"ART is a word which summarizes THE QUALITY OF COMMUNICATION. "
L. Ron Hubbard

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Painting from photos - The Controversy

A recent potential student asked me if I would be teaching from photos or still life. I replied that it wasn't feasible for me to attempt to lug the components of a still life with me for a 3-hour session a week but that she was free to bring her own still life if she wanted. She replied that she didn't want to paint from photos. This is really a bit of a non sequitur. (I didn't say that she couldn't paint from a still life.) However, it raises the question: is it invalid to paint from photos?

Some will say 'yes' because the photo is precomposed. In addition, the colors produced in the printing process are a lower gamut* than we see when working from life. Finally, a photo (often produced in a 4x6 format, contains much less information than the original scene. I don't disagree.

On the other hand, as a teacher who already lugs a complete setup for oils and a complete setup for acrylics to the teaching site, I don't have any inclination to additionally lug the pots, plants, fruit and other paraphernalia (such as a lamp for directional lighting and drapery) with me on a weekly basis.

We need to look at the use of a photo in a broader context. When I give students a reference photo, I want them to use it as a "reference" not something to be faithfully duplicated. Let's call it a "starting point" for creation. After all, why paint it exactly as shown in the photo. There is already a photo.

There is some use in duplicating a reference photo. If a student is just beginning and is shaky about the basics of art (line, form, composition, color) working from a photo is like having training wheels. Having a still life or model or — worst yet — all of nature in front of you can result in overwhelm. Even the old hand may want to continue to practice. I attend a weekly live model drawing group to improve my perception of what is there.Not only does it help me produce better paintings, but it helps me see the world better — a philosophic benefit.

*gamut: an entire range or series (gamut from praise to contempt)
(Editorial Note: in this case, the entire range of perceptible color.)