Photographic perfection

Dear Artist, Recently, Ben Novak of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada wrote, “Are traced or projected photos an acceptable way to draw? When proportions and perspectives are too perfect, when shadows are perfect and contrasting as in bright sunlight, when stop motion is involved, where is the artist’s personal feeling? Does not the best art arise from slight imperfections and personal ways of rendering?” Thanks, Ben. Your questions will be argued as long as there are inventive minds. In the meantime, here are some thoughts: Used as a tool in painting, photography may diminish passion and sincerity. A certain roughness and distortion is more convincing as the genuine article. Think of Vincent Van Gogh’s use of incorrect and overly strong colours. His lack of sophistication gave character and distinctiveness. Art communicates best when we feel the artist’s struggle. Used as a tool in painting, photography may be the enemy of style. By showing what is, photography misses out on what could be. Simply put, it’s valuable to run an image through the filter of the human imagination rather than the lens of a camera. Think again of Vincent Van Gogh — those cypresses of his twist into the sky like tortured flames. I took photos all over Provence and found none just like his. Used as a tool in painting, photography may not, after all, produce perfection. Photography is forever at war with knowledge and truth. Horses, for example, generally need to be painted with longer legs than a camera might indicate. In portraiture, the human neck often needs to be longer, or thinner, or less strained. Think of John Singer Sargent who took well-heeled reality and added elegance and dignity. For the painter, photography is a brilliant tool and a cruel master. Because of the complexity and consequent difficulty of drawing hands, I often mention them as a legitimate use of photographic reference. But think of Egon Schiele: In his short, brilliant life he attempted the understanding of hands. His hands are extensions of the emotions and windows to the soul — the second most expressive part of the human body. Stress, languor, stupor, and wisdom exude from Egon’s hands.

“Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian”
pencil drawing
by Egon Schiele, 1914

Best regards, Robert PS: “We are the strongest filter we can place before the lens. We point the lens both outward and inward.” (John Paul Caponigro) Esoterica: Another problem that besets photo-dependent painters lies in the process by which reference is collected. Especially since the advent of digital, artists snap willy-nilly without looking and seeing the subjects they might render. While “sorting it out in the studio” has some value and “random catches” may provoke new ideas, true visual understanding is often lacking in photo-based work. Jurors of juried shows often remark on this condition. Sitting in front of a subject and sweating it out may be the old fashioned path but, in my opinion, it can produce better art. “Cavete camerae,” said the well-known Roman philosopher and poet Kjerkius Gennius, (36BC) “Beware of the camera.”   Egon Schiele’s hands 080913_robert-genn5 080913_robert-genn6 080913_robert-genn7 080913_robert-genn8           Need for personal involvement by Brian Care, Toronto, Canada / San Miguel de Allende, Mexico  

“San Miguel 2”
watercolour painting
by Brian Care

Making art is all about risk-taking and exploring and trying something different. Anything that encourages us to be representationally true to our subject brings with it the possibility of limiting our ability to feel and express those feelings in our work. Photos can remind us about certain details and may help us to decide on a certain compositional arrangement… but then, let’s put it and other measurement tools away and let ourselves become part of the reinterpretation process — in every line, brush stroke and application of colour. One of the first exercises I have my students do is a series of hand studies… the model’s always there! Many of them are so full of character that they resemble topographical maps or geological formations and are not far off the wonderful and sometimes bizarre drawings of Egon Schiele.   Art and science are complementary by Makiwa Mutomba, Pretoria, South Africa  

“Wet sands”
oil painting based on photographs
by Makiwa Mutomba

Cameras are getting better every day, so much that I believe in the future, you will be able to wake up in the morning and put on special contact lenses (photoeyes) that will be able to capture everything you see during the day — wirelessly in 3D and astounding quality. And be able to playback and “re-live” the moments later at your easel, in the studio, not on a lousy L.E.D screen, but in your mind, just as it happened. And when that time comes, will all those artists who believe cameras are inherently evil and have no place in art, cry foul and stop painting altogether, and will you need to sign a sworn affidavit to the effect that you don’t own “photoeyes” when entering a juried show? Art and science are not enemies at all, they are complementary. In fact, science forms the building blocks of Art. Life changes every millisecond. Cameras have their place in painting. Know it and use them when the need arises. There are 3 comments for Art and science are complementary by Makiwa Mutomba
From: Sherry Purvis — Aug 13, 2013

What an absolutely beautiful painting this is. Your colors are so rich and vibrant. Thanks for sharing this painting.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Aug 13, 2013

Upon first look, I thought it a beautiful version of a familiar theme, then when I saw it close up and saw the paint-knife technique, it made intensely clear the feeling of the nature of wet sand and its sculptural capacities…I love the painting!

