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 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.
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.
In the end, WHAT MATTERS IS THE PAINTING.
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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: