Making photos work

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Dear Artist,

Last weekend I attended an exhibition of the work of a wide range of painters. A lot of it was photo-derived — some of it really crackerjack — others not so hot. Why is it that some people can take photographic reference and make it exciting, while others only succeed in reproducing a photo?

A lot of it has to do with the analysis that an artist gives to the reference prior to picking up the brush. Here are a few ideas you might find useful: When you’re looking at a photo that you think might be made into a painting, clarify in your mind what was the main area or interest in the photo that attracted you in the first place. Will this focus area make the transition into paint? Which areas are worth keeping and which are to be left out? Will other elements need to be added? How and where can more “spirit” be added to this reference material? How can the final work be made to sing?

Now spend some time hunting down and making decisions about the innocent weaknesses in the photo that can lead to “photoism” in paintings. These may include lineups, convergence, homeomorphism, dead shadows, poor composition, detail overkill, amorphous and formless elements and problem areas in general. Sort out the elements that don’t look right and that will have to be re-designed. Also, don’t let yourself be distracted by colour. Local colour is often arbitrary and can be changed. In your mind’s eye, reduce your reference to black and white or some other narrow range. Now make a decision about an efficient order that you might work your way through. This requires sitting, looking and thinking. Focal areas — particularly difficult focal areas — ought frequently to be tackled first in order to give courage to the balance. On the other hand, an overall monochromatic lay-in goes a long way toward solving future problems. I believe in a holistic approach — here, there, everywhere, like a bee going to flowers. As well as the above, it’s a fresh and painterly look that shoots down the photo-paralysis, but that’s probably just a personal prejudice.

Photos, when processed through a creative mind, are the finest of servants. When they take control they can become miserable and demanding masters that are capable of ruining an otherwise joyous day. Have a good one.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “One way to get beyond the photo is to take a lot of photos of one subject. This helps you to see all the nuances as if you were painting from life.” (Theresa Bayer)

Esoterica: In the 19th century, painters like Corot and Courbet were both intrigued and intimidated by the artistry and truthfulness of the early photographs. It took the likes of the Impressionists to realize that painting had to make a turn and do something that photography couldn’t. E. J. Hughes said, “It is mostly due to the invention of the camera that all this design and emphasized paint quality have come into painting.” The camera is a brilliantly innocent device that inevitably forced modernism to happen.

 


The art of copying photos verbatim
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA
 

You have ignored the other school of thought, namely those artists who have made the photograph itself the subject of their art. They copy the photograph verbatim, with all its accidental flaws, awkward cropping, areas that are out of focus, etc. This concept may actually be the more significant invention in the evolution of art. Just like Pop art, it expanded our horizon toward a previously ignored realm of possibilities.

 


Personal photos a must
by Alan Morris, Sewickley, PA, USA
 

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“Decision in Boulachecke”
watercolour painting
by Alan Morris

When I returned from our last trip to Africa I had 1400 digital images to work with. I paint and sculpt almost exclusively from photos except for the rare plein air work. I have little success painting from photos that I did not take. Images that I take I am intimate with and carry a certain passion for the subject that I can later pass through into my painting or sculpture that I cannot achieve from someone else’s photo. Intimate knowledge of the subject is for me key to the success of the piece.

 

 

 


Deleterious short cut
by Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN, USA
 

I love photography as an art, but as a painter, I avoid it and never use it as reference. My personal view of painting is that the joy of painting lies precisely in the challenge of memory and the challenge of translation from the lived experience to the two dimensional or three dimensional symbol. In both areas, photos represent primarily a seductive but deleterious short cut.

 


Shortcomings of the camera
by Dick Nelson, Maui, Hawaii, USA
 

The painter might also take into consideration that a camera’s value range is more limited than ours. The camera is unable to accurately discriminate between colours in bright light and those in the shadows. If you choose to capture the subtle hues in the shade, the camera will relegate those in direct sunlight as white. Our eyes will see the full range of values, whether they are in direct light or in the shadows.

 


Black and white simplifies values
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA
 

When working from a color photo, I have at times found it helpful to use a black and white copy of the color photo as a reference. It automatically breaks it down into values and I can make different color choices if the image is lacking or over-demanding in areas.

 


Do drawing first
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA
 

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Conte crayon on paper
by Georges Seurat (1859-1891)

I am finding that it is useful to do drawings from a photograph first, instead of just gridding off a canvas and replicating the photo verbatim. It helps to throw some creative juice into the process, and edits out distracting elements while changing or emphasizing others. In fact, I’m going back to drawing again just for its own sake. I just rediscovered Seurat’s conte preparatory drawings which are amazing in their own right.