From: Keena — Aug 13, 2013

Goergeous painting! I appreciate your insights. I can’t wait for those camera-eyes to be invented – that would be a LOT of fun! And very creative :)

  Photography makes you a better painter by Stan Moeller, York, ME, USA  

“A Paris Street”
oil painting
by Stan Moeller

It’s not so much about using photographic tools but more how you use them. Artists have been using toolsto help them paint as long as there has been painting. In the 1880s, 80 percent of photographers were working for painters, according to Ross King, The Judgment of Paris, 2006. I have seen the photos used by painters from Norman Rockwell to Andres Zorn. John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas, and Joaquin Sorolla y Basstida. They all loved photography. In David Hockney’s book, Secret Knowledge, he gave strong evidence that as long as there have been mirrors and the camera obscura, painters have used any and all tools possible to help them reach their goals. I believe that painting from life can make you a better painter, but also believe that using a reference photo is not sacrilege. I teach plein air painting but also use video (my preferred method), and still photo references in my studio. Painters could not even understand how a horse ran before the invention of photography. The key (I believe), is using photography as an inspiration and not a crutch. There are 4 comments for Photography makes you a better painter by Stan Moeller
From: Mike Barr — Aug 12, 2013

I agree with Stan, there is nothing wrong with using photographic reference as long as we are not slaves to them. I paint a lot of rainy street scenes and I’m certainly not one to paint in rainy weather – the camera is the way to go. The problem comes when artists trace and paint. Use the photo as a guide – leave stuff out, use different colors and add stuff in. Photos are good servants but poor masters!

From: Sharon knettell — Aug 13, 2013
From: Stan Moeller — Aug 13, 2013

I agree that an artist should practice and have good drafting skills. I studied life drawing for years at the University and I still hire a live model to keep my chops up. I just can’t ask my favorite model at the Monhegan House to pour a cup of coffee for a few hours as customers come and go… If that is what I want to paint I don’t want to put limits on my creativity. Stan

From: tatjana — Aug 14, 2013

I had a great teacher who used to shout “if it was good enough for Sargent, it’s good enough for me!”, whenever someone mentioned any rules that this great artist has successfully broken.

  Vermeer’s camera by Tom Plummer, Salt Lake City, UT, USA  

original painting
by Tom Plummer

I must respectfully disagree that photography is “a cruel master” and that it “misses out on what could be.” Several years ago, when I was looking at a number of Vermeer paintings, it struck me that they had a striking affinity with photographs. About two minutes of research produced the title of a book by Philip Steadman, Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind Vermeer’s Masterpieces, which I bought and read with surprise. Steadman makes a convincing case that Vermeer, in at least some of his masterpieces, was using a “camera obscura” which enabled him to create a precision that has puzzled many art historians.     There are 4 comments for Vermeer’s camera by Tom Plummer
From: Len P. — Aug 12, 2013
From: Peter Brown — Aug 13, 2013

Vermeer’s day job was as a lens grinder.

From: Anonymous — Aug 14, 2013

I have heard a religiously plain air artist / instructor comment to this argument that “Vermeer wasn’t a very good artist”…to which I was speecheless. I guess if you are selling apples, putting down oranges won’t work for everyone.

From: Anonymous — Aug 14, 2013

yes, and he was a very busy guy with inn-keeper wife, all the inn staff and 11 children!

  Avoiding the boring by Nikolay Semyonov, Rostov-na-Donu, Russia  

original painting
by Nikolay Semyonov

“When proportions and perspectives are too perfect…” (Ben Novak) What an excitingly artistic delusion! There may be nothing as boring as perfection. Luckily, no one has achieved it yet. No photography may pave the way to it. Wabi-sabi is the spice of creation: where the eye sees no way to involvement may look boring. I also disagree about photography showing what it is as it just produces its own reality, which are plenty. This is especially clear where a short- or long-focus lens is used. Like the brush in good hands, the camera may assist the owner to complement what is seen via the viewfinder with their own emotions, which may affect the viewer this way or other. It is clear that photography is just another tool of the artist and, like anything under the sun, it is far from perfection. Therefore, a photograph may assist the artist in keeping in memory lots of what belongs to the spot they intend to paint, but why base your creation on what’s been merely thoughtlessly grabbed through the lens and stored in your matrix? Nothing is best perceived than changes, and the true reality is never stale or stiff. No matter what you create, be it a photo or canvas, unless there’s the viewer’s imagination involved, your art is stiff and stale. In other words, there should always be room in your work to let the viewer in. Art is the dialog between its creator and consumer. No dialog, well… no art. Art has little to do with technologies. It is your heart that matters. There are 3 comments for Avoiding the boring by Nikolay Semyonov
From: Sarah — Aug 13, 2013

What an intriguing painting. And your comment to “let the viewer in” is very helpful.

From: tatjana — Aug 14, 2013

It is delightful to read your words and see your painting, and all the way from Russia! Thank you!

From: Terrie Christian — Aug 15, 2013

I so agree that perfection is boring. When I go to a gallery the ones that have photo perfection are not the ones that pull me in for enjoyable viewing. Also, while painting, trying for perfection hurts the joy that I receive in creating art. Play with change is much more fun!

