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."
Marvin Mattelson is now conducting his classes and workshops online in Full HD 1080p through his Fine Art Portrait Academy. For further information, or to register for an upcoming offering, please follow this link to his teaching page.
Until next time…
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 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.
I use photos to paint in watercolor and have a shop on etsy. I love teaching this method of tracing if you must to other students as it is such a time saver. I used this method when selling advertising to quickly get a shape, and then I add details from my imagination. I love to paint from photos. Soooo much so, that I am writing a how to book called “paint therapy”. This type of painting probably saved my life and has given me extra income. Thanks for your excellent article!
A tool is just a tool. You can use a hammer to build a church or bash in someone’s head.
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!
Thanks for your positive response. There is more than one way to skin a cat!
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!
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.
Thank you! Very well written article, I am looking forward to reading all of your posts.
Thanks, Marvin. Enjoy reading your thoughts and ideas.
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.
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!
Thanks for sharing your experience. I felt the same way about Rockwell.
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.
I disagree with you, you are wrong. Human scanning is an art and talent especially if you are painting an exact portrait of someone. You either need that person to sit for hours or you need a portrait. You simply cannot paint realistically using imagination.
Quoting from your article “I used Ansel Adams’ Zone System of Photography to pre-visualize the values in my reference” and “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.” In the hands of a very good photographer, visual reference can be used. Note that Gerome did not take his own photos but hired an expert. In the hands of many artists used to working exclusively from life, photography will not help them execute a painting. Unless you are willing to put in the work to learn how to use photography as an aid to painting you should not use it. And this must be a massive undertaking in itself. If you train your students to do both, you are probably one of the few teachers that do. I hope I can take one of your classes before I retire! (I work Fridays and Saturdays).
Thanks for your comments. The key is in understanding visual phenomena. Painting the illusion of reality demands the ability to understand what you are viewing, not just the capacity to copy it faithfully. This knowledge is of the upmost importance when calculating what’s actually happening in your photos. Come study with me and I’ll do my best to fill you in.
You DO need to copy fully if you are going to paint an accurate portrait of someone
Great article Melvin, and in the last paragraph GIGO, I was taught SISO guess what that means?
It means you can’t make a silk purse from a sows ear.
I am very sorry Marvin, I will never say the name Melvin again.
Neither will I.
I have question Marvin, do you varnish your paintings? And if you do how long do you wait to do so. The books say six months that’s a long time to wait to get final payment. I paint in acrylic for that reason.
If the painting is going to a locale reasonably close I’ll deliver it with a coat of retouch varnish and come back at a later date to apply the final varnish. In the event it’s being sent far away, since I paint very thinly, I let my paintings dry a couple of months before shipping. I also use quicker drying pigments.
Thanks, Marvin, It seems that acrylic is less work. Is there a benefit in painting in oil over acrylic? Thanks for your time Marvin.
I painted and acrylics for over 20 years for switching to oils. If I were to list all of the reasons that I prefer oil’s I would be sitting here all day in writing this response.
Is there just two big ones for changing?
Oil paint is far more archival. So that’s a biggie. Oil paint can achieve better translucent effects than acrylics. Since human skin is translucent I’d say that’s a huge advantage if your goal is to depict life-like flesh-tones. Oil paint offers greater control of drying times, based on the wide variety of additives available. This is very key. Creating gradations takes far less time. The same goes for edge handling. The first oil I attempted, upon switching over from acrylics, took half the time it would have had I done it in acrylics. Just to name a few.
I didn’t see your full reply to my question till I posted my last question, sorry! Thanks for your reply Marvin. I have some of my art on my facebook page, (Danny Meske) all in acrylic, I started with oils then switched to acrylic When you say more archival could that mean more money in oils? I may give oils another chance. Thanks, Marvin!
