But even drawing 'from life" is a struggle for these old eyes.

her eye and her lips were just indistinct blobs of color, but nothing I could see well enough to really draw.

I *know* eyes can be trained to see things with practice.

I guess this means I could never hope to "correct" from a photo either, since I would not have the least idea what was wrong.

Unfortunately I'm afraid it's sort of like trying to explain Handel's Messiah to someone with a tin ear

Maybe I just have to accept the fact that perhaps I'm "photo blind"

but I always thought that was just me and the fault of my eyes, not the fault of the camera.

I can't see the model well enough to make out any details of her face, even when sitting as closely as I am allowed to.

Have to keep those old brain cells on the hop.

In the October issue of Pastel Journal, there is an article about a woman who was celebrating her hundredth year...and she painted until she went blind!!! But she was MUCH older than you are when she did finally go blind, so I'm betting you have a few years left.

Have you had your eyes checked lately? If you are having difficulty seeing, perhaps you might need a change in prescription. My mother does alot of cross stitch and a few years ago she was having difficulty reading her patterns and then working on the actual piece. Her eyes seemed to be having difficulty going back and forth. She ended up with a bifocal prescription and that has helped her immensely. My dad is a locksmith and he had the same difficulty with reading manuals as he was working on locks. Again - bifocals did the trick. My parents are fairly young...in their very early 50's and this was several years ago - probably when they were in their mid-40's. Perhaps that could do the trick for you as well. It is certainly something to consider. As we age, our eyes inevitably deteriorate (especially in this age of computers).

Another quote of yours that caught my eye was:

But I accept that I will probably paint from photos in the future.

It is apparent that you don't feel that painting from life is for you. Why fight that? It certainly has it's benefits, but if you feel that painting from photos is what you want to do, then do so. BUT, try to learn the ways that you can see the most possible from those photos. There are many excellent photo editing programs out there that can help you do what Jackie did in those examples. Take a course in photoshop to help you see into your photos and see if that helps your paintings.

and the last quote that caught mye eye and made me smile...

(and just how do you get rid of a large upright piano taking up valuable space in the dining room that could be used for art supplies!)

EASY PEASY!! Sell it! There are lots of people out there who would love to have a big piano but can't afford to buy one new. They would be happy to help you by taking it off your hands! Advertise it locally and see the response you get...and then post photos of your new studio.

10-07-2005, 12:36 PM
when I first started with pastels, I painted a scene in my back yard plein aire. Much time squinting and looking at color/shadow, and FUN FUN!!!!. When I was done, I took a photo of the scene, put it in my computer. The photo was true really, if I had not taken time to study the scene, the colors were same etc. as real life in passing glance at the scene. But the photo I uploaded on my computer was so dull compared to my painting, and so I really turned up the saturation and contrast to see what would happen. Now I am sure there were distortions in the photo, but I gotta say I was shocked at how close the brilliant colors in my painting were to the computer image, also my interpretation of contrasty shadows. However, the experience of seeing with my own eyes in real life was huge, and there were subtle things about how I saw and interpreted/reacted to the light that I could not have seen/felt on my computer screen- Unless I had already studied the scene. Does that make sense. I also then printed the photo..ugh, no way I could see the "light" there LOL.

There is an "experience", something intimate and intense about painting from life, and I move toward more painting from life for that reason. I guess I feel like I am still in the cradle as someone learning a craft, at some akward in between stage.

If I paint from reference photo, it is always from my computer screen, at least better results to paint from light rather than colored ink on paper where decisions are already set in ink.

Try this ...set up a still life, take a photo of it from where you sit at computer screen, look at both the computer screen image and the real life image and you will see the differences. Now print out the image, look at all three together.

just my own experiences here, I have always been a bit backwards in the way I learn and process the painting experience. I do see some distortions in my paintings because of photos, but I am learning!

found the thread of that image I posted so long ago! I now have a decent monitor and sad to see the posted image was so much duller than it really looked LOL...pitfalls of the internet. Anyways, if I can find the photo I took I'll post it here too.

Fascinating discission!!!!! Alisa


10-07-2005, 12:43 PM
I think part of the problem is a misperception that Jackie or anyone else has EVER tried to say that painting from photos is WRONG. It's not and never was; it's likely to be a longer route to your best work, but hey, as you say we all work in our own way at our own pace. Besides which, I don't think you can quite still call yourself a newbie in the sense Jackie probably meant. You've obviously come a long way from the tentative steps of the true neophyte and you have a good eye for drawing already, one that just needs to stay exercised and practiced. Your "old eyes" are obviously quite adequate to the task, so don't worry about that.

