Technical Advice & Tip

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Painting from Photographs

 Artist Daily Magazine 21 May 2013 

I’ve spent way too much time in murky classrooms looking at slides, slides, and more slides. I’m convinced that the entire academic field of art history would grind to a halt without projectors, carousels, and slides. But what is weird about looking at so many images is that I find myself thinking that I know exactly what a sculpture or a painting really looks like because I’ve seen a photograph of it. Photographs can never tell you the full story of an object, landscape, or person’s face, but they are convenient references for artists. The reality is that most artists use source photos in some capacity when they work, whether to jog their memory of a particular place and time or to record specific visual details to incorporate in later pieces.

El Mercado by Mark Haworth, 2006, oil painting, 16 x 20.
El Mercado by Mark Haworth, 2006, oil painting, 16 x 20.
But to produce a successful piece of art, an artist has to be wary and attentive to what he or she is seeing—and not seeing—in a photograph. That starts with understanding the limitations of reference photos. Artist Mark Haworth puts it this way: “The camera cannot see like the eye can when it comes to color accuracy, depth of field, and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows. There’s a lot of distortion that comes along with photographs.”

Pastel artist and instructor Denise LaRue Mahlke agrees. “Following a photo to a ‘T’ is a big mistake, because the camera lies,” she says. “Photos can be indispensible as a jumping off point, but even if the photo is an excellent one, you want to reinvent the scene for a painting to work.”

Haworth, for one, puts decidedly less emphasis on reference photos than on preliminary sketches made on-site or notes written in the field.  “When I’m traveling through an area, I write what I am seeing,” he says. “My notes often give me what I can’t get in a picture. Photos don’t give the subtleties I look for to capture the look and feel of a place.”

When Mahlke is on-site and doesn’t have time to paint, she’ll often do the same—sketch and take notes. But she acknowledges that sometimes she takes as many photos as she can. “Having that multitude of photos can give you a lot to work with,” she says. “When I’m ready to start a piece, I’ll pull from many different photos for inspiration and do thumbnail sketches to familiarize myself with the subject and composition I’m working toward.”

I asked Haworth and Mahlke if constantly referring back to photos can lead to overworking or to a painting filled with a bunch of little details instead of a cohesive composition. Both artists knew just what I meant. “It can go from painting to documenting,” says Haworth. “You can take in all the details and go crazy.”

Winter Stream by Denise LaRue Mahlke, 2008, pastel, 14 x 18.
Winter Stream by Denise LaRue Mahlke,
2008, pastel, 14 x 18.
Another point both artists stressed is the importance of working from photos they’ve taken themselves. “When using someone else’s photos, you aren’t painting your own concepts, just copying,” says Mahlke. “I tell my students, ‘Work from your own photos—your ideas are there.’”

What’s more, a reference photo, no matter who clicked the shutter, shouldn’t lead to a sense of obligation to show exactly what is depicted in the shot. Instead, an artist should feel free and inspired to manipulate or leave behind a reference any way he or she chooses. That assures there’s vitality in a piece of art and means you won’t miss seeing—and hopefully recapturing—the moments that will make a painting great.

Value Versus Color

Paintings fail or succeed because... Especially since the mid-1800s, many artists have stressed color over other elements in painting. The Impressionists are notable examples. Monet, for instance, explored how to paint light and its effects on the colorful scenes he saw in his mind's eye. Although many think of Monet as a painter of colors, he is perhaps more accurately described as the original "painter of light."
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Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son 
by Claude Monet, 1875, oil on canvas.
Adapted from an article by Bob Bahr.
Paintings fail or succeed most often because of how accurate the values are in the work rather than because of poor color choices or color mixing. The viewer "reads" a painting through its values, and a composition relies on how light and dark values are arranged. The problem is that beginner painting artists often see a color's hue and chroma instead of its value. Painting a grisaille (a composition in shades of gray) before applying colors can help us in matching the correct values in a scene to a desired hue in the proper value. A few exercises juxtaposing values on a grayscale with various local colors also help in training our eyes.

ARTIST DAILYJuly 22,  2013
Artist Daily
Is an Artist Born or Made?
 Natural Ability or Just Hard Work?
Jeremiah by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel, 1511.
Jeremiah by Michelangelo Buonarroti,
Sistine Chapel, 1511.
I think the affinity that I have for art is definitely inborn. Art isn't something I grew up with or was tutored in, so when I stumbled upon it on my own, something clicked. The natural ability to draw and paint is ingrained in some people, too. But not all of us are gifted with an innate artistic sense, and I don't think talent cancels out the equally important willingness and desire to steep yourself in and truly perfect your craft.

Some artists have egos and some even have enough talent for them to believe their work is heaven-sent--a panacea that can change the world. Me? I've never felt more human than when I'm drawing or watercolor painting. That's when I feel truly humble, as I fumble and grope for ways of capturing the life, atmosphere, movement, and excitement of the world around me in a drawing or painting. But don't get me wrong--it is an impassioned struggle, a glorious goal worth reaching for.

Rondanini Pieta by Michelangelo, 1564.
Rondanini Pieta by
Michelangelo, 1564.
Whenever I pick up a pencil or brush, I think of Michelangelo. He was gifted beyond belief and is at the zenith of Western art, but his life wasn't easy--it set the precedent for the kind of mental anguish and doubt that put truth to the term "tortured artist." He constantly felt that his hands could never attain what he saw in his mind's eye. No matter how much arrogance and umbrage he displayed in public, he was plagued by the same indecision and doubt that I feel when I'm really committed to a project but am not quite sure if it is going to come together the way I hope.
One of Michelangelo's sketches for figures in the Sistine Chapel.
One of Michelangelo's sketches for
figures in the Sistine Chapel.

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