About Using Photography

We are pleased to share this week’s blog from OPA Master Signature artist James Crandall.  James will be giving a live demonstration of his technique for painting from photographic references at the upcoming OPA National Convention in Santa Fe, NM, August 24-29, 2021. Tickets and more information will be available in March through the OPA website.

My own Fruit Vendor, oil on canvas, 40” x 50,” now in a private collection. Confession: I didn’t paint this by setting up an easel in a Florentine side street.

As a young student training to be an illustrator, I was encouraged to draw from life.  At the Art Center College of Design in the late 70s, early term pupils were advised to stay clear of the small room with the lucigraphs — devices that back-projected flat images onto ground glass to be traced. The fear was that we would neglect our drawing classes and not acquire the essential skills of our trade.

Not bad advice.  We had been admitted to the school based in part on our relative proficiency (as evidenced by an entering portfolio review), but all of us had room for improvement.  I enjoyed my life-drawing practice, and was happy doing it;  others, less so. 

Less than halfway through the program, we began to feel the pressure to produce more professional-looking work. We felt it imperative to develop a style that could conceivably get us paying jobs in the real world, and those of us who aspired to paint more-or-less “realistically” began adopting the methods of working illustrators.  

Much of the time, this meant embracing the use of photographic reference. There were really few practical options if one were going to compete, either with one’s peers at college, or ultimately with experienced professionals in the industry.  We knew that many of the most celebrated pros of the time were basing their work on photographs:  any of the best, including giants like Bernard Fuchs and David Grove, were clearly painting over drawings created by judicious tracing of their reference.  And it was well-understood that the venerable Norman Rockwell had based almost all of his mature work on the projection and tracing of carefully orchestrated studio photographs, as the early 20th-century illustrator Maxfield Parrish had done before him.

Not really a secret: In 1940, Norman Rockwell confided to readers in a published magazine article that tracing photographs projected by his “Balopticon” was integral to his painting method.

Of course, this “short-cutting” was nothing new.  Artists through the centuries had used optical devices to achieve images with greater realism, whether by looking at the subject through a grid, or by actually seeing its image projected with mirrors, pinholes, or lenses.  Naturally, when this was done, it was treated as something of a trade secret, because artists wanted to maintain the illusion of extraordinary skills, for the sake of their professional status. How many employed these aids, we will probably never know,  simply because every measure was taken to obscure evidence of their use.

But modern scholarship and research has opened the window on at least some of these practitioners. Convincing theories of the use of optics surround many of the greats of the past, including Holbein, Ingres, Velasquez, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Dürer, van Eyck and even Rembrandt himself.

The precursor to our “camera,” versions of the camera obscura had been around for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci described the phenomena in his notebooks; Canaletto used a portable version as an aid to create his detailed renderings of Venetian architecture.

The advent of photography in the early 19th century led to further innovations of technique. The first devices were essentially a technological update created by the addition of a light-sensitive plate to the camera obscura boxes already long in use by draftsmen.  Arriving in 1839  (just ahead of the newly conceived manufacturing process of putting oil paint into tubes) painters were variously alarmed and excited by the new possibilities.  Eugene Delacroix, by then already a celebrated artist, was an early enthusiast, and openly encouraged the idea that photography was a fitting tool for artists.

“The daguerreotype is more than a tracing, it is the mirror of the object. Certain details almost always overlooked in drawing from nature here take on characteristic importance and thus introduce the artist to complete knowledge of construction as light and shade are found in their true character.”

Renoir, although he was more ambivalent about photography’s impact, nevertheless thanked its inventors for having “freed painting from a lot of tiresome chores, starting with family portraits.”

Many experimented.  Incontrovertible photo/painting pairings exist for works by Corot, Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Gauguin, Matisse, and for at least 3 self-portraits by Paul Cezanne.  Frenchman James (Jacques) Tissot, who was a contemporary of the first “Impressionist” group — but who declined an invitation to join— become wealthy producing startlingly precise pictures of London’s fashionable middle class strolling among intricate ship-riggings and relaxing in their  gardens…largely based on photographs. 

Even Vincent had a go. A keepsake from his mother Anna (left) and his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1888, oil on canvas, 15.9” x 12.8”  In a letter to Theo, he wrote, “I am doing a portrait of Mother for myself. I cannot stand the colourless photograph and am trying to do one in a harmony of colour, as I see her in my memory.”

