For Artists: In Defense of Working from Photos

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.

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Digital cameras can do a lot these days
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A nice photograph doesn’t always make a good 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.

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Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are widely used tools by photographers and artists.

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.


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31 thoughts on “For Artists: In Defense of Working from Photos

  1. I think this was triggered by a comment on blog post I wrote about the second episode of The Big Painting Challenge?
    I was NOT saying artists should not work from photos.
    What I was saying is that those who ONLY work from photos (rather than from life at least some of the time) will find that those who have often worked from life – in the past or the present – can often tell the difference.
    Photos can betray you – as I think some of the artists participating in the challenge are finding out.
    Apart from the major issues relating to tonal values and colours and optical distortion, the fact of the matter is that if you are unused to being able to recognise the distortions you will include them. That means some artists end up painting a 2D portrait on a 2D format from a 2D reference. The question which challenges all those who paint portraits is how to make it look 3D.
    I find when I ask portrait artists how they work most say that they work from life but also routinely use reference photos simply because their models can’t always be there or give them the time they need. Just as they use mannequins for working on clothing.
    Photos are a tool – but they can’t ever substitute for the subject – unless used in the hands of somebody who knows how to recognise the distortions and work around them. That, IMO, only comes from the experience of working from life.
    In relation to limitations re access to portrait models, it’s true you can’t get the information about the colour and texture of skin any other way than working from life – but you can certainly model volumes and shapes (and lost and found edges and the real colour of shadows and reflected light) using REAL still life objects in a shadow box.
    Plus you can sketch people anywhere!

    1. Hi Katherine, this issue has been bothering me for a while now and you reminded me of it. I know you are always up for a lively debate! I don’t agree I must admit. I don’t think that artists who work only from photos will be ‘betrayed’ and that ‘life-artists’ (lets call them that for now) can ‘find them out’. I think experienced artists can see whether somebody can draw or paint or not, not whether they’ve learned it from photos or life, nor can they decide that if an artists has learned through photos he or she is less good an artist. If an artist is motivated to make their painting look 3D then they will work towards that – whether they work from photos or not. If an artist is motivated to make their art look realistic they will work, practice and learn how to get there. And that process does not necessarily mean not working from photos. I have limited experience working from life (who knows what counts as ‘much’ or ‘limited’ anyway?) so is my work flat? No, don’t tell me, I am sure it can do with improvements. 😉 Modern cameras and software can remove most if not all of distortions so there is no need for artists to recognize them at all times. Again, if the artist is motivated there are ways. A distorted painting doesn’t look good. A motivated artist will recognize that and amend. No life painting necessary there…
      I am not against painting from life, of course not. But I do not like others judging people who like to work from photos. Painting from life is not always ‘better’.

      1. I don’t agree that you can properly learn to depict volume, depth and associated tone correctly just from photographs. That’s because the way a photograph sees a scene and the way an eye sees the scene are completely different.
        Hence if you learn from photos then you are learning what the camera sees and not what the eyes see.
        I think the argument that real life models are not available is a cop out argument for working from life. Observation of real 3D objects can include working from still life. Anybody can set up still life objects – cubes, spheres etc – in a shadow box with some decent lighting and experience all the issues associated with perspective and volume and shape and edges and then try and paint them from life.
        After all people are just a bunch of shapes with volume and amorphous edges – so if you are practiced at drawing and painting objects then painting people becomes a lot simpler. I think there was a reason why art students used to have to draw casts!
        It occurs to me that one of the main reasons that quite a few portrait artists paint still life is because it helps keep their eyes exercised when they are in-between commissions.
        To make it plain in case anybody thinks I’m being too one sided I often work from life and I often use my own reference photos to help me complete a work. I know the value of photos and I hope I know their very particular deficits too. I certainly know how different my photographs are from the real thing. I also know which approach gives my eyes the best workout!
        Remember to bring your sketchbook next time we meet up! 😉

  2. Totally agree. It’s been a revelation for me as a totally none artist to watch in awe firstly how my wife paints and draws -techniques and process. But also programs such as Artist of the Year on the BBC – Sseeing some fantastic artists who could produce work to such high standards BUT and this is the crux of the matter for me – almost all of them at some point used photography as some form of reference point – even when actually being right in front of a sitter or model for 4 hours – they still took reference photos and worked from I pads etc. At NO point did any of the experts and judges ever look down their noses at this technique. To put it in some perspective – I initially had concerns when I saw many were using a grid method of reproducing an image – but once I saw what they actually did after this initiative process was complete – I was just astounded. It’s just a part of a process – a technique and possibly the art procured is all the better for it. It’s comments like “only work from life” that make the whole Art World seem steeped in snobbery and one upmanship and this then can stop many people from even picking up a pencil or brush in the first place which is just criminal and such a shame. Everyone has different levels of skills and ability and at the end of the day isn’t Art in the Eye of the beholder. We all like different forms of art and none should be looked down upon. All art no matter what or how produced has its value and should be heralded for its meaning, the place it holds in our heart and eye and more.so.for the effort of its creation.