  Retain total freedom by Ron Ruble, Brooklyn, WI, USA  

“Birth of Icarus”
original graphite
by Ron Ruble

I feel that your readers would be better served in this instance by acknowledging that photography, along with digital, a ruler, and tracing paper, are merely tools to aid the creative process, not the product itself. To limit a person from using these technical tools would be no different than taking away their paints and brushes. A purist enjoys familiar ground, and that is a limiting formula, and not one to follow for the creative spirit within us. We are not engineers seeking parameters. We have a focused goal, and that is to make something special, by any means possible. Tools are merely to assist us in reaching that goal, no more, no less. So do whatever you want; copy, trace, use photos, collage, offset, and digital imagery. Don’t get stuck in the mire of the familiar with its rules and limitations. Retain total freedom of expression using whatever blows your skirt. There are 2 comments for Retain total freedom by Ron Ruble
From: Kris — Aug 13, 2013


From: Anonymous — Aug 14, 2013

Your words also apply to creative engineering, well said!

  Photo-based portraits get attention by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia  

“Hometime – Waymouth St”
acrylic painting
by Mike Barr

Trace and paint is quickly becoming the stock-in-trade method for many artists. The results are often stilted and lack passion. The drawing may be impeccable using this method, but too perfect to be believable. In proportion as to how hard we try to paint like a photograph, we fail as artists. The famous Archibald (in Australia) prize for portraiture is a case in point. The trend is to paint huge portraits and this cannot be done successfully without tracing from a projected image. An art critic noted about the show that “the reliance on photography is still an overwhelming and crippling problem.” Photographic-style portraits are ten a penny and lack soul, yet they still get recognition, particularly by the public that think a painting is wonderful if it looks like a photo! In my opinion, less than perfect drawing with wonderful tonal work wins out every day. The artists’ job is to give an impression of what they see and not a photographic representation of all the visual facts – we have photography to do that. There is 1 comment for Photo-based portraits get attention by Mike Barr
From: Fran — Aug 14, 2013

Just a large scale shouldn’t be the only reason to believe that a portrait is a traced photo. There is a traditional method of transferring hand drawn cartoons to a larger size – similar to what fresco artists did. Also I don’t buy that “passionless” works must be from a photo. Some artists simply have a greater sensitivity to communicate passion than others, regardless of their method. Traced photos are difficult to identify without any doubt, but the artist’s output can be revealing. We all know how long it takes to paint a detailed portrait, so seeing a huge body of such work produced in a short time period is a telling sign that heavy duty shortcuts are being employed (might be even outsourced from China art factories). But this is something that only interests other artists. The public, and even most collectors, don’t care. This doesn’t depress me – the most precious, time enduring art has always been nurtured by the elite (not in the snobbish sense, but just due to the small number of people who care about it). If you care, you are in this small minority, and so am I, that’s just the way it is. We chose this profession, so might as well accept it’s reality.

  Gaining freedom from bondage by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA  

“Millens Bay Church”
watercolour painting, 18 x 30 inches
based on photographs
by Paul Allen Taylor

In the beginning of a painter’s journey, I know that most rely on the camera for the image to paint, as I did it too. My meeting Tony Couch taught me that it’s okay to get away from the photo as the completed image, but utilize it in collecting references. As he was told by Ed Whitney, we are “shape makers and symbol collectors.” I then was freed from the bondage of the camera photo to create my own ideas and designs from those collections of symbols and shapes. Often referred to as composites, many of my paintings depict a region, but aren’t a literal representation. There are 2 comments for Gaining freedom from bondage by Paul Allen Taylor
From: Elaine — Aug 13, 2013

Your painting just captured my heart. It has such innocence and simple beauty to it. There is a cleanness and clarity to it that I just love. Your painting skills are so quietly obvious….it makes me want to go and find Millen’s Bay!

From: Paul — Aug 13, 2013

Hi Elaine, Thanks for your kind words. This little church rests on the shore of the St. Lawrence River between Clayton NY and Cape Vincent. I passed it several times as I do many places, always saying, “I gotta paint this.” I had to move the sign within view for the painting. It’s not really there. So, if you ever go to the river, you can find it, but you may never want to leave the place.

  A world of new subjects by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“Car waiting”
original painting, 32 x 45 inches
by Jeffrey Hessing

Since its invention, photography, projected or not, has been a tool for painters. Like any tool, the question is, “Did the artist use it well?” I was surprised to discover that Jean-Michel Basquiat worked from photos as did Francis Bacon. There is nothing photographic about their paintings. Richard Estes and Chuck Close did fantastic things with projected photos. I preferred the freedom and emotionality that comes from a direct dialog with nature, places and things. I worked from life for over thirty years before allowing myself to paint from photos. This was mainly because some subjects were almost impossible to do on the spot. I could not see myself setting up in the middle of Times Square or Nanjing Road. Photography has opened up a world of new subjects.   Still suffering from photo work by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  

“Mozart’s Mistress”
pastel painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Sharon Knettell

