Sunday, 1 July 2012

Some Thoughts on Painting from Photos

I recently read two long threads on Facebook where people argued over painting from photos. I have read opinions of painters who consider painting from life the only acceptable approach and consider working from photos like a cheat. I don't agree with this integralist approach, and I think that there are several aspects to consider with an open mind. I found that in these online discussions there was  confusion and generalisation over using photo reference and painting in a photorealistic way.

 Photos can be used in several ways and for different reasons and I don't see why there shoud be such a stigma on employing this tool.
Do I use photos? YES. I also mostly paint from life. In my experience they are two very different processes.
I mainly use photos when I am working on portrait commissions, and, rarely, to make adjustments on a piece I have started in a life class when the model is no longer available.

When I was 17 I enrolled in an illustration course where the main technique taught was photorealism with coloured pencils. The time involved in this technique was a bit of a shock for someone who had until then only produced quite childish drawings: I had never before spent more than one session on a drawing ( I had studied classics at school) and the idea of days on a single piece was just unconceivable for me.

My first efforts with pencils: I wasn't very good either.

 I moved to another illustration school after one year and since then always retained a big respect for photorealism, although it is not relevant to my personal work.

I don't understand nor like the feeling of superiority on the part of those who are dedicated to working only from life, as if difficulty of execution can, alone, guarantee quality to a work of art. Theirs is just a choice of the many available and perfectly valid approaches.
Old masters were certainly not working only from life, they were putting images together using sketches from life, from sculptures, figures from other artist's paintings, imagination and, according to David Hockney, all sorts of tracing devices. Their figures are idealised or simply "wrong" yet the strength of the images they produced is still gripping.
Is working from a photo easier than working from life? Well, in most cases it is, but does that matter when looking at the final results? Does painting the same subject exclusively from life make the final painting more poignant, or deeper, or more universal ?

I enjoy very much painting from life but in certain conditions it has some limitations.  Painting from the model in a group is for me one of the best experiences: the concentration is palpable, the model is still for a long time, emotions and thoughts are all there within him/her, the visual experience is incomparable because you find yourself in the same space as your painted world.

All from life

      However when I am painting a portrait on commission, perhaps because I am as well trying to empathize with my sitters, therefore talking to them, I find it much harder to get to that level of attentiveness that helps me do my best. I generally go and paint at my sitters house, so sittings are shorter and often not in ideal light and placement condition. Often I find myself just yearning to get back to my studio so that I can have time to think and consider the work in a calm environment. I also strive for likeness and of course having a photo reference is very helpful, as a few millimeters shift in the position of a feature can make all the difference.

       The way I proceed in commissioned portraits is to start painting from life and plot the work out "on canvas".  I make decisions on composition, colour and tone and I work for about one hour into the session, so that the sitter has also settled into the pose. This is when I take photos trying to match through the viewfinder what I have already painted. I then alternate sittings and studio work when I usually paint from a black and white print of my photo.

Life/photo combination

    The camera distorts, flattens, misses out on the real richness of colours ( what is it with digital cameras, they get excited with reds like demented bulls !) but can provide us with material we can manipulate, look at closely, cut out, put together.

                                                                      * * *

This is one of Degas's most haunting portraits, Portrait of Princess Pauline Metternich ( National Gallery, London) and its reference, an image the couple used as a visiting card. I want to paint from this photo !  I think Emil an Sophie might do it as well, join in if you wish !

Jonathan Jones on this painting:

 It is the strange quality of her face that pulls you up. Her left profile is painted clearly, but her nose and right cheek, while given a neat, crisp precision, are oddly incomplete, even blurred. To anyone who has ever looked at an old photograph, this painting is spine-tingling, because you recognise almost straight away that Degas has painted one of the first portraits ever to be based on a photographic image. The blurring of the Princess's features is what happens in a slow- exposure camera trying to capture motion; Degas makes the photographic origin of the image unmistakable.
Unlike the black-and-white original, his painting is in colour; but the colours are unhealthy, a little mad, with Pauline de Metternich posed against floral-patterned yellow wallpaper that overlaps strangely with her body. This is not from the photograph but Degas's invention; he has also cropped out her husband, who was in Disderi's picture. Degas has isolated Princess Pauline de Metternich in a yellow-painted garden, with dry, sparse branches. Her straw-coloured top jars uncomfortably with the background. The colours of her skirt - a flat, dark grey - and her high-contrast face and black hair have the monochrome harshness of a photograph. Degas makes it clear that he has not painted Princess Pauline; he has painted a photograph of her.


Meabh Warburton said...

Nice to read that post Ilaria. I thought you might have gone to the sun and decided to stay! I.W.

Art by Patricia Gillin said...

As teenager who drew faces from photos, and discussing using these photos with an uncle who was head photographer at a large mid-western newspaper, he completely discouraged me from working from them. He said they were too flat and was very dismissive of my work and not encouraging. Very deflating. I took heed though and would sketch noses, eyes, lips while riding a bus to school. People would question and wonder why I was doing this. To me it was a valuable lesson. Drawing from life enhances ones ability to unflatten any photo, which I will use for any subject whenever I have the need.

Ilaria said...

@Ian, I am almost gone but not quite !
@ Patricia:. Using photo as reference is indeed a skill one needs to learn, dealing with lens distortion, colour management and so on. The more one has worked from life the easier it is to recognise the difference between the two techniques !

M. McCarty said...


It has always been an aggravation to me that when people make the comparison of painting from life vs painting from photos they always compare the worst of photos with the best of life conditions. If you are going to paint from photos you need to develop the skills to get good photo reference. To complain that all photo reference is bad is to complain that all soup is bad - You need to learn to make better soup.

Ilaria said...

Indeed Mary, skills are needed to get hold of the correct material. The key for me is seriousness and ambition for the painting to go beyond making a good copy. That's why I think this Degas painting is a perfect example: the quality of the reference, seen in modern times, is risible, but the painting is enthralling.