    1. Thank you Paul for those comments. Really interesting. I think technique and method can help towards a good painting or drawing. Some techniques have many pitfalls and it is harder to come up with a good painting. Other techniques are perhaps harder to learn, but have less pitfalls and a good painting will more likely appear. If you want to become a good painter you must work hard towards avoiding and jumping over any pitfalls. All techniques have some. Find them and overcome them.

  3. For me, in addition to the visual benefits of working from life, there is an immediacy that adds a crackle of excitement to the work. Knowing that, at some point, the sitter will leave, abandoning you to your own devices, engages an urgent need in you to extract as much as possible from the session.
    I’ve compared my work from life and from solely photographic reference and there is a noticeable difference in the energy. I know I have the tools to manually dial that energy back in, but I acknowledge that mental element of the live session. There’s probably a proper academic name for the state of mind, but I have no idea what it might be.

  4. I agree with you that it is not how you create the art but what the art says that is most important. As a photographer you get the arguments that one camera manufacturer is better than another. Should that matter? The idea rather than technique in my book should be how the final work should be judged.

  5. I don’t believe people can really tell if one works from photos or life. During critiques of my work it has been noted that they can tell which paintings I did from life and which from photos…usually incorrectly. I think studying life and working live as often as possible is certainly advantageous…but I do both. Learning how to read the photos in a realistic way is the key for me when using the 2 d reference.
    I love your blogpost and love reading the lively discussions you initiate on Facebook. I have learned a lot from you and admire your work very much. Thanks for all you do. Some day I will see your work in person…some day soon I hope!

    1. I work from whatever is available and suggests itself at a particular time. Digital photos and editing are such useful and powerful tools that I cannot believe that the Old Masters would not have used them had they been available. After all they certainly did use whatever was available – camera obscura and so on – and there does not seem to be any suggestion that these tools made them inferior, on the contrary. I do find, though, that working from photos that have been taken by other people is not at all like working from ones I have taken myself – personally I tend to use them for an aide memoire and a jumping off point – but not always! Commissions are another matter……! All I think I’m trying to say is that there really are no rules about it – in the end the work either will or won’t speak for itself, by itself, without words or justifications. Rant over!

  6. A lot of truth; however when one paints from life there is this important quality of selectivity and subordination and a communicating life force that one misses when working from a static frozen photo. The old masters did such great portraits due to their ability, not only technical, but to their interaction and observance of those subtle nuances that give life and soul to a painting. Anyone can learn to copy a photo, thousands can polish like needlepoint. One can usually tell a over-factual photo rendition from a heart felt observed felt emotional spontaneous and alive work of FINE portraiture.

    1. Thanks for commenting Jack. I must reply by saying that copying a photo is not very creative or artistic. And so the problem lies not in the usage of photography as a tool but in the skills of the artist. If an artist cannot put their vision into their images then there’s work to be done, whether from life or otherwise!

  7. Katherine, I can’t seem to reply to your reply so putting my answer here. My main focus of my post was that artists should not judge others so easily. I don’t know if you can become a brilliant artist ONLY working from photos. That is not the issue. It is that saying that ONLY working from life is the way to do things is judgemental and not very nice. I think you can get quite far with photos but it all depends on the artist and their willingness to learn, adapt, interpret, see and figure out. Without vision you can get a copied photo, without vision you get a bland still life from life.

    1. I still maintain that it’s perfectly possible for people to say they only work from life and NOT be
      1) a snooty person
      2) somebody who looks down on you
      3) somebody who implies you are a lesser portrait artist because you can’t or won’t work from life
      They could just be somebody who can’t operate a camera or a computer or like the way they were trained and prefer to stick to that method.
      You are, in my opinion, imputing a sentiment to the “ONLY” people that you cannot possibly know is true. Then you are treating it as if it was fact.
      That’s just wrong in my book.
      If you want people to respect you for the way you work then you have to respect other people for the way they work.
      People are entitled to have views about different ways of working and they can express those views – and sometimes we can disagree with those views. However I really don’t think it’s very constructive to make this into a playground squabble.
      It just comes across very strongly to me as “He’s picking on me”. In my books that’s also judgemental and not very nice if that is NOT what is happening.
      One to ponder on?

      1. I’m enjoying this discussion.
        I must put my two cents in with Ms Tyrrell. I like to be IN the space that my subject is in, whether landscape, portrait, whatever. You are responding to more than just what your eyes can see. A photograph is static. It’s a mummified moment. A rendering done from life, lives!
        The job of the photographer is to capture.
        The job of the artist is to liberate.