In your situation, doing little photo reffed pieces for practice and fun is fine, good, great! Nothing wrong with it IF YOU ARE AWARE (and you already seem to be somewhat aware) of photography's limitations. Go for it! Nobody's attacking your right to use photos! All we're trying to say is that "from life" teaches tons more tons faster and far more completely than copying the limited info available in a photograph, especially a photo of something you've never seen yourself in real life. But you'll still learn, you'll still be practicing and with luck, you'll still be having a good time!

Both methods are GOOD. Go with whichever one you can use at the moment and don't worry about it! K? :D Besides, you're doing plein air every week in your life drawing class...

10-07-2005, 01:27 PM
Re the painting a portrait when you cannot see the features, you have two options

1. you can tell your tutor that you cannot possibly see from that distance, and therefore you can only "suggest" the shape of the head and hint at the features - when doing a figure study, often it isn't necessary to include a portrait too.


2, Sit yourself to the side, or even behind the model, and then you wont have the problem at all.

FYI when I do a life class, I usually deliberately avoid doing the model's face - I might just suggest where the eyes, nose and mouth might come, but that's about IT. I do not want to waste time, trying to get a likeness. I am there to tackle the body, not a portrait - that would be a different class, as far as I am concerned.


10-07-2005, 01:28 PM
Cori, Talk about an eye opener (LOL). Actually yes I have my eyes checked every year and my prescription is as up-to-date as it can be. I have wonderful glasses, varilux trifocals with top for distance, bottom for close-up, and middle for computer distance -quite necessary when you stare at a computer screen all day long for work! I'm still frustrated that I don't see as well as I would love to, for distance, but it's as good as they can correct me for. I am **very** nearsighted. Without my glasses I am way beyond the limits for legal blindness, but I am not considered legally blind because the glasses do correct me to the point where I can certainly drive, and get around without bumping into doors (as I surely would without the glasses), and doing everything I want to really, but they can only correct for distance so far. Frustration is losing your glasses, but being so blind without them that you can't see well enough to look for them, and I've been there too.

But it's very interesting to see ourselves as others see us sometimes. :) It's funny that I never really thought of myself as putting myself down, but trying to present my frustrations with my vision, and at not instantly being Michelangelo in a "humorous" way, and not very successfully I gather! I mean I do get frustrated at not being able to see the life model more clearly, even though having the best glasses I can buy, but I guess I better find another way of expressing it, or just shut up about it altogether (probably the wisest course).

And actually my extreme nearsightedness gives me one good benefit that many people with "old eyes" don't have. I can see very clearly close-up without my glasses! If the model were sitting ten inches away from me instead of ten feet I'd be able to clearly see every pore on her face. I can thread a needle with ease, I can read tiny print, I can do fine needlework - all without glasses. Things that many people of my generation can no longer do. It's just distance that has always been an issue for me, and I seem to notice it more these days when trying to do art.

Last weekend I went on a hawk migration watch, great fun, except the other watchers would be saying "there's one! Oh, look, I think it's a Cooper's. No maybe it's a Sharpie" and I would look up and see nothing but empty blue sky even after being told in which direction to look. My eyes, even with my $500 glasses, could not see what the others saw. Frustrating, but not as frustrating as I sometime find it when I'm trying to paint, but maybe that's just another good reason to concentrate more on still lifes (which I am coming to love more and more) and less on landscapes.

It's also interesting to see how much of my upbringing still comes out, even after all these years. My mom was always a firm believer in "never toot your own horn". She was always pressuring me to avoid doing anything that seemed the least bit like bragging, telling me I should always make light of any of my talents or accomplishments, even encouraging me to get *lower* grades in my school classes (now how many kids ever hear that from their parents?) and telling me "no one likes an egghead" and "you'll never have a boyfriend if you act so smart. Boys don't like smart girls" (good thing my son never heard her say that), and "I'd much rather you got C's in your classes and went to more parties, rather than getting straight A's and just staying in reading". If I showed anyone a drawing or painting I had done I was *expected* to mumble that I knew it was really not very good - or my mom would yell at me! I really thought I had shaken the dust from those childhood pressures, but realize that even today I do have a morbid sense of embarrassment in presenting anything I do without the disclaimer that I know it's not very good. I still feel MOM looking over my shoulder! If I post a picture and say I feel quite proud of it I'm ashamed of myself for days.