 


Benefits of going digital
by Carolyn Martin, Georgetown, ON, Canada
 

I’ve been taking many thousands of photos since I got my first digital camera three years ago. In the past, I could never afford to print my photos (with my heavy old 35 mm) so I never really took many. Now, I get pleasure by recording the same image — but it’s never the same. Clouds are always changing, light and shadows move, leaves are blown in different directions by the winds, rivers are shallow then full, people and animals leave their impressions on the landscape at various times, and we ourselves are different. Our feelings at the time can change the way we capture the moment. They allow us to see (or not see) the perfect picture. I’m now working on my 4th digital camera as I keep upgrading whenever I can afford it. I find that, with a better camera (more megapixels), I can zoom in to find sub-scenes within the original scene. Sometimes, I think that subconsciously that sub-scene is what originally attracted me to the larger picture. Because the digital camera is so small, I just put it in my pocket and take it along wherever I go.

 


Three part development
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
 

As I walk or ride the streets of Wellfleet, MA where I’ve opened my summer gallery, your letters speak volumes. As I learn more about this town and the life of the people, I also absorb the scenery through my digital camera. I don’t concern myself too much with the lack of light as I typically change it in my paintings anyway. I snap a few street scenes, zoom in, zoom out, grabbing detail so that I might understand the subject better. In my workshops I tell my students to learn what they can about the subject they want to paint. I also tell them if they paint from photos and paint all that they see, they will most likely paint something that they don’t understand. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean it has to be painted. I’m attempting 20 paintings in 20 days in Wellfleet, each from a sketch from my digitals. I always do a sketch to “plan out” the things I don’t want in my painting. Someone said: “If you don’t know what it needs, take something out”. As summer traffic has not picked up yet, I can do a painting a day. By editing my work, and not laboring with the design (I solve it first in the sketch), I can move confidently through the painting. I go on my initial inspiration and I act on it immediately with the sketch and paint it that day. I’m in the zone.

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the photo

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sketch

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final painting

 

 

 

 


Keep enjoying the photo
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Coquitlam, BC, Canada
 

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“Primrose”
watercolour painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

I’m amused when someone asks me to do a portrait of a family member from a “very nice black and white photo.” I get even more amused when they pull the tiny photo from their wallet. With that kind of reference, my advice is to keep enjoying the photograph.

 

 

 

 

 


Testing the photo route
by Jeanne Lachance, Goffstown, NH, USA
 

I get totally paralyzed when I try to paint from a photo. I’m leaving for Monhegan Island, Maine, tomorrow for a week. I love painting outdoors and I love using different colors. One of my instructors once told me that color doesn’t matter — it is only value that counts. So I want to paint 14 panels this week, two a day and I want to photograph everything as well. I’m also going to print your letter and show it to my artists friends and when I come back I’ll just see if I can paint as freely from a photo as I do in plein air.

 


Just pretend
by Julie Nilsson, Ft. Collins, DC, USA
 

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“Applewood pond”
original painting
by Julie Nilsson

I was for many years a purist when it came to plein air painting, until I happily discovered one rainy day, that in fact I could paint in the studio successfully from photos. I had a knowledge that I didn’t realize I had! My first love is still location painting, but now I also thoroughly enjoy the challenge of studio painting from those places I couldn’t, for whatever reason, set up and paint in. I usually enlarge my photograph to an 8″x 11″ and will often “blur” out the too sharp photo (with Photoshop) to simplify the large shapes of trees, structures, shadows on the ground, etc. Then I dive in with a very loose acrylic under-painting in the complimentary color of the final oil layer. I keep it as loose as possible, broad-wide brush strokes, and quickly, without losing the integrity of the subject. I put detail in at the end, the “frosting,” the fun part, yet only the bare minimum. It’s always a challenge; sometimes my brush sings its wonderful song, sometimes I wade through quicksand, but always I persevere in gratitude. This is the very same process I use on location. When I’m working in the studio I just pretend I’m there.

I was for many years a purist when it came to plein air painting, until I happily discovered one rainy day, that in fact I could paint in the studio successfully from photos. I had a knowledge that I didn’t realize I had! My first love is still location painting, but now I also thoroughly enjoy the challenge of studio painting from those places I couldn’t, for whatever reason, set up and paint in. I usually enlarge my photograph to an 8″x 11″ and will often “blur” out the too sharp photo (with Photoshop) to simplify the large shapes of trees, structures, shadows on the ground, etc. Then I dive in with a very loose acrylic under-painting in the complimentary color of the final oil layer. I keep it as loose as possible, broad-wide brush strokes, and quickly, without losing the integrity of the subject. I put detail in at the end, the “frosting,” the fun part, yet only the bare minimum. It’s always a challenge; sometimes my brush sings its wonderful song, sometimes I wade through quicksand, but always I persevere in gratitude. This is the very same process I use on location. When I’m working in the studio I just pretend I’m there.