  8. Thanks for a great article. Certainly working from life is advantageous, but artists who are committed to the process will learn using any tools that they can. Throughout history, we see that the best artists have always used whatever was available to them in order to meet the needs of their art. The old masters didn’t use photos because they weren’t available to them, but they seemed to have used whatever technology was available to them at the time—such as improvements in mediums, supports, perspective grids, a camera obscura, etc. If they could adopt new technologies to produce their art, then surely contemporary artists can do the same without being judged for it.

  9. Katherine is right. If an artist says that they only paint en plein air, or only in acrylics, or only abstractly, I don’t take it as an attack on me or how I choose to work. I don’t paint from photos because doing so doesn’t interest me, not because I’m trying to levy some sort of criticism about people who use photos as references.

  10. Excellent post, Sophie. I have been fascinated to see that it is now coming to light that many revered artists who were painting as photography was becoming popular did indeed use photographic reference for some of their paintings. Yet for many years, this concept was dismissed as if an artist who painted that well would have been ‘above’ such things. Degas, Sargent, Gaugin, these are just a few of the artists who used photographic reference in addition to working from life.
    Painting from life only does not guarantee a good painting and it is an unfortunate and all too common ‘fine art’ attitude to act as if it does.
    If an artist wants to elevate himself above others, let it be by virtue of his work and not through puffery. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors. An artist who paints from both photos and real life gets, in my opinion, the best of both worlds, and is definitely following in the steps of the masters!

  11. Each to their own, I say, enough with the endless, pointless analysis of everything. Get on with yours, and never mind what he’s doing next door!

  12. People learn to draw from the Bargue plates so why not from photos? All this “to use photos or not” seems more to do with seeking approval from other artists rather than making art for yourself or for the spectator.

  13. There aren’t any rules. The evolution of Modern Art proved that. Sophie’s assumption that those that work in a non-representational or conceptual manner can’t draw is reaching a little too far. That may be true in a local art club, but I assure you it is not the case in the upper echelons. Picasso, for one, was an amazing draftsman, as were many others since. I’ve never seen an Art era where someone wasn’t working representationally, so it is hardly a return.
    Katherine’s “rule” that one can only truly learn to draw by working from life also reaches too far. Would she posit that learning by copying the Masters not as good as “working from life”? The last time I was at the Louvre, I saw several people drawing and painting from the work on the walls.
    When I was an undergraduate, I was lucky to work with a internationally renowned printmaker. He spent the first three days doing sketches of mice from a collection of photographs. He drew dozens of sketches from these photos. He told us he was learning what a mouse was. When he felt he was comfortable, he put the references away and executed and amazing work. I’ve also known an artist the would tend to flatten some areas of every drawing he did. He did this whether he was “working from life” or working fro a photograph.
    Any artist worth his salt can work from a photograph and know the difference from an actual scene and the photographic image. I have seen those that don’t, but I’ve seen many more that could. Norman Rockwell is well known for using both methods. I would not believe anyone that says that they could tell the difference.
    So my answer to anyone who wants to put “rules” on what Art is, is that maybe we should only recognize artists that grind their own pigments and make their own pencils or vine charcoal. They were all skills once required of artists. Are using a camera obscura or lucida wrong? They are both methods of working from life.
    I spent a life time teaching students to draw, both from life and from two dimensional references. I never placed any “rules” on them. I love doing and seeing representational art. When I see a piece of work, I don’t care how it was done, I just care that is was done well.

    1. @ Rick – Hang on a minute! What “rule”? I’ve not created any “rules”!
      Please comment on what is actually said by other people and NOT what you think they have said.
      For the record I’ve been drawing paintings in art galleries and museums for years and even recommend it as a practice in my book.
      In fact the last time I was in the Louvre I was drawing portraits by Rembrandt! See “A Day in the Musée du Louvre” http://travelsketch.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/day-in-musee-du-louvre.html

  14. Thank you for all your wonderful comments! I hoped to advertise flexibility and tolerance with my blog post and allow all artists their own preferred methods and tools without judgment.

  15. Late to this, but must comment on the useful aspects that I find with photography.
    I paint still life, and much of my subject matter doesn’t last as long as it takes to complete a painting.
    Being able to photograph what I am painting is very useful, not only for immediate use, but stored for future use too.
    I can’t always get everything I want to paint at the time I want to paint it …for instance, I’m lucky if my quince trees give any fruit annually, and often it’s not much to choose from either.
    Other times, the fruit I want is out of season.
    I tend to paint what truly piques my fascination at the time, so having some good quality photographic images that I’ve taken can be of immense help.
    Inspiration is no respecter of nature, nor always, is enthusiasm.
    I also like to experiment with composition, and again, photography can be a very useful tool for seeing what will work as I need.
    It’s not unusual for me to have a set up that I’m working from, and an image of it on my computer screen at the same time to enable easy examination of detail.
    Another useful aspect of photography is being able to photograph valuable items belonging to relatives and friends.
    Some do offer to lend an item, but I’m always more comfortable with my own good quality photographs, as there’s no chance of any accidents or damage.
    All this aside, my studio has props and curiosities on every level surface!