And here I'm always yelling at both my sisters all the time for the way they put themselves down constantly (we all had the same mother after all, LOL) and not even realizing I still did it myself. What's that bit in the Bible about seeing the mote in someone else's eye and not seeing the beam in your own? Maybe I didn't realize it because it doesn't happen at work. I'm very good at my job and I know I am. (there, I said it. Take that Mom).

Okay, now I should go over to the Goals thread and vow that for the next year I will make no more cracks about my old eyes, or deprecating remarks about my own art work. At work we have a series of internal forums that people post to, mostly for serious technical computer topics (since I work in the computer biz) but others of more general interest. One is called the Humility Forum, and people are expected to post there if and when they make a resolution to correct some form of errant behavior - all in fun of course, this is not a job requirement! But this would be a perfect post for the humility forum.

And the piano? Well certainly I have tried to sell it, but not successfully as yet. It has not been tuned in 20 years and probably needs lots of work. My next-door neighbor finally had her piano carted off to the trash a few years ago after being unsuccessful in selling it, but mine is so gorgeous I would hate to do that. But it's been a few years since I last tried, and there are many more internet resources available now - like craigslist. Maybe a "free to a good home" listing in a place like that might work these days. I only paid $100 for the piano myself 25 years ago, so it's not a big financial investment, but I'd like it to go to someone who would use it. My son and his wife use craigslist for just about everything and it seems to be a very useful tool.

But as for a studio? Well it *did* start out in the dining room, but now so much of my art stuff has migrated up to the computer room/office for the VPON paint-outs that I hardly know where my studio is these days!

10-07-2005, 01:37 PM
ohhh - with that in mind about the piano - why not offer it to a school music program. If you are just going to give it away - a school or chruch might love to have it! Especially if they can get it for the cost of moving and tuning (which they'd have to do anyway once it was moved).

I apologize if I was a bit blunt, but I thought I should point it out since often we don't recognize when we do it. Maybe, with all of the advances in medication and science, your eyesight issues might be even further correctable in a few years. Just think - it wasn't that long ago that astigmatism meant you couldn't wear contact lenses. Believe it or not, I am peripherally blind so don't ever ask me to watch something out of the corner of my eye...but straight ahead is no issue. The car accident that caused my minimal blindness could have just as easilly destroyed all vision. I don't know what the artist in me would have done!!!

And, girl, toot your own horn. By all means. Otherwise you won't be able to hear the people agreeing with you!!!

10-07-2005, 02:26 PM
I apologize if I was a bit blunt, but I thought I should point it out since often we don't recognize when we do it. Maybe, with all of the advances in medication and science, your eyesight issues might be even further correctable in a few years.

Cori, your bluntness was wonderful. It was like an ice cold bucket of water dumped right over my head. :D

They sure are making advances in medical science all the time. My son, poor guy, inherited my eyes and has eyesight as bad as my own. He is already talking about have that lasik eye surgery as soon as he graduates from law school and starts earning enough money to pay for it, and by that time the surgery should be even better than it is now. But he has a lot of student loans to pay off first. And his eyes will be a bit older too. Supposedly they don't like to do that surgery until you are at least 26, as it's at about that age that your vision stabilizes. It was like that for me. I didn't even wear glasses until I was 18, but suddenly between the ages of 18 and mid-20's my eyesight deteriorated so quickly I was afraid I was losing it, with the worst changes coming between 18 and 21. But by late 20's it had basically stabilized and from then until now has not changed very much, except the last few years with some minor aging-related changes. But I can still put on 25-year-old glasses and get around with them quite well.

But the new surgeries can even correct many of the vision problems of older eyes as well, and I have several friends who have had the eye surgery done, and rave about how wonderful it is, but also one friend whose surgery went a bit wrong, and still has trouble seeing, several years later - worse off than when she started, so I'll hang on to my glasses a while longer. :eek: (those are big eyes with round glasses, LOL)

The funny thing about the piano is that I actually got it from the church up the street (the one where I sing in the choir). They had *too many* pianos and wanted to get rid of them! They had an upright piano in every Sunday school room (about a dozen or more) as well as the three baby grands that are the only ones they care about. It's an old church and those were the days, eh, when every Sunday School teacher was just expected to be able to play the piano for her class. But they've slowly been trying to get rid of all the old uprights over the years, but having trouble finding takers.

10-07-2005, 02:50 PM
Call around to nursing homes, Debbie- I've worked in two which had no pianos at all- one had only a cheap keyboard organ thing- it's difficult enough helping elders do- or even remember- all the things they used to love to do without having to make them pretend a WallyWorld keyboard is really a piano like they used to play on Sunday evenings....

