Painting from photographs - good or bad? should they be your own photographs?

Orang utan mother and baby, a charcoal sketch done from life, at the zoo. Vivien Blackburn

Working from life and from photographs - mine, other people's and critiques with friends

I don't enjoy working from photographs but on the occasions that I do I like them to be my own - that way it's my own vision, concept and composition. It also needs to be something that I have seen in real life, have maybe sketched but have looked at frequently and know more about than that flat 2D image can show.

The orang utans above and below are a couple of drawings I did at a local zoo on very cold February the one above is about 14-15 ins tall. The orang utans were in a warm indoor enclosure behind glass but the mother was wrapping herself in a sheet like a sari - or a little refugee. The baby rampaged about playing and returned to her shoulder from time to time. During the time I was sketching her she was fascinated by what I was doing and I frequently stopped to show her - it seemed only polite :>D - I had to work fast, getting an impression of the fur and her bulk, the spiky scruffiness of the baby, her liquid eyes in an intelligent face. I personally don't get all that from a photo - I can do an accurate copy but not the bit that matters to me. I'm not a photo realist so getting every detail isn't what I want - I want attitude and character and the feel of the rough hair - the naughtiness of the baby clambering about over his mother and her quiet dignity - without being there I wouldn't have seen all that.

Orang utan, sifting peanuts from food on the floor, done very quickly, from life. Vivien Blackburn

Working from someone else's photo I'd know even less - I'd just have that flat 2D image and a very limited amount of information to work with - and for me, too much irrelevant detail. The concept is theirs, not mine, the lighting, the moment in time and it isn't totally my work.

Some artists work very successfully from their own photogaphs - Gayle and Nicole both take their own photographs and produce beautiful realist paintings of animals and still life. Both also have interesting posts today on the issue of using other peoples photos as reference. Some old masters - Canaletto for one - used the camera obscura, a device that projected an image of the scene onto a wall in a darkened room. Canaletto then traced the outlines of buildings and could then continue from life.

Lenses cause distortion of course and David Hockney wrote a very interesting book where he discussed where these distortions showed evidence of the use of lenses which I'm sure you know.

A telephoto camera lens has the effect of closing up distances, a wider angle lens will distort faces and buildings. Sarah Graham, a young artist on my degree course (we shared a studio space) produced wonderful 6ft plus canvasses of close ups of her friends faces that filled the canvas - every soft focus area, flashes of light on the lens etc was reproduced and enhanced and the images were amazing - the knowledge of the friends in real life filtered through to make the painting so much more than the photographs. They lived.

This is what Sarah says about her work: Superficially I appear to copy the photograph, but I make numerous adjustments, fine-tuning the work to exaggerate depth of field or enhance colour. I paint using oil on canvas, usually on a much larger scale to create an impact.
My painting method remains constant and always challenging; manipulating focus and blur to create the illusion of three-dimensionality.
It is important to me that the viewer finds my work positive and uplifting, a great deal of energy goes into each piece, and I hope this translates to the painting. - her website

Refugees. Image done developing the sketches done plein air. Vivien Blackburn

There is quite a debate at the moment on a rule change in an organisation I don't belong to but several friends are members.

The issue is whether work is entirely your own if you have used someone else's photos, had crit on a forum that made you make changes for the better and whether that makes it a collaborative work. There is also of course the issue of copyright if images used as reference weren't copyright free. That can land you in court!

I have to say that personally I would feel that if I'd copied someone else's photo I wouldn't feel morally able to put that work into a competition or juried show as mine for the reasons already stated.

On the feedback issue I think that peer comment, family feedback is simply a part of life and really can't be policed. Forum crit could be said to be in the same category - it would depend on the degree of alteration made in response I suppose - a really difficult problem to decide on.

I meet up once a month with a group of 8 friends - we all have BA (Hons) Fine Art with a couple of MA's - we crit each other's work as we did at uni and all find it very valuable - we often disagree but those different viewpoints are great for clarifying your own opinion! Does that make it a collaborative work if I then make changes in response?

As a for instance - one friend commented that a landscape I wasn't happy with, but wasn't sure why, was too purple. I took it home and looked again and thought no, it's not too purple but there is too much yellow in it - which is making the purple more emphatic, I toned that down, showed it to her again and she said it was much better now it wasn't so purple ;>)

Katherine has written further on this and Tina Mammoser has left a very interesting and to the point comment do read that too

what do you think?

do you work from photographs? life? both?

Some people argue that they can't travel to Africa to photograph or sketch lions for instance - but you can go to the zoo - and if it's something you've never seen in real life, the painting won't have the depth that one of something you know will. As in Sarah's work, your knowledge filters through and informs the painting.



Making A Mark said…
I remember those drawings when you did them and how interested the Mum was. Tell me that's an experience you aren't ever going to forget! That's what I really like about sketching - it etches the whole experience and place in your mind and memory.

Thanks for a very useful and helpful post Vivien - it certainly adds to the debate and I've linked you to my CPSA / UKCPS post.
I use my own photographs and I regard them as starting points, not a goal in of themselves. We're artists, not inaccurate color copiers!
vivien said…
Absolutely Katherine - it really does fix things in your memory when you sketch from life and

Maggie exactly - not 'inaccurate photocopiers' - that would be so boring :(
Jeanette Jobson said…
This has been a thought provoking issue and I'm sure makes many rethink how they work or what they do, especially when it comes to exhibition quality work.

I work from a combination of life and photos and the exhibition pieces are my own images as a rule, with a couple of exceptions I can think of.

Reference images from others make good practice material but you can't really call them your own entirely. I'm not onboard for the forum based input being nixed. WHile yes, comments can influence you, but in the end, its still your own work.
vivien said…
Katherine thanks :) and Maggie exactly!

Jeanette yes, the feedback on forums is similar to feedback from friends and family - and not always acted on! Discussion is normal in art and as Tina said on Katherine's blog - not all artists are fortunate enough to live where they have fellow artists to discuss wip's with. So that is a rather hard line to take.

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