 


Finish with a photo
by Shirlee Rainey, Miami, FL, USA
 

I’m a plein air painter finishing up my Masters degree. Now that it is so hot and rainy here in Miami, I cannot stand staying outdoors for long. When I was getting my BFA, I was always told painting from photos was a “no-no,” but even though I may start a painting on location, I seem to finish it with a photo as a reference. I’m becoming more and more concerned with making a painting and not so much with the location anymore.

 


Photos a trigger of experiences
by Judy Lalingo, Jarrettsville, MD, USA
 

Despite having teachers that frowned on the practice of using photos, I personally have no problem painting from my own. However, one thing that is vital to me is that the photos are merely a trigger, a reminder of what I have visually and viscerally experienced. Alex Colville‘s advice to painters is simply this: paint from your experiences. In the end, what can be so integral, so vital, as this?

 


Our sense of the image
by Kitty Wallis, Portland, OR, USA
 

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“Roher park”
original painting
by Kitty Wallis

I have found two ideas that I use when working from photos. First, I like to work from photos of places where I have painted en plein air. I not only have the ‘real world’ color and shadow information in my head, but I also have the being there, the smells, the sounds, the air, the rest of the world not shown in the photo.

Second, when doing a difficult commission from a photo of a deceased dad, for example, or a small snapshot of someone in the noonday sun with wells of shadow for eyes, I find this idea valuable: In the same way the karate practitioner must aim through the block to break it, the artist must aim thru the photo to the subject to find the elements that can barely be felt. We must not be stopped by or convinced by the photo, but always regard it as an incomplete image, a field sketch. We must rely on our sense of the image more than the photo.

 


‘High energy’ spot
by Richard Gentlehawk James, CA, USA
 

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“Window rock”
giclee
by Richard Gentlehawk James

Hi there, I like to work from photos and you’re right about the result being inspired or not… I find that I can put “Spirit” into a painting as I do it from a photo. I can “feel” the energy of the place… also a photo is needed for me when I’m in a place for a short time only. I can feel the energy of “being there” when I view the painting, and others can too. This one is from a spot in Idyllwild, California. My wife, Margaret, had taken a photo and when it was developed, an aura of purple was around the opening and I included it in the painting. She later saw a golden aura in the same place. It is a “high energy” spot. I think the painting captured that.

 


Style by alternating media
by Benedicte Delachanal, Montréal, QC, Canada
 

So many times in these letters I have found answers to my questions. This time it is in the response of Dawn Smith about style. It was expressed clearly for the first time. I am trying to “have a style” meanwhile I found it boring in others’ work when I see again and again the same thing, which I was calling style. For some, sameness or consistency is their way of expression. Reading this letter I see that my way is in alternating media, mixing them and not feeling inconsistent any more. Your letters and responses are my twice-weekly art sessions. I learn so many things.

 


Is that how you see me?
by Leonard Niles, Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England
 

Having no formal training or instruction I have had the freedom to explore every aspect of artistic expression from whatever period in history. I have been influenced by the work of many artists over the years through every century up to the modern day while fervently attempting to emulate some until finally I found my own niche. In later years I developed a style which could be loosely termed as Photorealism. The many portraits I’ve painted over the years have met with the approval of most admirers. This has included painting from photographs. Most people today have neither the time or the patience to be a sitter and would prefer me to work from photographs. The main thing that concerns them is a good likeness.

One of the emptiest expressions I hear is, ‘Is that how you see me?’ This means the artist has failed to capture the likeness. I believe in the freedom for all artistic expression whether it appeals to me or not.

 


Advice for signing paintings
by Isobel McCreight, Orillia, ON, Canada
 

Regarding Donna Kerlin’s question in the last clickback, I found the easiest way to sign a painting is to practice first with a small brush with at least 3/8th inch hair. The idea is to letter your name with only down strokes. A brush will not be pushed so you have to pull your brush with a liquid medium of whatever you work with. Use easily removable masking tape along the area you need in order to keep the lettering straight. I have a long name as well, so it works easy and fast and looks great and is consistent with each painting.

 

 

woa
 

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Storm Broken / Heart Suspended

oil painting on panel
by Cyn McCurry, Azle, TX, USA

 

You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Gail Glass of Austell, GA, USA who wrote, “I will put Mr. Genn’s suggestions into practice. They make sense and all the suggestions that he has made that I have tried in the past have worked well.”

And also Richard Finnell of NYC, NY, USA who wrote, “Yes, Robert, a lot of people can copy a photo what is the reason to paint it what can you see in the show in the painting that is not shown in the photo how can you put life in to it quite often I can see a good painting and look at the photo it was painted from and in some cases it will look alive and other cases it is just a copy as they say there are artists and there are artists you must feel what you are painting I wonder how many artists know what I am saying?”

And also Doug Mays of Stoney Creek, ON, Canada who wrote, “If God had created man/woman with the same eye/brain integration that would allow us to see the same flawless, focused images as today’s cameras achieve, I wonder if impressionism or even abstract art would have been created. Frankly, I’m glad we’re not perfect.”

 

 

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