I had a very successful career as an illustrator even though I really was a Fine Arts major. Illustration was a necessity as a career move; it was fun but ultimately unfulfilling and, in the end, it was not lucrative as the bottom fell out of the illustration market in the late 1980’s. I figured I would do portraits as I had been doing figurative work, plus illustrations of stars for movie posters and product endorsements. Well, I photographed, traced and painted a series of standard portrait fare – executives, children, upscale women, and even won best of show in the Copley Society for one piece. I might add I had never had any training in portraiture. The commissions started coming. There I was day after day, tracing, transferring and copying photographs. The clients were pleased because I flattered the hell out of them, but I knew that this was not art, that this was not painting. By the way, my method is common in the industry as I got to know quite a few people who allowed that this was their method as well. I had always gone to museums, especially The Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went to school, so I knew what good painting was. One of my favorite paintings as a student was El Greco’s haunting portrait of a priest: Fra Hortensio Felix Paravicino. It was as far from photographic as you can get — I still remember it. Remembering this painting and impressed by the work of (among others) John Singer Sargent, Gainsborough, Manet, etc., I went to the museum with a purposeful eye. I was shocked and humiliated at the realization that I was no more than a photo-copyist with nothing of my own soul in my work. In tears I wanted to slide down on the floor and weep. In comparison, my work was shallow and flat and lacked the vivid color and humanness of being painted from life. Even Roberta Smith, the vaunted New York Times art critic, is getting bored with paintings from photo-shopped pictures with their slick and shallow surfaces. I stopped doing portraits and vowed, no matter how difficult, to stop working from photos. I have not gone back. I suffer still from having worked from photos — I cannot seem to accept from myself work that doesn’t look quite commonly representational. I long to put two eyes on the side of a head a la Picasso. I live in dread of perceived drawing flaws, but it is not really drawing flaws, but what the general public, mired for over a century in a photographic reality, sees as great work. There are 5 comments for Still suffering from photo work by Sharon Knettell  
From: Anonymous — Aug 13, 2013

Terrific contribution. You articulated so well my struggle, too. Thank you.

From: Margo — Aug 13, 2013

Thank You Sharon…I feel inspired to finally ignor that loud critic inside myself

From: Carol Reynolds — Aug 13, 2013

Your post hit home with me. Not only because I have lived in New England and also visited the Boston Museum, where I was tremendously inspired to attempt to excel in my painting. Many, many years later now and I still use my photographs as references for most of my serious work. Yet I have many of the same feelings you have experienced and explained so well. Your painting above is wonderful.

From: Marie Pinschmidt — Aug 13, 2013

Interesting comments. I’ve done portraits using photos but only when the subject is dead or unavailable. Photos are not reliable if you copy or project them. I prefer painting from life but use photos for the clothing etc. to eliminate the hours of “posing”. Any art work from photos should be interpreted,not copied. Often when I use a photo for landscape, etc. the finished painting looks nothing like the photo – in fact, I often forget the photo exists. It is always the finished product that counts.

From: Anonymous — Aug 18, 2013
    Copies are copies, whatever the source by Helene Delmaire, Lille, France  

oil painting
based on photographs
by Helene Delmaire

If you can interpret reality like Van Gogh, why can’t you interpret a photograph? Who says you need to mindlessly copy? You can change forms and colours all you like. Of course I understand that with a photograph, being a finished image in and of itself, the temptation to copy is greater than when painting from life, because it seems easier, and it is set. But all it takes is to be aware of this danger — then you can consciously avoid it. Once you make the mental move, it can become natural — the photograph becomes merely a handy tool, rather than a crutch. I was always told during my atelier studies (at the Angel Academy in Florence) that “you should never paint from photographs.” That is true if you want to do atelier paintings, with perfect contrast and subtleties in the darks as well as in the lightest lights, which the eye catches much better than a camera, however expensive the lens. But if you have a certain personal palette, if you are already confident in your own style, if you know where you are going or want to go, then the photograph becomes the servant, rather than the other way around. Not everybody has enough money to pay for hours of models, either. Moreover, knowing that a camera distorts reality slightly, knowing that you can’t really trust it, value or color, can allow you to free yourself from it. Reality is reality, you can’t argue against it, whereas you can always tell yourself that the photo is already one interpretation of reality, hence not the “truth.” It’s just a matter of not mindlessly copying what you see. But so is it when it comes to painting from life. There are many technically mind-blowing paintings from life, but I often find them just as dull as photograph copies. Copies are copies, whatever the source. There are 2 comments for Copies are copies, whatever the source by Helene Delmaire
From: Sherry Purvis — Aug 13, 2013

I love this painting. Your composition alone speaks volumes and no, I do not feel the camera was involved in your decision making processes. I am a studio painter and work from only my own photographs. Even when you use the camera, you are composing and changing the scene to meet your needs later. Great job.

From: Leslie bishop — Aug 13, 2013

Great discussion with some wonderful perspectives. This is my big struggle! As an amateur and late beginner, I am only now learning to break away from the idea that unless it looks like the actual subject, it must be tweaked and molded toward that end. What wants to to travel from my core being to the canvas surface and what lands on the canvas surface are two totally different ‘animals!’ So out of desperation to express the personal creative impulse, I find it tremendously satisfying to make up a picture in my mind, then paint with no other visual input. I can tweak, reshape, recolor, resize any and every aspect I want to make it become something satisfying to me. The entire process is challenging. The problems to resolve are many. The end product originates from my mind and reads ‘Leslie’ from canvas edge to canvas edge. Only then do I feel like its a true original from start to finish. Using photos and other visual techniques are wonderful impetus for planting a seed of an idea. Letting an idea spring to life is the goal for me.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Photographic perfection

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 08, 2013

“Are traced or projected photos an acceptable way to draw?” NO!

