An excellent Quebec painter, Lorne Bouchard, once gave me some advice. He told me that a painter needs to work from three sources — from self-generated photo reference, from life, and from the imagination. “All painters,” he said, “favour one or the other, but all three are needed to gain maximum feeling — and this goes even for abstractionists and those others who glean their motifs from their minds.”
This advice came at a time when I was chronically “P.D.” (Photo Dependent). It took me another decade to realize the value of Lorne’s advice. I’d always thought that photos, used properly, had the coded information needed to make patterns and design decisions. Furthermore, photos side-stepped what I saw as the rigmarole of live observation. This all came at a time when I was struggling with perceived limitations of my pictorial imagination.
Then I saw the light. Flirting with plein air, I was returning from outdoor sorties and encountering photo-based as well as imaginary work in my studio. I saw barrenness and lack of elan. I realized that works conceived theoretically and outside the real world were somehow lacking in the truth I was after.
The outdoor connection has something to do with walking on the loose flints themselves, the feelings of change, atmosphere, and the effects of timing. Last week in the Queen Charlotte Islands, left alone to my own devices on a remote beach, I was set upon by some fancy weather. After a blast of rain had me under an umbrella, I moved into the nearby forest for shelter. I was soon overtaken by a pervasive “Scotch mist” that turned out to be a remarkable moisturizer of the acrylic palette and canvas. “An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity,” I remembered from Confucius. The paint on the canvas moved around on its own. The effects were like nothing I’d done before. Point is, I’d never have figured this out from a photograph or from the wiles of imagination.
Looking and seeing on location, or working from life, adds a living presence to work. Gathering becomes an event. Life reboots visual memory. If you add life to self-generated reference and the muscle of imagination, better work is more likely to appear.
PS: “You can be bashed around in the bush. If your hands freeze, your face burns, or the mozzies suck your blood, so much the better.” (Lorne Bouchard, 1913-1978)
Esoterica: Without the third muscle of imagination, whether as pure play or an adjunct to reality, art is bound to fall flat. Asking the question “What could be?” at every stage of your process is the magic moxie that makes art. Imagination is the mother of style. Artists, particularly younger ones, often find the three approaches generate three different styles. This tendency becomes less apparent as an artist matures. The later work of Lorne Bouchard, for example, was consistently loose, casual and cursory. Looking at individual paintings it’s difficult to say from which of the big three his inspiration came.
Lorne Bouchard Artwork
Contact and engagement
by Jerry Bono, Brooklyn, NY, USA
I want to add the fourth element: contact and engagement. Go up and meet the people in the scene. Tell them your vision. Get a response. Engage. Be open. Be true in your exchange. I just learned this and have not yet brought it into painting or drawing… but I have had immediate results in my photography.
Fear stimulates creativity?
by Margo Buccini, Ponte Vedra, FL, USA
My students decided to paint at the beautiful Florida State Park known as Guana Preserve. It’s an estuarine environment, basically swampland. We were attacked by mosquitoes, eyed (hungrily?) by a rather large alligator and sidestepped a couple of little snakes. No one could concentrate. Later, in our air-conditioned studio, some very intense paintings were created. Maybe fear stimulates some primal urge to create.
Portrait photos to check biometrics
by Doris Osbahr
As a portrait artist, I favor life models aided by photos to check biometrics and make sure the pose and attitude remain the same from session to session. For the rest of my work, I must say I hate photos because they tend to dominate me and the outcome of my work. When painting from life, there are more opportunities of synthesis and seeing or imagining a wider range of colors. When painting from memory or imagination, things get even better giving way to more creativity.
Sketches vital to cartooning
by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Even in the “lowly” art form of cartooning everything you say applies. I use photo references and imagination often, but my most valuable resource is the life drawing. I keep a sketchbook with me at all times, drawing people at rest and in action, vehicles, buildings, clothing, furniture, vegetation, anything and everything, and perhaps most important for me, various perspective angles. These sketches constantly find their way into my cartoons.
by Jane Shoenfeld
About a year ago, I began a new series of work called GridScapes. These pastel grid pieces are based on imagination, memory and a very peripheral glancing at photographs. In order to do a GridScape, I will initially work outside absorbing visual information about the landscape. The multiple panels of a particular grid are created simultaneously rather than individually.
by Donald Demers, Eliot, ME, USA
I am not sure that I quite agree with the three sources. For centuries painters created some pretty great paintings using life reference, visual memory and their imaginations without the use of photography. I believe that painting is as much an experiential process as a visual one. I think that your account of your experience in the woods and the development of a strong visual memory will bring far more truth and substance to the canvas than any reliance on photographic reference. You’ve got to feel it to paint it, not just see it.
