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Old 03-19-2018, 09:45 AM
TomMather TomMather is offline
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In defense of painting from photos

One of the mantras you hear in art classes is: paint from life, not photos. That view is reflected in the on-going thread on this forum limited to paintings from life or plein air. I respect that viewpoint and have learned much from “life” painting.

However, I have learned over time that I can create excellent paintings and drawings from photos, in many cases better than I could if working from life. Much of this is due to necessity. I paint mostly landscapes from scenes that I encounter while hiking, cycling or traveling without any art supplies or the means to carry them. Nevertheless, I almost always have my iPhone with me and take many photos that I use as reference for paintings at a later date. With a phone you also capture fleeting moments of light, clouds and other patterns that would be difficult or impossible to get while painting plein air. You can freeze that moment in time with a camera, but it can disappear before you mix a color while painting from life.

Ironically, painting a still life is considered better than using photos, even though a still life painter can exert extreme control over the lighting, composition, subject matter, etc. How is that any “better” than painting from a photo? I would argue that a painter who uses a photo as reference can arguably exercise as much or more creativity than someone painting from life. First, you have to an “eye” for what would make a good photo or painting. Then you have to capture that image with good lighting and composition. Later you can crop the image and edit the lighting to create a more artistic image. You also can change the composition in your painting from what is captured in the photo and omit or add features.

Ironically, I got over the art-class mantra about painting from life when I took a weeklong painting workshop in the Smoky Mountains many years ago. We were supposed to be painting plein air most of the time but it rained the entire week, pouring rain. So we painted in a studio and I produced nothing of note. However, I did take a lot of photos during the rain storms and later created some excellent paintings using those photos as reference.

Another example is from two trips to Ireland that I took. I was unable to bring art supplies due to baggage and time limitations. However, I took tons of photos that I’ve used to paint dozens of paintings over the years. These paintings are better in most cases than I could have painted from life, even if I was able to bring art supplies, due to the weather (often raining) and time limits.

What do you think? What suggestions or tips would you give someone who primarily paints from photos? Some of mine would be:
- Paint from your own photos.
- Don’t be afraid to change the composition and other elements to make your painting better than the photo.
- Crop the photo to improve the composition.
- Paint loosely, using the photo as a reference rather than strictly trying to reproduce the image.
- Adjust the lighting to more accurately reflect the real-life image. Cameras tend to overexpose bright areas (like the sky) and underexpose shadows.

Last edited by TomMather : 03-19-2018 at 09:55 AM.
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Old 03-19-2018, 10:30 AM
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Dcam Dcam is offline
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

A photo that YOU take and develop, manipulate, print, is already a work of art. You can then work from it in whatever medium and have two pieces of art. This argument has come up many times. There are tons of professionals who work from photos and you don't have to be a photorealist, though I do love the style.
The best thing for me is working from a good large monitor. It shows far more color variation and subtle values. I watched Richard Scmid working from a monitor during a landscape painting.
Working from life is great, but let's face it; you don't always get the opportunity.
Imagine Ansel Adams painting from one of his photos. Would you say he was cheating?
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Old 03-19-2018, 10:34 AM
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Raffless Raffless is online now
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Get an 8 x 10 Horseman. The prints are incredible and will out resolve medium format digital by a distance. If you want to go backpacking get a medium format Mamiya 7.

Btw Adams used large format. But the 'prints' are where the money is. Thats why you cannot use this as a comparison.

Last edited by Raffless : 03-19-2018 at 10:36 AM.
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Old 03-19-2018, 10:54 AM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Raffless, I can't use this as a comparison? Who mentioned money? I used to teach about Adams in my college art classes. I made a perfectly valid point. You just did not know where I was going with it.
Get a medium format mamiya 7 or 8x10 Horseman? Lets be realistic speaking of money.

Last edited by Dcam : 03-19-2018 at 10:58 AM.
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Old 03-19-2018, 11:00 AM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

No one is attacking painting from photos so there is no need for defense.

Learning to work from life will dramatically improve your skills as a painter and will carry over to any work you do from reference photography.
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Old 03-19-2018, 11:13 AM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Jess, I agree. There is a happy marriage there. Learning takes many methods, materials, and practice. I just wish I had more opportunities to do plein air.
What a joy also to set up a nice still life after collecting special objects and getting the light just right......an art in itself, and working from life on said still life.
Working from a live model is also amazing. I miss my college life drawing classes.