From: Mike Barr — Aug 08, 2013

Rick I agree. Trace ‘n’ paint is quickly becoming the new way to paint, as if painting photographically is the aim of being an artist – which of course it is not! Photographs provide visual facts – paintings should provide feel, passion and impressions.

From: Harry — Aug 09, 2013

I couldnt agree more with you Robert. True skill and genuine creativity is not copying. Referencing a photo is fine, but the art is found in the human interpretation.

From: Consuelo — Aug 09, 2013

It all comes down to conveying ‘creative depth’. Traced art demonstrates a boring ‘shallowness’ of creativity while ‘free-hand’ art stirs up the beautiful muck at the bottom.

From: ReneW — Aug 09, 2013

Leave your camera at home and go out with a sketchbook and interpret what you see. Study the shapes, relationships, values, colors and perspective. When you get the essence down on paper you have something to work with. you can take photos as reference but don’t copy that photo. Camera’s lie, they don’t tell the truth. So work from a sketch, enlarge it to the size you want and then paint. You will be pleasantly surprised with your resulting work.

From: Ryan Fox — Aug 09, 2013
From: Jeanean Songco Martin — Aug 09, 2013
From: Dwight — Aug 09, 2013

Like all “tools” in the hands of humans, from fire to the internet, photography can be used for good or bad. We are all victims of the dilemma of being human. Always be aware of this life dichotomy.

From: ebeth — Aug 09, 2013

While I am skeptical of tracing and painting for photorealism, I use photography in other ways, as creations in themselves and sometimes paint them. I also did a series years ago where I did trace shapes (not specific objects) and am not at all ashamed of this series. Photography is a wonderful tool. It just depends on how you choose to utilize it.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Aug 09, 2013

Projecting or tracing an image onto your canvas to paint is akin to a Pop singer lip syncing someone else’s voice or using an auto tuner to smooth out their pitch. Sorry folks, the skill of drawing what we see is what separates the Visual Artist from the wanabees so learn to draw or take up knitting.

From: CW Nave — Aug 09, 2013
From: Brian Stone — Aug 09, 2013
From: Paul Joseph Schleitwiler, FCM — Aug 09, 2013

The major problem with using a photograph slavishly is that the camera is monocular, one-eyed, with concomitant distortions. But a populace accustomed to such distortions is often not aware of them when presented with such “art”. This does not mean photographs cannot be art. I just question the sense of reproducing them by hand. As for the question “Does not the best art arise from slight imperfections and personal ways of rendering?”, the best art is that which evokes emotions and wonder in the observer. How and how well it is made are secondary usually and unimportant in the greatest art.

From: Bill Hogue — Aug 09, 2013

I travel a lot and in many of my paintings that involve architecture, I use a photo. In all cases I have to, not only straighten the walls but correct the perspective. While the perspective may appear correct, it never is. Dallas, TX

From: Leslie Tejada — Aug 09, 2013

Just want to point out that a camera has only one vantage point and lens, and humans are binocular. We see slightly around an object, and therefore art based on how we see, e.g. when painting a portrait, is very different, and more real, than what a photograph records. Painting based on photographs almost always has an “unreal” quality about it. It says something about the state of mind of our culture that we have gotten to think that the images provided through photography depict “reality.” What with all the handheld distractionary devices, many have simply stopped really seeing at all.

From: Paul Paquette — Aug 09, 2013
From: Melinda Hoffman — Aug 09, 2013

I use the photograph as a guide…to literally spend time at distant subjects can be expensive and sometimes inconvenient, so I take pictures. Sometimes many to remind me of the sense of place. I then use an inexpensive software to manipulate …crop (sometimes over many weeks) several of the favorite subjects. Then I move to canvas. I use that manipulated work to give me a few lines and proportions. I place the darks usually first and then from there only occasionally refer to the photo. Most university classes acknowledge the opportunity to use newer technology as art tools. And history will tell the story of what dynamics this will offer. Many of us are not masters and will never be. And the occasional reminder of needing to paint from our “being” is always in our creative spirit’s best interest.

From: Jeanie Stumbo Zaimes — Aug 09, 2013

While everything you say about depending on a camera is true, there are many ways to edit out the exactitude of a picture. As someone who is physically limited, I am often dependent on pictures I take, especially while painting in the winter months. One can draw on tracing paper, cut around the major objects and arrange them in a manner that speaks to one’s own heart. The same with color. Why would I want to reproduce the color of a photo? The emotion of art often lies (especially in landscape) in pushing the colors way beyond “real.” But none of that negates the value of having a photo from which to start. It’s a reference tool, just like any other.