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
My way involves doing many things that lead up to me starting to paint. I do research work. It can sometimes mean that I’ll cut up bits of coloured images from a newspaper (abstract) or I’ll drive in my car thinking and looking around. I write, meditate, and much more before paint touches the canvas. I remember a great artist saying to me that “careful prior planning is the key to a successful painting.” I often had problems with that as my work is emotive and spontaneous — or so I thought! Now I think that it is not merely a sudden act at all, but something born out of a lot of research that involves self-generated photo references, life all around me. And imagination… I have lots of imagination!
Don’t interfere with the painting process
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
May I add a fourth to the Big Three? It’s phrased negatively to get at the positive aspect. The quote is credited to the sage Jean Klein, “Don’t come at it directly!” He taught that to be a painter that captures the essence of a subject, it is important to not try too hard, but to get yourself out of the way and let the painting find itself. This doesn’t mean not to plan or spend some time thinking. It means to do just that, but then to stop and let the painting process take over. Paintings can actually paint themselves when we as painters get out of the way. If we are one with our subject, the brush will move through that oneness. If we try too hard to capture our subject, it will escape.
by Rick McClung, Atlanta, GA, USA
An artist should take advantage of all the tools available to produce meaningful work. When I was 10 or eleven years old I thought that if you had to look at an object to draw it you were not an artist. As I grew and studied many years later I passed through the purest period. I then believed that painting from life alone was the highest goal. I looked back feeling proud of the research, studying, paintings, etc., to a fault perhaps. I have in the last few years noticed that more and more I am adding elements completely from my imagination. Sometimes not just in the background — they are the center of attention.
Lorne Bouchard was right on the money. “Self-generated reference” is key. I believe that our minds on some level record important data — some easily seen and some less tangible details that can only appear on the surface without a model or reference in view. As if we at times bypass the soul or ourselves and move into a higher spiritual realm. Thanks for raising such an important point in this day when photo reference is so prevalent.
Finding the balance
by Jim Connelly, Jenison, MI, USA
Some people teach “paint from life” and nothing else. With all the skill they acquire they lack the courage or creativity to even move a tree or change a shadow to make a better composition. Those who only paint from photos never see the broader scope of color, value and atmosphere of painting from life. Anyone who only paints from imagination is failing to learn from nature, the alphabet of visual language.
The world we observe on a daily basis is common to all seeing people. Understanding it gives the artist a universal tool with which to communicate. Without imagination you have little to say but record, copy or document. Painting from life and learning from photos gives you the information and visual understanding to communicate. Combine visual learning with imagination and you can make art.
by Charlotte Rollman, Il, USA
Since most of my painting is with watercolor, lots of my work includes “the muscle of imagination.” They are my keepers. A couple of years ago, I was painting at sunrise, and a fisherman kept moving back and forth in my line of vision. When I asked if he wanted to be in my painting, he almost jumped out of his boat. He had not seen me there painting. Thank God, I had already painted him because he didn’t stay around long after that. As I was cleaning up, another boat was being put in the lake next to me and the boater saw my painting. He mentioned that he saw someone with a red skirt painting the day before on Lake Michigan. That was me with a blanket wrapped around me with masking tape because the flies were biting so hard. I too, must look like “a crazy woman.” Although angry, the painting stayed positive and fresh.
Allowing inspiration to emerge
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
The accidents that might occur while painting in unfavorable conditions outdoors are the stuff that we abstract expressionists work with continually in our comfortable studios. Allowing unexpected textures, surfaces, and colors to develop spontaneously from some vision frozen in our subconscious is an amazing process. Of course, much of it is unreliable and even useless, except it can lead us into the next place where we find our way to a new visual experience.