    1. Trisha, thank you so much for those wonderful examples of how photography can be useful (even vital!) in making art. I love how you use it to be able to create ‘impossible’ still lives. What a great way to use the tool. Thanks for stopping by and adding your experiences.

  16. I know I’m late to this debate but I occasionally get flack on my YouTube comments about working from photos, and I’m constantly having to defend it against accusations of ‘cheating’. I feel art is not a sport with rules and a sense of fair play; it is about the end product, and not the process. It is certain that the Old Masters employed the latest optical aids, be it camera obscura, camera lucida, or concave mirrors, and if photography had been invented they would have used that too. But like today they needed to make a living and naturally were secretive about their methods. Even now artists are coy about their methods – I read an interview with Jenny Saville where she said she often worked from “found images” – photographs to you and me. And nobody seems to brag about working from photos. Why is that? I believe that there is a snobbery about working only from life, and whilst I agree it doesn’t imply that all artists who only work from life are snobs or feel superior, there is something implicit in the statement “I only work from life”. That is why I applaud artists like Jonathan Yeo who make a feature of the grid in some of his portraits. How many portrait artists’ bio include “I mainly work from photos”? But that is the truth, even if they also paint from life. They take a few photos during the sitting, take it away, and correct the problems with likeness. I remember watching a programme of Peter Blake painting Twiggy’s portrait from life – the likeness was really off, until they returned for the second session when lo and behold it was perfect. I just wish that the professional artists would just come out and openly admit to working from photos. I don’t agree that you ‘see’ more working from life. That may be true if you are working from photos captured on your mobile, but definitely not with high end digital SLR cameras. My guess is that artists and sitters like the idea of working from life, more for the mutual psychological benefit rather than the technical – it’s all part of a performance/ritual/interaction that humans love. Protestations about the technical benefits is just a rationalisation

    1. Hi Vic, thank you for your great comment. As you can imagine I totally agree with you. I’d say be proud of your method. Your work is very beautiful indeed (had a wee browse around your site, I can recommend others visit it too) and so you are proof of the pudding – so to speak! Thanks for stopping by. Much appreciated.

      1. Hi Sophie. Thanks for your kind words about my work. In the discussion on the use of photos for portraits, there is also a tendency to look down on photographs as an art form, compared with paintings. Photographs are capable of capturing moments and expressions that are fleeting and revelatory – something that I find difficult to achieve painting from life. When I take photos to prepare for a painting I can take up to 100, and usually there is only 1 or 2 that capture something elusive about the sitter. I agree wholeheartedly with your advice not to use the sitter’s favourite holiday snap, which is why I prefer to take the photos. I think the act of taking a photo introduces an element of tension that elicits some interesting expressions. Anyway, thanks for being open about your use of photographs – very refreshing. I guess the issue will grumble on, unresolved, but it is depressing for amateurs like me to see professional artists waffle on about the authenticity and honesty of art, and remain disingenuous about the use of photos

      2. Hi Vic, yes I totally agree. Although working from life does definitely has its benefits, one disbenefit is seeing the dozy, sleepy model who has clearly been sitting for hours on end. Photography can help a lot here. I suppose the issue will grumble on a bit but I am optimistic that it will slowly disappear as digital media will undeniably move into the realm of painting. Thanks for your comments!

  17. Few weeks ago I attend a 5 day course at the Royal Drawing School. All the Drawing was carried out from a life model.
    Day two we attended the National Gallery. And was introduced to paintings we should sketch. I found no difference between standing back and sketching a painting to sketching a live model. Process was exactly the same.
    What fascinated me was:- A large drawing in graphite carried out by a Master. The description was created by XXXX for his staff to pin prick through on to a canvas. I do have a photo of the large drawing 5 feet by 5 feet. Which I would like to have uploaded.
    What I am trying to say in art anything goes to make the final image. Does it matter if the final image is produced from a sketch or a photo, Produced by a master copied by his apprentices, half finished by the apprentices and the final touches completed by the master.
    It is the end result that matters.
    I know of one artist who creates his images in Photoshop has them approved by the customer then he transfers them with a paint brush etc on to a canvas. He could equally print them straight on to canvas. It is the end result that matters.

    1. Hi Eric, thanks for joining in the debate. You say interesting things. I agree for the most part that it is the end result that matters although I do think that the results will be different according to the method used.And it is the results that matter so on that point you are right. That said some methods create more interesting and beautiful results than others……

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