From: Jill Brooks — Aug 09, 2013
From: Sandra McKeehan — Aug 09, 2013
From: Dan Spahn — Aug 09, 2013
From: Libby Fife — Aug 09, 2013

I do think there are two other things to consider when using photographs, especially when tracing them. As in anything, a lack of understanding of something will produce strange and artificial results. I include using photographs exclusively as a means to produce art. Used in conjunction with live drawing and field notes and a solid understanding of composition, I find that photographs are really very helpful. But, those three things I mentioned should come first. They really are the building blocks of some good art, in my opinion and limited experience. The second thing I would mention is how photographs can help. I always look for the upside of things and photos and their foibles are no exception. As an example, they are great tools for learning about contours, different shapes, and a reduction of light and shadow to just 2-3 values. They can also teach you to gather up values and consolidate them. Lastly, they can teach you about flatness versus volume. All of this is of course in conjunction with what I mentioned above-there is no substitute for experience.

From: Catherine Stock — Aug 09, 2013
From: Jennie Rosenbaum — Aug 09, 2013
From: Adrienne Moore — Aug 09, 2013
From: Ingrid Mueller — Aug 09, 2013

This subject can be argued ’til hell freezes over, however, I feel the root of the issue lies in the definition of ART. The use of projected images and tracing does not involve perception or self expression. In fact, it is a kin to plagiarism. I have tried tracing a photo and felt guilty with the completed painting (although it was technically excellent), it was not mine. Using photographs is often necessary, as one paints what and how one views it (perception), but tracing a subject verbatim may be considered skill rather than art. Technology can work hand in hand with artful creation, but should not replace it. I recently took a stone carving workshop at Haliburton School of Art. Our instructor was a purist, and insisted we use hand tools only. After the third day, I was tired and frustrated and switched to power tools. Was my work hand carved? When a person is stuck, photo projection might help, but should not be the foundation of the creation.

From: pat donnelly — Aug 09, 2013

Art (and lower case ‘art’) isn’t the tool, it’s what an artist does with the tool. Cameras, chisels, paint, are all tools. I have a Marchi photograph (Boston, MA) that is unquestionably art. (and, for the record, ‘camera’ means area, space, room – not photographic tool.)

From: Tess — Aug 10, 2013
From: Reachel Mayeur — Aug 11, 2013

I have always used photography in conjunction with my art, not to be a slave to the photos, but to use them as a guide, a reference, a stepping off point for what I would like to incorporate into my art. My photos are never “willy-nilly”. My photography is taken as seriously as my painting–my other art form. For me photography is a form of reference used whether itis for a hyper-realistic rendering, an abstract or whatever I’m up at the time I want to create art. I volunteer tutor Intermediate/Advanced Drawing at a senior program where I use photos as samplings, examples of great art and to encourage them to find what they like out there and copy it. Because we dissect photographs and practice what they see, my students from gone from a 3/4 to a 10 in their drawing skills. They learn as the old masters did. I encourage them to study what is before them and ask, “What am I seeing?” “How did they accomplish that?” “What am I not seeing?” You can’t pull this out of thin air. I feel that the only time using photography is “wrong” is when you use the photographs that are not yours and fully confiscate every aspect of it and claim it as yours. Plagiarism is plagiarism. Use what you need as a guide, use work that you admire as a catalyst for your own work. You are not likely to duplicate verbatim someone else’s particular work. You just may learn to be a better artist though, learning more about composition, value, color, etc. Go for it, expand your knowledge and practice until your hands hurt and your eyes tear up. Photography is a tool. Your brain in a tool. Use them both together create and learn something new, something better. You can only grow as an artist.

From: M. Jeanice Smith — Aug 11, 2013

I could not agree with you more. IF you are photo-dependent, then your artistic nature/abilities suffers greatly. I know a couple of artists who project their picture on a canvas, trace it meticulously and then proceed to paint by numbers, maybe adding a few things on their own like a tree branch or a blade of grass. They show their works in a gallery, who has no idea how the work was produced, put a big $ on it and appeal to viewers that like their bright colors and precision realism to decorate their living rooms, matching their couch or rugs. This makes them a successful artist in their minds, because they have sold a copy of a picture and the money is their ultimate goal. I confess this type of thing makes my skin crawl and I want to out them any chance I get. I feel as though they are debasing myself and my fellow artists, the whole world of art with their hidden lies. Yes, they have developed skill but without a soul, or artistic bent of any kind. But that skill does not give them the right to infringe on the honest souls of art and artists.

From: Alan Roe — Aug 11, 2013

It’s the old question are you a thinker who paints or a painter who thinks? Are they assembling the image as they go along or are they working towards a preconceived image or object before them? Most artists use tools when they need to depict an image. Trace an image on a mirror gives you the notion of perspective or look through a string or wire grid. The Camera Lucida and Camera Obscura, projectors, digital cameras, film cameras are some more mechanical/optical devices. Sight sizing, holding up you paintbrush to measure proportions etc., etc. All things to help an artist render a counterfeit of the object they are depicting. Colour theories, design and composition, formal art training, workshops, or doodling. Sable paintbrushes, or hogs hair, artists tube colours or house paint etc., again all affect the artists depiction. The tools being use have little to do with the art that is created, it’s the operator.