Finding the path forward
by Bill F, Elgin, IL, USA
For years I struggled to progress. I couldn’t move beyond the stilted, naive look in my paintings. The trouble was I thought that painting from memory and imagination was normal. It might be for a very advanced artist who had extensive experience painting from life. Imagination and memory might be fine for non-representational art. The problem was that I was trying to paint in what is known as the traditional style, with maybe a little impressionism thrown in. But once I started painting from life, either studio still life or landscapes on location, everything began to fall into place. I found a path forward. I could see what I needed to correct. Now I paint exclusively from life, all in one session if possible.
Personal touch keeps art interesting
by Jacobina Trump, Indianapolis, IN, USA
I am happy with your article about PD. Now it all makes sense to me. I work in a big building with 70 other artists. Most of them work directly from photographs. This was a shock for me when I arrived almost a year ago. Not because of ethical, moral or other judgments but I cannot see the fun of it. Make a painting of a photo, then make a giclee of it to sell? Is it about the printing process and sales or the artistic value? Personally I get the most information from pen drawings in my sketchbook. I also train my eyes to be accurate. In my studio on rainy days I project the sketches onto canvas and change them where I want (some say the use of a projector is not art). I also use photographs from magazines, a photo of an unborn child. Then I start my fantasy world. To get the right colors I make small plein air paintings of the subject. These sell fairly easy. This whole process feels very rewarding to me. All aspects are included. Lately my colleagues complain that their art has become so boring – like going to the office. Not for me.
The evolution of process
by B. Alan Frakes, Tulsa, OK, USA
In my earlier days, I was only a studio painter using mostly 2-dimensional references and some models or still life set-ups. I also worked abstractly. After that I went through years of no painting. Years later, my eyes were opened to outdoor painting. It has changed everything about the ways in which I work and helped me to really begin to see. I challenged myself at first, refusing to rely on the use of self-supplied photography for years. That was a decent effort, but now after that experience I feel comfortable going back into the studio and working from life, or photo reference, or creating a totally abstract, non-representational piece of art. Or even jumping outside to paint from life! All of these exercises help balance one’s sense of work and play.
Photos needed for focus
by Dusanka Badovinac, Netherlands
I use photos and sketches to recall the smell of the places and to bring back old feelings. That is how I developed my way of painting landscapes. Bringing back the memories and allowing my feelings to control my hand. Edvard Munch said, “I do not paint what I see, but what I saw.” Once or twice a year we travel to Southern Europe (Serbia, Croatia or Italy). I found a nice wooden house in Tyrol, Austria and I rented it for my family for a week. The weather was beautiful, with a real spring feeling. The colours were overwhelming; thousands of shades of green all around me — purples, blues… big trees, fields with beautiful flowers, mountains with snow and the blue sky. My eyes were traveling from one painting to another. I couldn’t concentrate enough to make some order in all that. Everything I made was so poor and empty, so artificial. How frustrating.
I decided to make some sketches by the river. I found a nice place to sit. The noise was so horrible and the scream of rocks was so painful. In front of my eyes I felt nature and even the landscape changing. I had no canvas big enough to paint that feeling. I could not squeeze that power. I wished that I could jump and spring on the canvas with hands full of colour. I really had a need for physical exercise. I thought of Jackson Pollock, running and jumping around the canvas, pouring the colours and becoming a colour. When I came home the first thing I wanted to paint was that noise. I admire plein air painters for being able to squeeze nature and focus their attention on one subject. I end up wandering from one beauty to another and I can only see it changing. That is why I need photos, to focus on something.