Just ask for the Activities/Recreational Therapy/Social Services department. (Different facilities call it different things....)

10-07-2005, 02:59 PM
THAT is an awesome idea, Julie!

See, Debbie, we'll have you in your own studio in no time! :D

10-07-2005, 03:21 PM
Hi :wave:

Good thread and lesson.

Thanks! I even came back to vote, haven't done that in a while.


10-07-2005, 04:03 PM
Okay - I was just at the news stand over my lunch hour and picked up the new American Artist...there is an articlein there on using Digital Technology to improve your painitngs. If you don't have the issue already, you should go pick it up, Debbie. I think it might give you some tools to use when painitng from photographs! :)

I rated this thread as well. I think it is a good one for the library, since it deals with struggles we all hit at points in our artistic lives!

10-07-2005, 04:12 PM
I'm not sure I agree with the previous advice that if you hate working from life that you should give yourself permission to work from photos in order to continue loving your art. By using photos, you will not be challenging yourself although the experience will be more enjoyable for you. In order to grow to your fullest extent as an artist, you will need to challenge yourself - get outside your comfort level. I'm not saying your drawing and painting skills will not grow if you work only from photos. But your skills will remain constrained by your technique. I understand your frustration when the weather conditions change (I've painted in snow storms, rain showers, and have encountered a bear while working plein aire) while working outside. The weather will change more quickly in some climates than in others. Unfortunately, I live in Minn. where the atmospheric conditions change very quickly. As a result, you cannot expect to return to the same location on a subsequent day to finish the piece (even if you have the time). Perhaps still life set-ups are better suited to your needs at this time. I've found that still lifes are an excellent source to hone drawing skills and learn about perspective. If your art doesn't grow, I suspect it may no longer be as enjoyable. Just a thought - creativity, of course, has no bounds.


10-08-2005, 08:29 PM
Debbie- I hate setting up/ working from still lifes. I have extremely bad vision (a result of way too much oxygen in an incubator and staying in there 3 months- retina damage and now cataracts that cannot be removed without probably more retina damage), and much prefer photos, I can get my one eye that works sort of up close to the photo- like a couple of mm away- but I have been more disturbed lately by a trend that I have heard is common. I was going to take some local art classes, and commented that my drawing skills were weak, when I was told that they use a projector to draw everything for the class. One 6-week (I think it was) class produced one drawing because you copy very exactly every shading detail, etc. from a projector of an image. Mind you, the results were great- but this was a gallery that hosted the classes- and the gallery pictures were traced from images from a projector. This really bothered me. I know they used projectors in earlier times, but I would just not want to admit it if I ever used one- not if I called myself an artist! Now when I see pastels that are 'photo perfect' I wonder.... I need to settle down and take the time to really DRAW- I see things I did before I was in high school, and they are great- but I took my time- now I seem to be horribly impatient....Cori, I saw that article but doubt that I will make it to 100- but she did some lovely paintings didn't she?

10-08-2005, 10:30 PM
Debbie- I hate setting up/ working from still lifes. I have extremely bad vision (a result of way too much oxygen in an incubator and staying in there 3 months- retina damage and now cataracts that cannot be removed without probably more retina damage), and much prefer photos,?

Wow, sorry to hear that! I can understand since I have pretty rotten vision too, so most stuff I try to do in real life comes out pretty sketchy since I usually I can not see it well enough to make out enough details to make it convincing. Have that problem now with my life class where I'm as close to the model as I can get, but her facial features are still indistinct blobs for me. The previous drawing class was the same. Instructor set up still lifes, but they were still 10 feet away which meant I could not see them very well. In my first drawing class we all sat around a big table and the instructor would but some objects in the middle of it, so they were only about 2 feet away. Now that class was *fun*. Two feet was a distance close enough that I could see things!

I was going to take some local art classes, and commented that my drawing skills were weak, when I was told that they use a projector to draw everything for the class. One 6-week (I think it was) class produced one drawing because you copy very exactly every shading detail, etc. from a projector of an image.

Yikes, this is hard to believe. They don't call this a *drawing* class do they? Surely not! But it seems something called a "tracing class" would not get many students would it? :) You say you have heard this is an increasing trend? How weird. I can't say I have noticed it around here. I may complain about the museum just because I can never get close enough to really see what I'm trying to draw, so this is frustrating for me. But at least they do things the "old fashioned" way! Actually drawing using live models for refererence.