From: John Koehler — Aug 11, 2013

I use a lot of photos in my work as I am asked to paint loved ones, most of whom are dead. I prefer taking many photos of a living subject and then use them as a tool to create a portrait. The digital camera is a great tool, you can take many, many, photos of someone and then cull and combine them and decide on which ones are the best, even getting the clients opinion with a rough pencil drawing. Portrait artist <a target=_blank href=”″ title=”Art Quotes by Mary Cassatt”>Mary Cassatt</a> would go to the clients home with pencil and paper do many rough sketches. Then she would do several preliminary oil sketches and the client would then be allowed to pick out the one they liked. She would finish it to their satisfaction and the rest of the oil sketches were hers to finish as she saw fit. I discovered this when I went to a show opening in Orlando and saw a original painting done by Mary. It was incredible. As I was thumbing through a book about her and noticed several paintings very similar to the one hanging on the wall, the curator then explained to me how she did it. She lived most of her life in Paris, France and she would then ship them to New York or Philadelphia for sale. Mary was also a damn good business woman.

From: Tom Henderson Smith — Aug 11, 2013

To me the key to this issue is, as you put it: “For the painter, photography is a brilliant tool and a cruel master.” This brings it all down to one’s life-state. Am I enslaved to this photographic image or able to explore its painterly possibilities? I find that asking myself this question is a good rule of thumb when using photos as reference. Another is to only use photos I’ve taken myself on the principle that this is a visual prompt about an actual memory. For me the inner image of what I’ve experienced has to haunt me just as much as the photographic image. An image processing tool like Paintshop can be very useful too as a way of knocking photo references about, reducing their photo quality and enhancing whatever compositional qualities are latent in them as reminders of the raw visual response that led me to record the experience. Digital reference can then become a wonderful sketchbook tool. It’s curious that a brilliant photograph can often lead to a poor painting whereas a flawed photo can become a good jumping off point for painting. Some of my artist heroes were far from shy about using a camera of some kind. Vermeer, Degas, Sickert and Hockney come to mind initially. Each of them made paintings that could only be paintings, pieces with real presence that are far removed from copied photographs.

From: Elizabeth Wysosky — Aug 11, 2013

The only time I use the projector is if I have a commissioned wall to paint and don’t want to spend all the time sketching and want to get it done. Now upon saying that, the best, very best painting is done by sketching free hand or on the grid. And the grid for a time I thought was cheating. What do you think? And the Old Masters are the best because they did their work by hand and the imperfections etc. made their work the best. Or the best from our point of view. The projector gives you “pretty pretty” but not that wonderful artistic paintable look.

From: EK O’Connor — Aug 11, 2013

I attended a watercolor portraiture class where the instructor had us trace our photographs onto watercolor paper. Her defense: we already knew how to draw well and this was a painting, not a drawing class; some of the masters used a variety of projection devices or had students do their drawing; and even with our exercise to start the workshop (we were each given a projector-traced image of her grand-daughter), each of our paintings were significantly different because of our painting styles and ability. Not sure whether her defense of using a projector was convincing, I couldn’t help but observe that unskilled artists were no better with a projected image than if they’d drawn it themselves. Skilled artists’ paintings from the same image were vastly different from each other’s; it was difficult to attribute to the identical drawings. That said, I prefer to draw with paint — not with pencil. I was trained to “sketch” with ink, or with a monotone palette — not with pencil or pen. (Clearly, I’m not a photo-realist artist.) There are times, however, when the image of our delight is ephemeral: fleeting light; while traveling on a train; moving young subject. In those cases, I find a photo reference (with a capital R) a gentle and whisper to my artist’s memory, eye and intuition. In the case of painting what no longer exists (deceased persons, landscapes and buildings that no longer exist), it helps to learn as much as possible about the personality of the person or place. Regardless, I prefer photos as a potential reference point, not a replacement.

From: Dean Schafer — Aug 12, 2013

No need to get uptight about the camera and its uses in art and for other uses (like monitoring). Far more wonderful and controversial devices are coming.

From: Lyle Dennison — Aug 12, 2013
From: Jackie Knott — Aug 12, 2013

“Photographic perfection” is an oxymoron. Photography captures a camera lens image but cannot be perfect. Only the perfect lens of our eyes adjusts for size and depth: if you are going to use photos you must learn foreshortening and how to compensate for distortion. This isn’t an embarrassed anonymous email disparaging photo references but secretly using them. I have never traced or projected an image, but using photographs as reference is not the same comparative crutch. There are valid reasons to use digital photographs. Can we please admit that?

From: Gentlehawk — Aug 12, 2013

Another perspective….does the art evoke “emotion” from the viewer? I can really feel joy looking at a panoramic photo of the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite, or a bird, etc. or a beautiful painting of the same subject. If a person who has one of my paintings on the wall tells me that everytime they look at it, they feel “good”, then so do I.