Plein air start improves finish with reference
by Judy Haller-D’Angelo, Clifton Park, NY, USA
I was always, always, a photo painter, painting from photos that I had taken. Well that all changed 3 years ago when a very good friend took me out on a beautiful hot summer day to paint outdoors. From then on, I’ve been addicted to plein air! I used to paint in my home/studio from photos and the results were good, I did win some awards from my paintings but my work was too tight and I couldn’t get the looseness I was looking for. Since 2004 that has all changed. I paint in watercolors, and have switched to larger brushes and continue to learn more about my surroundings and my reaction to them. Just being outdoors and getting lost in the beauty of shadows created by forests or a single tree, feeling the warmth of the sun, smelling the aroma of pine, or damp earth, and listening to the quiet or the chirping of insects and birds, that’s being in the moment and what a better way to paint! I still use photos. For instance, I was painting a barn with a rusted old pickup truck in the foreground. We got a very late start and the sun was going down. It was getting cold and windy and I didn’t pack a warmer jacket. So rather than finish painting the grass which was half of the painting, I already had photos on my digital camera, and finished the painting later inside. But, having been out at this location and just absorbing the spirit of the place and the weather, all those feelings came back to me when I printed my reference photos and finished the painting.
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA
A camera has the ability to capture images “on the fly,” when we can’t stop to paint or sketch. I took a picture years ago of a crumbling, old, abandoned farmstead. The camera caught details I would have never remembered. But it also caught bush and weeds, outhouses, and a windmill — all the stuff I didn’t want to clutter up my picture. So my imagination set to brush clearing for the forlorn look I wanted. Thus the painting — even though a photo-realistic one — soon left the realm of the real to venture into the ideas and thoughts of this artist.
My camera did not capture any tractors or other rusty farm implements often hiding in the weeds at such sites. So I added an old car to my scene and painted in lots of grass around the house and auto. Since the area I grew up in has areas almost devoid of trees, my mind dictated taking my picture to its logical extreme, a land that is flat and totally devoid of anything but tall grass which I “sprayed” into place with my art program. The results were something that looks somewhat like a photograph, but one that could only be taken by my mind.
Enjoy the past comments below for The big three…
View from our Villa, Santorini, Greece
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jeanie Jones of Lubbock, TX, USA who wrote, “This is some of the best advice I have ever seen in print.”
And also Richard Nelson of Maui, HI, USA who asked, “What would Picasso, Matisse, Pollock and friends say of Bouchard’s three sources? And how in the world did Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel without photo reference?”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “Artists should never work from photos.”
And also Linda Blondheim of Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote, “I have learned the value of doing small studies on location and then using them along with my imagination to do better, more complex paintings in the studio.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, “In my very humble opinion, Sara Genn’s Lake O’Hara paintings are a breakthrough. They are awesome!”
And also Susan Schneider of London, England who wrote, “Yesterday I was in Bunhill cemetery (where William Blake and Daniel Defoe were buried) doing a watercolor of the stones and plane trees.”
And also Kate Ramsey who wrote, “I find much of your wisdom adheres to my unconscious and comes forth at odd times, helpfully.”
And also Janet Badger of Bangor, ME, USA who wrote, “Drawing a live person in public is like what a musician feels playing in front of an audience — the energy, the connection, the immediacy. It’s a rush!”
And also Sonia Gadra of Frederick, MD, USA who wrote, “What is the correct way to photograph work to be juried for an exhibition?”
(RG note) Thanks, Sonia. Different exhibitions require and stipulate different mediaslides, prints, etc. More and more digital photos are being asked for, and submissions may often be made online. Photographing in open shade on a bright day is standard and generally gives truthful colour rendition. Hang and photograph work vertically to avoid “sky glare.” Use the ‘raw’ or other high-pixel setting on your camera in case photos need to be printed or used in catalogues.
And also Pepper Hume of Spring, TX, USA who wrote, “A photo you took yourself is a tiny time machine. You know where you were standing. You hear the sounds. Best of all, you know why you took that photo.”
And also Lorelle Miller of CA, USA who wrote, “Excessive realism with a dash of draftsmen-like technicality. Self-indulgent emotionalism with a side of expressionistic flair. These two fit tightly in my psyche like conjoined twins fighting for attention.”
And also Pat Weekley of Clovis, NM, USA who wrote, “I would like you to address the subject of matting or framing paintings. Some folks frown on colored mats saying it takes away from the work… this can also be said of the frame.”
(RG note) Thanks, Pat. If you’re talking about matting or framing during the painting process or on location, I’m a believer. There are several reasons: Framing helps the creator make compositional decisions, locates faults, prevents overworking, and encourages the artist to move on. Coloured mats are okay, but neutral grays or off-whites are your most reliable friends.