Edgar Degas, who openly mocked the then-burgeoning fashion of painting “en plein air” was more than happy to construct compositions in the privacy of his own studio, using photos he had taken himself. And for visual reference on horses, he freely borrowed from the publications of Muybridge.  Professional models and close friends were asked to pose for images he would later use in the construction of major works. Today, many art historians credit him with developing radical new styles of composition inspired by contemporary “snapshots.”

A group of Degas reference photos compared to one of his pastels: Blue Dancers, 1899, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
Degas’ Place de la Concorde, circa 1875. The photo used for the dog was discovered; the figures depicted are known friends of the artist. Is the painting based on a montage of personal snaps?  Notice that the viewer’s perspective of the various elements floating in the composition don’t quite seem to agree.

The use of photography as a painter’s aid continued through the 19th century.  By the 1880s, dedicated amateurs had access to the equipment needed, and by the early 20th century the general public was casually taking shots with roll film marketed by Kodak (with the processing and printing provided by others).  American Thomas Eakins, a preeminent realist painter and art educator, methodically posed both paid models and students for reference images as he created his masterworks.  Even the painter Joaquín Sorolla was was at the confluence of new and old traditions: as a young man, was an assistant in the studio of well-known photographer Antonio García…who would later be his father-in-law. 

An Eakins photo alongside The Wrestlers, 1899, oil on canvas, 48 3/8” x 60”

In the 1960s, the custodians of Anders Zorn’s estate released a previously unknown cache of the celebrated painter’s personal photography.  Included in the collection, which became the focus of both a gallery exhibition and the illustrated catalogue “Fotografen Zorn,” are many images that closely matched in setting, models, and pose many of his major paintings and etchings.  Seen in this light, I would venture that most of his mature work seems uncannily “photographic;” as reliably proportioned and value-correct as the products of his camera.  His work often features active scenes that could not have credibly been captured with brush in hand.  One might even theorize that his famous limited palette was a natural solution for both achieving harmony and for working efficiency while inventing color (from technical experience or memory) to coincide with the black-and-white values of his photographs.  Certainly, someone working from direct observation might have ached for more than a simple triad of hues. 

An Anders Zorn photograph compared to his Sunbathing Girl, oil on canvas, about 39” x 31.”
One of many Zorn photographs transformed into an etching: The Swan, 1915. The photo is shown reversed; a mirror-image was the natural consequence of the printmaking process.

There is resistance to this kind of revelation, as we are all sometimes pained to have our most treasured myths questioned.  But perhaps these truths can be regarded as “levelers,” as they come with a realization that most of our idols were (and are) humans like ourselves, who just do our best with what circumstances provide us.  Certainly, there will be exceptions, perhaps the likes of a Mozart or a Michelangelo, who seem to transcend what is humanly possible, but we cannot allow ourselves to be crippled by envy for their special gifts.

Of course, many artists will have little or no use for photographs in their process. And those dedicated to working from life, or to painting outdoors, do not need to justify their pursuits. For many, it may be the experience of the process that is key, perhaps more so than the final product itself.  This is perfectly legitimate.

But for representational painters, photography presents options, and not just for “photo-realism,” but for a variety of styles.  The artist can adopt any number of stylized, graphic or impressionistic modes.  Photos can be “eye-balled,” gridded, or traced;  the end results can be monochromatic or fantastically saturated;  the proportions and shapes can be carefully replicated, or intentionally distorted; details can be included or largely ignored.

I think the time has come to put aside old stigmas. After nearly 200 years, photography should be seen as just another tool available to every artist.

Sorolla is there. His enormous canvas is there. His models are there.

And a photographer is there. How would you approach this project? 

For more examples, watch my YouTube video “Did Your Favorite Artist ‘Cheat?’” 

For an example of my own process see “Painting from a Photograph /  Making a Start”

Sources and suggesting reading:

Rob Schick, Norman Rockwell Behind the Camera, 2009

David Hockney, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, 2006

Tom Metcalfe, Did Rembrandt Use Mirrors and Optical Tricks to Create His Paintings,? 2016

https://www.livescience.com/55616-rembrandt-optical-tricks-self-portraits.html

Van Deren Coke, The Painter and the Photograph, 1964.

Gabriel P. Weisburg, Illusions of Reality, Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theatre and Cinema 1875-1918, 2010.

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