Sunday, February 25, 2018

Painting from Photographs

For many painters, working from photos is a touchy subject.  There are many purists who totally reject the idea of using photos at all.  For them, working directly from life is the only way to paint and using photos is cheating.  At the other extreme are those who copy photos directly.  Those artists are either photorealists, whose work is painstakingly detailed, or they're inexperienced artists who just copy what's in front of them.  The inexperienced artists have good intentions but don't have the knowledge of what works and what doesn't in a painting.

I'm in the middle.  I use photos as reference tools and find them useful, but they can't provide everything I need to make a good artwork.  I love working from life, but there are things that working from life just can't provide, either.

So let's look at what a photo is.  A photograph is a moment in time, as seen through a single lens and recorded on film or pixels.  It's a mechanical image.  A person can adjust what the camera sees and how it sees it.  The camera then records what comes through the lens.  The camera has no thought, no selectivity, no judgement.  To it, a pixel is a pixel is a pixel.  A good photographer, however, can make those pixels speak volumes.  I have a nephew who can do amazing things with cameras, and his photos are true works of art.

Most photos aren't.  Most are snapshots or other visual notes.  I use my cameras to take a lot of visual notes for future use.  Clouds, fields, tree lines, horses, people floating down the river on inner tubes, rock walls, old wooden floors - these are things that nobody would ever want to frame and hang on their wall, or even put into a Facebook photo album.  But I have found in creating paintings that sometimes I need to know what a particular type of cloud might look like at a particular time of day.  Or I need to know what a rock wall might look like.  Stopping the painting and running around trying to find the right rock wall is not an option.  So I'm always watching for things that might be useful in a painting someday.  When I find something, I snap a photo, or maybe a bunch of them, and then those photos go into a reference file.

By now, you've probably noticed that the vast majority of my artworks are about people.  For years, I thought the only way to draw and paint people was to work from life.  To some extent, that's still true.  Most of my artworks are not just about people, they're about specific people.  I generally don't use figures to tell my own story, I see other people and want to capture something of their story.  I like to get something of an individual's personality and character on paper or canvas.  To do that, I have to work directly with the individual.  It's by sitting with them, talking, and seeing how they carry themselves, how they speak, how they listen, and even just how they sit, that I can pick up something of who they are.  And that's what I try to carry into an artwork.

But working from life has some drawbacks.  For one, drawing and painting can take a long time.  I can usually work on a drawing or painting a heck of a lot longer than the subject can sit still.  And I have to respect that their time is just as valuable as mine.  So the time factor has to be considered.

Another consideration is that when you're working from life, the subject is always moving.  Sometimes a lot, sometimes just a little, but nobody can sit perfectly still.  And when a model takes a break, they never get back in exactly the same position.  It's always a little different, and fabric never ever ever comes close to the same position.  So when you work from life, you're creating an image of the subject's average position.

I've found that working from photographs and working from life are complementary.  Each has strengths and weaknesses.  When working from life, I get a sense of the person.  I can create an image that may have feeling but is often technically flawed.  When working from photos, there's an emotional distance that makes it easier to see things as two-dimensional shapes, values, and colors.  I can be a bit more clinically analytical about shapes and values in a photo than I can when faced with the real person.  This also gives me a bit of freedom to change things around, add things, or eliminate things, if it will make a better painting.  Sometimes there's the "tyranny of what's there" in real life that just doesn't work in paint.

For the past couple of years, I've been working with models to create this long series of charcoal and pastel figurative artworks.  One approach that has proven useful is to have the subjects come to the studio where we'll shoot a ton of photos.  When I say "ton", I mean 400-1,000 in an hour.  Later, I'll identify specific photos that have strong potential as an artwork.  And then I'll work from the photo.  The difference between this approach and working from somebody else's snapshot is that now I know the person, I controlled the lighting, and with all the other photos just before and after the one selected, I have a lot of reference material to work with.  I can select what to include and exclude.  The whole time, I've still got my impression of the subject in my head, so it's not just a photo that I'm working with, but also my impression of Amy, Emma, Troy, James, or whoever.  And that almost always comes through.  I don't know how, it just does.

And in photos, I'll see things that I might've missed in real life.  Things like the specific way the shadow falls across the neck, or a reflected light hits a jawline.  The next time I work with a model (any model), I will look for those things.  So the impression of a person that I get when working from life carries over into the times when I work from photos.  And the details I notice when working from photos feeds back into what I look at when I'm working from life.

So, yes, working from life and working from photos are complementary approaches.  I use them both.

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