Paint From Life or Photos?

"Alone In Warsaw" by William Schneider OPA

“Alone In Warsaw” by William Schneider OPA

Especially since the advent of good, inexpensive digital cameras, the debate about whether to use photo references has become almost sectarian. Purists admonish us to paint “only from life.” Yet the instructional art magazines regularly feature artists whose methods start and end with a photo reference. Certain subjects (squirmy kids, transient light effects, horses in motion etc.) almost demand photographs. Even great masters like Fechin and Zorn clearly used photo references for some of their paintings.

There are a host of good reasons to use photos:

  • They’re convenient
  • The light doesn’t change
  • You can blow up small details
  • You can be comfortable
  • There are no bugs, wind, interrupting strangers etc.
  • The model doesn’t move or get tired

There’s only one really good reason to work from life – it will make us much better artists.

Over time, we representational artists become skilled at rendering what we see. The problem is that even high-quality digital photos lie to us. Think of the four elements of a realistic painting: shapes (drawing or proportion), values, color temperature relationships, and edges. Three of the four are always wrong in a photo… and sometimes it’s all four.

The two or three darkest values turn into black and the lightest values become white (photographers call it “blowing out” the lights). The color temperature relationships are limited by the dyes used to make the prints or the phosphors in our computer screens. Also, the camera sees edges as equally sharp (not at all like the human eye which focuses on a sharp area in the center of our visual field surrounded by fuzzy shapes on the periphery).

"Platinum" by William Schneider

“Platinum” by William Schneider

Even the shapes may not be accurate. If you photograph a person six feet away, you will probably get an image of a normal-size face but legs and feet that appear tiny. In other words, the foreshortening distorts the proportions. So, if we work exclusively from photos, we become extremely proficient at painting subjects that don’t look real. We don’t even notice the errors.

When I critique portfolios at various art events I often see paintings where the shadows are black, the lights are white, all the edges are hard, and the light and the darks are the same temperature. I ask the artist, “you work mostly from photos, don’t you?”  I often get the astonished reply, “how did you know?”

The pros work primarily from life: For one, it’s much easier to develop good edge control. Also, our sensitivity to nuance of color and temperature improves exponentially. We just can’t see those nuances in photos… I know; I’ve tried! Working from life, we learn to see the elusive, sparkling color in half tones. Our shadows start to have a sense of light and air in them instead of being dense, opaque blobs.

So, if you’ve decided to go the extra mile, how do you break free of the photo? The still life is easy. Just set it up and start painting. Likewise, there’s little excuse for trying to paint a landscape from a photo. If you’re nervous about going out alone, find a painting buddy or group. There are Plein Air groups in most areas now.  OPA sponsors paint outs all over the country.  Seek, and ye shall find.

"The Mercenary" by William Schneider OPA

“The Mercenary” by William Schneider OPA

It’s a little more challenging to find place to paint the live model but a little digging will yield results. Local colleges or art centers may sponsor open studios. I paint with a number of groups in my area. In fact, I started hosting a group in my studio. We all chip in to pay the model. If you can’t find a group, start one. Finding models is relatively easy. Most people are flattered if you ask them to sit for you. There are even model websites.

Once we start to see the benefits in our work, we want more. The little bit of extra effort to paint from life, pays off tenfold.

Happy painting!


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  • diana

    I do my best to continue to paint from life, but it’s tough when your subject is animals and wildlife. I do paint a lot of still lifes, and animals for color studies. But you basically have to REALLY observe (maybe even take notes) and remember, what color you think you’d use for the underbelly of an elk in whatever situation…

    • Famous animalier Rosa Bonheur did all her paintings of animals from life. I saw an exhibition at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts of 16th century dutch paintins and the animals were gorgeous- no cameras then.

  • Gaye Sekula

    Great article!

  • Susan M

    I really enjoyed your article. I have always wondered whether the edges technique came about before or after the advent of the camera?

  • Lisa Nielsen

    This was really nicely explained. I have read several books in the last year that have implored the reader to start painting from life. I did as you suggested and started setting up still lives as a point to start. Honestly it was very awkward in the start (about six months ago} but gradually it’s becoming more comfortable. I am learning to “squint” and for the first time in my life am starting to get values more closely approximated. Plus it really forces improvement in your drawing skills. I also started going to a figure painting class where we weekly quick draw and paint models. Again very awkward to start doing but it forces you to improve the way you see. It does seem like art is a continual lesson in “learning to see.” Anyway I really liked what you wrote. It didn’t seem like a slap on the hand as many articles related to painting from life are. Just thoughtful and true and outlining the many drawbacks I have experienced painting from photographs. I have painted so many proportionally challenged figures. And I usually don’t see it in the photograph. I see it near the end of a lot of effort in a painting when I’m trying to figure out “what isn’t working because obviously something is off.” Always a painful spot to be in. What you wrote is direct, true, thoughtful, and encouraging. Thank you!

  • Betsy M. Kellum

    It’s interesting to me that we’re told to paint from life to get accurate color, temperatue, value, etc. and yet when 10 artists stand there and paint the same thing, all those elements are very different. AND… what a relief…. If we all painted the same painting it would be B.O.R.I.N.G!! Whether from life or from photos, “accuracy” is not the goal. The beauty in the differences that result is what illustrates the different interpretation that we have with regards to what we are looking at. Sometimes more creativity happens when painting from a photograph (especially a bad photo); sometimes when from life. We don’t see, think or make marks the same way…. we’re limited to our own set of ‘tools’.
    I seem to get a better result when painting from the ‘real thing’… but in art… we have the luxury to choose what works best for each of us. Different subjects might require a different technique. I feel lucky that we have a choice and I use both. But what one learns from ‘life’ provides information that is necessary to be able to decipher photo references, sketches or ideas from your mind.

    • Reynard

      Accuracy can quite legitimately be the goal and it is not mutually exclusive to self-expression. Representational animal art can require great accuracy to depict the artist’s vision, even to the point of consulting with biologists who research the subject species.

  • Oil Paintings

    Thanks a great deal for distributing us regarding this very nice paintings. Hope you will certainly not receive tired on making blogs as helpful as this.

    • James M. Mahan

      So if I wanted to paint the canals of Venice, I must pay to go there rather than look at a photo?

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  • DKrissaOgletorn30

    Thank you for perhaps the most level headed thing I have read today. Unfortunately, I found this article too late – I already found the answer on another service. I just filled out NAVPERS 1331/5 with an online software. It looked much better typed than hand-written. I used it’s very easy to use.