The Benefits of Painting from Life and from Photos

image3When I began to think about the topic of working from photos or working from life, I thought back to when I first began painting. At that time I was focused on recording all the details I could. I had very little thought of how my paintings could be more than just a faithful recording in paint of what the camera had captured. Photography became a crutch for me. In the end I slowly lost the skills of drawing and the sensitivity of color, value and edge information needed to help communicate my own unique vision of the world around me. Sure my paintings looked like the photo I was working from, and on occasion, I was able to capture a little bit of the life of the subject I was painting, but for the most part my paintings were lifeless. I was lacking all of the things that make for an interesting painting and for me, probably the biggest, poetry. I know poetry in a painting is pretty vague and very individual, but I think we all feel it when we see it in a great piece of art.

image1Painting from life has always been about the experience and the knowledge gained from studying life. I cannot think of any better way to grow as an artist than to work from life. A question to ask yourself is what is more important to you, the finished painting or the experience gained while creating the painting?

Certainly, photography used as reference in a painting has its place, as long as we can avoid the pitfalls of working from them. Photos rarely capture accurate color and value. (I should say my photos rarely capture accurate color and value.) Some of you are probably better photographers than I and don’t have this problem. Working from a photo really is just a memory exercise. You’re asking yourself what color was that when I took that photo. This is when all that time you spent working from life comes into play. The more you work from life the stronger your paintings will be when working from a photo. Every time you work from life you’re creating a visual library in your brain. When you’re back in the studio, you can access this visual library when working from a photo that is lacking the information you need.

image2One of the benefits of working from a photo is the opportunity to explore subject matter that working from life doesn’t always allow. We’ve all been on vacation somewhere when we see something that we would love to paint, but it’s happening so quickly that trying to paint it would be impossible without taking a photo. This is when taking a photo and making some visual notes in a notebook can be of great help when you’re back in the studio working from that photo. Taking the time to study the scene and making those visual notes either in a notebook or in your mind is very helpful. We’ve all be caught up in the moment where we see a great subject and we just start snapping picture after picture, without any thought of making some mental notes as to what we’re seeing. When we get back to the studio, we’re often disappointed that our photos didn’t capture what we saw.

Photoshop can be a great tool for artists who want to play around with different color combinations and compositions. Changes in colors can be very easy to do in photo editing software. This can be very helpful if you want to change the color of a piece of clothing your model is wearing to see how different color combinations work in your painting. You may also want to try collaging different photos together to try different compositions as well. The possibilities for editing your photos are endless for someone who understands Photoshop. In the end, any photo editing software is just another tool for the artists. An artist needs to determine if it’s something you want to experiment with.

image4I think Dean Cornwell sums it up best when he said, “Do what the camera can’t do- the camera can’t add the spiritual; it can’t go beyond the mentality of its models. Test your work ask yourself can the camera do what I have done? If you can make a real picture you won’t have to worry about the camera.”

I hope we all will continue to work from life as much as possible. Understanding that photography is just another tool we can use for exploring new creative ideas, but should never become a crutch for developing the skills and experiences that can only be found when working from life.

Upcoming OPA Events

OPA 2018 National Exhibition OPA 2018 National Exhibition
Oil Painters of America’s Twenty-seventh Annual National Exhibition will be held at the Steamboat Art Museum (SAM), Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from June 1 through September 3, 2018. Learn More!
OPA 2016 Summer Online Showcase OPA 2018 Spring Online Showcase
The Spring 2018 Online Showcase is from March 1 - May 15, 2018 and will be open to Associate members only. Learn More!
OPA 2018 Salon Show OPA 2018 Salon Show
OPA's 2018 Salon Show Juried Exhibition is being hosted by Crooked Tree Arts Center, located in Traverse City, Michigan, from June 22 through September 1, 2018. Learn More!