Image: Rembrandt, The Artist in his Atelier, 1629
I am so pleased that slowly the art world is changing and re-appreciating good old-fashioned skills like drawing and painting. Conceptualism is not everything and an idea can be brought in front of people’s minds so much better and more beautiful if it is presented with skill and creativity. So, slowly, artists are starting to learn to draw again and dive into old masters’ painting techniques.
But with this development a group of purists has come to exist who religiously stick to old-masters’ rules and insist on introducing themselves with the words “ I am an artist and I only work from life”. The media (art magazines) picks up on this juicy statement and writes endless articles about greatly skilled artists and making sure that somewhere in the first paragraph it is mentioned that he or she “only works from life”. It is surprising to see how many artist feel the need to underline this. By saying “I am so-and-so and I only work from life” they pin on their self-attained Badge of Quality and this badge evokes judgmental connotations about anyone who, by implication, works from photos.Why are they feeling so strongly about others who work from photos and why do they need to underline so strongly that they don’t? I understand that the will to work from life evolved from the re-appraisal of old methods, atelier structures, and the will to bring artistic skill back into the world of art. Hear, hear! for that, but I feel that not only is it simply not very nice to judge other people’s methods without being asked to do so, I also think that the purists have shot out too far to the extreme, wanting so much to stick to tried-and-tested methods that they forget the age they live in.
Working from life is a brilliant way to learn how to draw and paint. I think everyone would agree on that. But it can have its draw- (excuse the pun) backs. Working from photos has its disadvantages as well, I think we would all agree on that too. But working from photos is also an excellent way to learn how to draw and paint. Unless you think I am a rubbish painter (hey, I have a lot to learn!) I really do think there is nothing wrong with using photos as reference or source material.
The advantages of working from life are obvious: objects and figures are there in 3D, shadows are full of life and colour, there are no distortions and you can not only see but sense the object you are painting.
The disadvantages of working from photos have been pointed out many times: photos often show unnatural distortions, shadows lack depth and colour, highlights are blown out, there is a lack of liveliness, a photographic ‘frozen moment’ effect creeps into your painting. But I feel there are many, many professional artists who work with or from photos. They feel they have to hush up about their practice as the purists amongst us will tell them its a no-no. So we all nod enthusiastically when we’re asked if we work from life. After all, that is ‘the’ way to do it. And if you don’t, you’re a cheat.
I have learned to draw and paint working from photos. Of course I have worked from life as well. But circumstances made photos much more available to me than life models. There are many, many advantages to working from digital photos. Not only its availability, the fact that it is already 2D and so easier to turn into a 2D art work, the ease to measure proportions, the ease to crop and play with composition, the endless options you have when putting a photo into a computer program like Photoshop and change its appearance, starting the creative process way before you put pencil to paper, the ease to see details in extreme close up, the option to work upside down, mirrored or angled, the ease to be able to see into the darkest shadows and the brightest lights. The creative options when working from photos are potentially much greater than working from life.When you work from life you have obvious advantages but for beginners, for example, it is also very daunting to see a 3D object and turn it into 2D. Lights and shadows are usually much subtler and less clear than in photographs. Detail is lost when working at just a few meters distance. These things might be good things in some cases, but they are disadvantages in others. For beginners working from photos is less scary, easier to grasp, strongly contrasted shapes are easier to recognise, and even colours easier to recognise. For advanced artists working from photos can bring a huge field of creative options that are less available to them when working from life.
But, I can hear you say, working from photos has all these disadvantages mentioned before, such as lens distortions, incorrect colours, and black empty shadows. I think that comment is not valid anymore these days. Yes, if you work from a printed Polaroid from the 1970s you will struggle creating anything remotely realistic. But photography has come a long way since then. And so has the world around us. We are bombarded on a daily basis, with imagery around us. TV, computers, mobile phones, billboards, bus stops; images are everywhere. They are generally HD, close-up, in-your-face, full-colour imagery. Films are fast, furious, ruthless and in HD. Models are pore-perfect and larger than life. Hyper-realism is part of our daily life. So let it be part of our art world.
Modern photography and modern computer monitors can come up with photographic images of enormous depth and variety. Lens distortions can be corrected (or exaggerated), vignetting can be played with, chromatic distortions easily corrected. Of course these are all disadvantages of working from photos that one should be aware of in order to avoid painting them unwittingly. But the enormous field of options that photography can offer us at the same time makes up for it in spades. Digital photos are available, less daunting, cheap, flexible and creative.
You can learn to draw and paint working from photos. Just don’t restrict yourself to it solely as working from life does offer skills that you cannot learn in any other way. And just as a bad painting would come out of a bad composition, bad lighting or a lack of painting skills, a bad painting will undoubtedly come out of working from a bad photograph. And learning to recognize a good photograph to paint from requires skills just as much as one would need to learn to pose a model or set up a still life. So to illustrate the case against photography with a badly painted art work copied from a bad photograph is not really proving anything. I would really wish that people who do not want to work from photos would stop putting themselves on a higher level by saying ‘I only work from life’. With that remark, they are, consciously or not, judging other artists’ methods and I think we should try to avoid doing that unless asked.