I'm not saying a projector would never have a place. If Canaletto and Vermeer could use a camera obscura then surely modern artists could use a projector? But I'm sure they both studied traditional drawing as well. It seems one should at least master the rudiments of drawing before just becoming a mechanical copyist! :D

Besides, drawing is *fun* even if it can also be very frustrating.

10-08-2005, 10:43 PM
Post #81 from the referenced thread in the Debates forum:

It is becoming obvious that the real argument against using reference photo's is entirely based on fear and insecurity, not facts, not evidence, not anything measurable and repeatable.

That seems to make it necessary for those arguing that position to make false accusations, to lie about people's posts and position, to attack their work with vague insults, and generally do anything and everything but substantiate their claims with concrete evidence. Distortion, libel, ad hominem - anything to distract attention away from their lack of evidence.

There isn't any concrete evidence to support their claim. For every perceived flaw in photography (or works referencing photos) - the human eye can and has created the same flaw. People drawing from life can and do make all the same errors that some photographs contain. That is a fact that is amply evident, not only from the vast flood of works with erroneous bodily proportions, poor depth of field, incorrect values, and so on - but also from the myriad books on the market written to teach people how to overcome these errors.

Not only that, but there are entirely classifications of art, valid, expressive, communicative art, for which those errors have no validity at all. Errors of proportion? Largely irrelevant in abstract works, cubism and surrealism. Errors in hue? Irrelevant to colorists who mutate and change the colors of their subjects to suit other purposes and goals. For just about any error of vision, there is an approach, a school, a classification of art that turns that error into a necessity.

And that, most of all, make the entire derogatory claim about working from photo's both a nasty, self-serving waste of time at the expense of others, and short-sighted.

No method - working from life, working from photos, working from inner vision, etc, will guarantee that the result will be error free - for anyone. Not for the masters, not for professionals, not for students, not for teachers, and most of all, not for those who publicly denounce works they have not seen, en masse (for having been created with some particular method).

And denigrating any method - whether the use of reference photos, or the "oil is better than acrylics" or "painting is better than drawing" or "sculpture is better than painting" or "hand-pulled prints are better than giclee's" or "hand-painted is better than electronic" - will never, ever make an unremarkable, mediocre work created in an "acceptable" method the slightest bit better.

10-09-2005, 12:28 PM
Here, here, Julie.

Wonderful, informative thread. At this time in my life, being stuck flat on my back, if I didn't have photos in my computer to draw from, I wouldn't be doing any art. And I feel my skills are still improving quite a bit! I do think I understand the faultiness of depth, foreshortening, etc. of using photos vs. real-life, but, I'm trying to train myself to keep that in mind and compensate (I haven't concentrated my efforts much yet).

10-14-2005, 06:23 PM
to say that the argument against working frm photos is based on "fear" and "insecurity" is, in my opinion, which is not always humble, is a generalisation which is, I firmly believe, absolute rubbish. Sorry. A lot of that quote above makes sense, but is let down by this opening comment, which is aimed strictly at those who advocate working from life. In fact in my experience I have found that the fear, insecurity, and defensiveness, comes mostly from those who work from photos!!!!!

I have made my feelings on this subject known time and time again - I am not in the "for" camp or the "against " camp either, for all sorts of reasons in both arenas, but I really object to this kind of sweeping generalisation.

There are good and solid reasons for saying that working from a photo can be a problem FOR SOME. There are good and solid reasons for saying that working from life is good working practice for those able to do so. There are fors and againsts which are both equally valid. This subject has to be treated with care and attention, and with logical reasoning, not with sweeping, empty statements. I have no "insecurity" around this subject and most certainly no fear. I am not ashamed to admit that I do occasionally work from photo reference ... to the extent that I have just had an article published about it, showing the world exactly how I might do it. But I STILL do not advocate it as a method for a beginner to adopt exclusively, for good, solid reasons based on experience as a teacher gained over many, many years. I deeply resent the suggestion that because I recommend that beginners work from life as often as possible, and if asked to comment, I point out shortcomings in a painting that stem clearly from the use of misunderstood and misinterpreted photo referernce, that I am coming from a position of fear or insecurity. Absolute nonsense. And any objection to the use of photo reference that I might voice is NOT nasty, certainly not self-serving, nor a waste of anyone's time. I will always have a good reason behind the comment. Read what I have said above VERY carefully, and note the caveats. I am not shallow and I think about what I say and what I teach and what I advise.