This is my first visit to this blog and the idea that ” oil paint is far more archival than acrylics ” is hard to agree with. Both mediums have great qualities. True, we have a history with oils that is much longer than acrylics, but I have seen many oils needing conservation treatment for a number of reasons. Oil paint films are less flexible than acrylics, they can yellow with age, without proper sizing/priming they can rot a canvas. If the fat over lean principle is not followed problems occur.Having worked in acrylics for quite a while I’ve yet to experience any of these problems. There is an inherent bias with acrylics as they are essentially a ” plastic paint ” and it’s true they set up quicker than oils. That can be a plus or minus depending on who is pushing the paint around. Glazing can take place almost immediately an as far as edge handling, there are
ways of softening edges ( mist sprayers, retarders, open acrylics, wet in wet). I will grant you that it’s awfully nice to have the extended open time with oils and if you are working alla prima and are not going to mess with the work a few weeks later the piece should last longer than a lifetime. Also, I tend to think working on canvas mounted on a rigid substrate reduces the possiblity of paint layers shifting over time. Since acrylics have a shorter timeline than oils I think the word is still out on how archival acrylics are compared to oils.
Thanks for your response. There are many contradictory points of view regarding acrylics vs oils. The bottom line for me is there is no way to know what the long term archival effects are regarding acrylics. We do know that oils will endure for centuries.
Many of the problems you point out for oils can be attributed to poor materials or workmanship. We do know that paintings by van Eyck painted in the 15th Century are in perfect condition.
Thre is no equivilent track record for acrylics. In addition acrylics are far more prone to absorbing dirt than oils. I used acrylics for 25 years prior to switching to oils. I was able to cut my painting time by 50% immediately. I have far greater control with oils and to me there is no comparison.
Lastly, one of the main reasons I switched was that acrylics outgas formaldehyde. Oils can be used without toxic solvents so I feel the are less problematic healthwise.
The bottom line is it comes down to what data you accept as being relevant. In my opinion oil is a clear and logical choice.
I believe a lot of the reason why some artists look down on those of us who do use photos is a simple psychological reason. They are lifting them selves up by putting someone else down. I’m an artist and I do plein air painting, but I also paint from photos and use my imagination as well.
I couldn’t agree more.
Thanks for a timely article ! I struggle with that attitude as my portraits are always faithfully reproduced from photos much like one of your commentors said “obsessively”. Sure I will eliminate excess background “noise” and maybe change a colour here and there but is that considered art? Can I call myself an artist? I often feel like a human photocopier and ultimately an imposter posing as an artist . I’m relatively new at painting (8 yrs) and without formal training, I’m quite slow. I couldn’t imagine asking anyone to sit that long! Same with plein air and capturing the light. It’s how I’ve always done things. Add to that monocular vision (one eye far sighted and one eye nearsighted) therefore without depth perception, I question the value for me to paint from life! Throw in the fact that I work in acrylics yet long for the romantic paint fumes of oils I find myself questioning a lot of things.
Whether you call yourself an artist or not is totally subjective. If you feel you have shortcomings then you need to address those. Being an artist is about being courageous, not complacent. It’s obvious to me that you need to study with an accomplished artist. If after 8 years you are painfully slow, then you are going about things in a convoluted way. There is a saying, “Any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client”. I think that can also be applied to the vast majority of self-taught artists. There is much-accumulated knowledge that has been built up by generations of artists over the last 500 years. Don’t waste your time trying to reinvent the wheel. I worked in acrylic for 15 years and was a very accomplished award-winning illustrator painting everything from Time covers to movie posters to international ad campaigns, but I saw there was a lot of knowledge I wasn’t privy to and so I started studying with someone who, unlike me, was classically trained. Among the multitude of things I learned was the vast superiority of oils over acrylics. If you’re looking for the best opportunity for meaningful training, I teach a two-week workshop at the School of Visual Arts in Nw York every August. It’s the destination point for artists looking to transform themselves. The dates will be posted here in April. Good luck.
Great Article Marvin thank you so much for writing what needs to be said. I’ve never been formally trained as an artist but I’ve won awards for my art and trained myself from using photos. I paint mostly portraits and unless someone is sitting for hours in front of you I find you cannot paint them as accurately from imagination. For realistic portraits you need a photo.