Last edited by Dcam : 03-19-2018 at 11:17 AM.
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Old 03-19-2018, 11:24 AM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Derek:
get yourself and some gear on a train and come paint Central Park with me this summer!

I miss my life drawing classes too.

There is just nothing like working from life, especially plein air, see you got me started I haven't been out in too long and i'm DYING to go out!!
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Old 03-19-2018, 11:44 AM
kentiessen kentiessen is offline
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Each artist has their own path- like any other art tool, use of photos should take advantage of their inherent strengths and avoid their well-known weaknesses.

I do feel the that working from life, be it portrait, landscape, or still life, is one of the best paths to authentic paintings (i.e.: faithful in large part to those subjects in light, color, value). They also possess a 'truth' from the source that is immediate and often remarkable. It's immensely challenging for many reasons we all know, but I feel it more than worth the drawbacks.

Work in the Studio is important in it's own right: time, comfort, weather, large or extended projects. Experience and understanding from all sources can be planned, carefully developed, and executed. A mix of both is good- the balance dependent on your own priorities.
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Old 03-19-2018, 01:18 PM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

I only work from life —OR - my own photos .

I believe it’s true- working a lot from life can - give you the skills to paint from a photo - and give the impression it was painted from life.

You learn so much painting from life that you would never see if you only - allways painted from photos!

But this is just MY opinion . I respect others opinions also!
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Old 03-19-2018, 02:56 PM
TomMather TomMather is offline
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

I guess I felt the need to defend painting from photos because of the long-running thread here for paintings from life, plein air or still life. The thread specifically excludes paintings from photos.

I love painting plein air, but I would do very little landscape painting if I could only do it outdoors. We go through extended periods when the weather is not suited for outdoor painting due to rain, high winds, cold temperatures, etc. it also takes much more time and preparation to work outdoors. I understand that Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh and many other famous painters only worked from life, but they didn’t have access to cameras. I applaud anyone who paints outdoors under challenging weather conditions, but there still many situations where it is not practical or possible to lug around art supplies.

I went through a period when I painted a lot of still lifes but that doesn’t interest me currently. I learned a lot from that experience but I can’t honestly say that it was better, more creative or more enlightening than working from photos.
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Old 03-19-2018, 03:09 PM
TomMather TomMather is offline
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dcam
The best thing for me is working from a good large monitor. It shows far more color variation and subtle values. I watched Richard Scmid working from a monitor during a landscape painting.

I usually work from my iPad, which has a fairly large screen and certainly better than working from a snapshot. However, I have an old iMac monitor that I would love use for painting. Do you know if there is a way to link that to my iPad or iPhone?
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Old 03-19-2018, 03:14 PM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Some of the greatest art ever made came from neither life nor photo, but rather from the artist's imagination.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is just one example.
That said, the artist had previouly honed his skills by drawing, sculpting and painting from life.
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Old 03-19-2018, 03:16 PM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

I totally agree with you, Tom.

When I first began painting, I tried working from real-life subjects, a couple of landscapes, and one still-life, as I recall.

The pitfalls, setbacks, and frustrations I encountered when attempting to do that was enough to make me ask myself why I should be tolerating such nonsense, when I had a camera available.

Cameras distort many factors when they capture a scene, no matter what that scene may be, but having been an amateur photographer, and a cameraman for the lithographic process, I understand, and am aware of most of those aberrations.

The goal of anyone working from photos as references for paintings is to become totally familiar with these common camera aberrations, shortcomings, and distortions, and to merely compensate for them while creating the painting. A viewer should not be able to look at a painting and be able to detect that the artist painted it from a photo.
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Old 03-19-2018, 03:21 PM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

Quote:
I guess I felt the need to defend painting from photos because of the long-running thread here for paintings from life, plein air or still life. The thread specifically excludes paintings from photos.

If you want to run a paint-from-photo project please PM me with a description of what you would like to do.

The working from life forum project is in no way an attitude reflection of any kind, and Geoff kindly volunteers to host the painting from life projects because that's what he does, and there is great interest in it.
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Old 03-19-2018, 03:25 PM
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Re: In defense of painting from photos

I hope at some point I will get out and paint a plein air landscape. One thing that does stop me from doing so is that I don't like anyone coming up to see what I am doing. I am a solitary painter. I don't even like my husband coming up to see what I am painting before I am finished.
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