From: Russ Hogger — Aug 13, 2013

There’s nothing wrong with working from photos, I do it all the time. I see no difference in painting outdoors or painting from photo reference. One still has to get out there and take them. As long as you know how to use photographs sensibly and realise that the camera does not always tell the truth, then they will work for you.

From: sharon jonas — Aug 13, 2013

I think an artist should use everything available to them to create their work. Paint with a stick, paint in Plein Air, use a photo, what’s the difference? It’s what is in us (our own invention) that makes the painting sing.

From: Gentlehawk — Aug 13, 2013

Sharon and Russ, well said! Create a good’un!

From: Brian Seed — Aug 13, 2013

Defrinitely a great topic for discussion. I spent 10 years of my life behind a camera and find that once again, I will repeat an old adage. “A camera has only one eye….and no brains” Cameras are everywhere these days but I see $1500 cameras slung around peoples necks and it is set to “Auto”. Speak to some people about f-stops and depth of field and one is met with a somewhat blank stare. Knowing how to use a camera to its utmost can bring all the qualities of the outdoors into the studio…. But it was the old masters who showed the photographer what lighting is all about….Rembrandt for example.

From: Stephen — Aug 13, 2013

I just had this conversation the other day with a visitor to our gallery and explained that some artists use projections in order to maintain proper proportions in their paintings. I am not a painter but a photo enthusiast and my take on this is that for those who are challenged by creating proper proportions, a projector can be useful. An artist can first draw their imagery on acetate then project it on a larger scale without losing the imperfectness of the original drawing. As for others who use photos/projectors, I think all tools available, be they brushes, scrapers, cheesecloth or whatever should be entertained as artistic possibilities to use at the artist’s discretion. As in photography, what really matters is not so much the method, but the reaction a piece elicits from the viewer, both positive and negative. If it stirs, it works. And as it is said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

From: Maurice Manderson — Aug 13, 2013

It is natural for humans to collect things. Photos by smartphones are the most brilliant collection media of our age. Humankind is readily able to preserve life itself–and share it–and it’s by and large free.

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 14, 2013

I am so tired of this discussion. But it is an accepted fact of life. I don’t have to directly deal with it, so I can not give it much thought. I saddens me people are doing it and they will never feel the joy and wonder of creating something from the heart. It is the way of the world these days. My productive days are numbered and I will go to my grave drawing the old fashioned way knowing I have accomplished something I can call my own produced from my ability-without aids. In the end, it only matters to me.

From: Sarah — Aug 16, 2013

I completely understand why the thought of using photos rather than an ‘old-fashioned’ hand tool such as pencil or charcoal depresses you Rick, but the idea that employing a camera instead in the process of capturing a moment or a subject results in non-creative heartless work is simply not true. As a painter who specialises largely in equestrian and canine portraiture, where accuracy is vital, I find the camera is an absolutely vital element in my toolbox. My subjects are never going to pose in the same position for hours on end (although of course I do also draw and sketch them from life) and approaching commissioned portraits of animals in the same way as one would for a humans is just thoroughly impractical. However there are several important provisos in use of photos as a basis for this kind of work… The first is that you need to know the nature of your subject intimately, not only by having a thorough understanding of anatomy and the way an animal moves, but also via actual one-to-one physical contact. I’m not entirely sure why this should be the case, but I’ve found over the years that when one ‘meets’ a horse or a dog and have had eye and hand contact with it, some kind of indefinable transfer of intimacy takes place and magic then happens back in the studio via one’s brush, resulting in a portrait which truly captures ‘soul’, even though it has been made from a ‘flat’ photo. For this reason alone I always insist on using my own images whenever possible. If the subject is on another continent however, or worse, deceased, then I am forced to consider the suitability of available photographic references VERY carefully. I often say ‘no’ at this point in fact as poorly lit, badly composed amateur snapshots are almost always a non-starter. The second most important proviso is pretty much the same thing – you have to be a darned good photographer, with as much technical knowledge of how to use your camera as a tool to achieve your creative aim as you have with your brush and paint… in other words, you must be an artist with both. So I don’t see my camera as an ‘aid’ or a crutch in anyway. It’s a fully integrated and vital element to my work as a painter. And yes, I confess I do trace a rough outline when I’m transferring to canvas, but the creativity has already begun long before this and continues right up to the point where I add my signature. All my work comes straight from my heart I hope!

From: Christine Versteeg — Aug 20, 2013

It is all too easy to see the world through a viewfinder and not really see.

From: B.J. Billups — Aug 24, 2013

What I have found with “amateur artists”…is like what you brought up: legs too short for either people or horses…why? Cause when the camera is “titled” to get objects “below” the eye level, the camera being further from the subject, also become smaller… I feel a camera can be used to shorten layouts, or “layins” when preparing a painting, but by no means is “CORRECT” more important than “PASSION”…as you pointed out with Van Gogh’s work, or many others thru the years. PASSION IS the only reason I feel for any artist is spend their time, painting! Otherwise, just get the camera out!

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Harbor Light

watercolour painting by Carol Lois Haywood, Sunnyvale, CA, USA

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