Using Photos or Painting from Life?

Almost every artist that I know uses photos. But how they use them is what makes the difference.

Yes, I use photos. I also draw from life as much as possible. Often, if not usually, the photos are BACKUP for the life studies/drawings/paintings. I use them as reference, not the whole enchilada. I’m currently doing an interior scene of some friends’ house. I drew the interior while I was at their house. After several thumbnails, I worked through the composition that I wanted and the perspective issues. Then I took photos. Lots of photos. Because the time of day gave different light. Because people and cats kept walking in the room. Because I kept rethinking what I was doing. So now, back in my studio I have 13 or 14 photos, plus several painters that I like, all hanging up around my canvas. Now it is about the painting not the interior. The chair is better red than brown. The cats have changed a bit. The floor has lightened. Some things are absracted, rearranged, changed. Because I don’t care if it looks like their house. I care if it becomes a good painting and if I learned something.

I talk to lots of artists, and I’m surprised how many artists are just looking through magazines or photos for ideas. Or they just copy their friend’s photos. And maybe there are no copyright issues here. Maybe these are all their photos or their friends gave them permission or whatever. But there is a creativity issue here. If the photo is so good, why does it need to become a painting? These same people seem always to have difficulty coming up with ideas about what to paint or finding photos to copy.

My best artist friends seldom if ever run out of ideas. And if they are using photos, they aren’t just making lovely copies of photos.

I have a lifetime’s worth of things I will never have the time to paint. I paint plein air. I will never run out of places to go, seasons to relish. I paint figures and still lifes. I will never run out of interesting people that I want to paint. I will always be able to dig up stuff around the house to paint into a still life. And I am always thinking about colors, design, surfaces, paint quality. The photo supports my work. It is not what drives the work. The life around me drives my work. The process of making art drives my work.

Go paint from life. You will see color better. You will see form better, you will be responding to the real world. You will take more risks. If you want to move to the next level, get rid of the photos for awhile. And when you return to them, think of them as a support system, not THE system.

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