Shoot the model


Dear Artist,

Toulouse-Lautrec remarked, “A professional model is like a stuffed owl. These girls are alive.” He was referring to the women in the brothel. He had a point. A pose, while worthwhile for its own sake, is also static.


“After the Bath, Woman Drying her Nape”
pastel on paper, 1898
by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

I often wonder what Michelangelo would have done with an instrument that froze his models in mid-action and left him to work them up at his leisure. As every artist who has used the method knows, photography’s a loyal slave and a tyrannical master. Here are a few ideas to prevent her from getting the better of you:

Take her seriously. These days, painters of many styles are also excellent photographers. They take pains to condense into the shoot all the potentials they might need. The first thing I do is take control of the light. Dark shadows from bright sunlight are to be avoided. Augmented open shade or indoors with floods permits modelling. Using blue (daylight) bulbs together with normal warmer lights gives subject focus and drama.Chuck the flash. Also, don’t let color confuse things — color is generally arbitrary for everything except skin tones. Shoot a roll or two in black and white. I have a little request of models that works wonders: “Please just be putty for me.” That way I can move in at will, adjusting hands, fingers, chins. Also, get them comfortable so they move around, feel free and loosen up. This way you can shoot fast, and get them in repose and at extensions. Use two cameras or one with a zoom — from about 35mm to 70mm.


pastel on paper, 1880-82
by Edgar Degas

A model shoot is a precious event. You can dine out for months on an afternoon’s work. Years later, proper photos become valuable resources which permit golden contemplation and the further injection of imagination that a life-studio cannot always fully support.

Best regards,





Portrait of Miss Cassatt,
“Seated, Holding Cards”
pastel on paper, 1876–8
by Edgar Degas

PS: “Every time I await a model, even when I am most pressed for time, I am overjoyed when the time comes and I tremble when I hear the key turn in the door.” (Eugene Delacroix)

Esoterica: A celebrated artist-model conspiracy was that of Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf, his neighbor in Chadds Ford. They met in secret over a span of seventeen years. Wyeth explored an enigmatic vision that raised the resulting works above photographic naturalism.

This letter was originally published as “Shoot the model” on November 28, 2000.





  1. Thank you for this somewhat comforting text. I have avoided painting from photos, although I have used them sometimes for references on form and color, many hours after painting a scene. I feel I can always tell when a painting is based on a photograph. Somehow it misses the immediacy and the looseness of a painting done in situ, be that a figure or a landscape or a city scape. I have used digital photos (B&W) as guides for form when doing commissions for people usually of their homes or other prized possessions. But here I feel I must capture the proportions as these subjects are recognized by the viewer and so they expect accuracy.

  2. Photos are very useful tools that can easily take over if you let them. An approach that I have found useful is to start with sketches and then photograph the model in the poses that seem best. Sketching makes me really look at the model and I see things that I never would through a camera. Then, when I shoot the reference photos, I shoot lots of them from different angles, zooming in for details, backing out for the overall composition, and maybe trying different lighting. Then I’ll work up the painting to a certain level using photo references. That lets me take my time to refine the pose and make changes as needed. I’ll finish by having the model come back in for final touches on color, lighting, and so on. Photos just can’t replace a real live person. One more thing: when I work with models, I only give them general guidance. I’d much rather have them find their own natural pose. When my directions are too specific, then the pose looks forced, like a stuffed owl.

  3. Alex Nodopaka on

    Shucks! I thought the article dealt with a Safari. I was ready with my bow and painting brushes for arrows to be used against the models for targets!!! Is this a bait and switch article? LOL

  4. I don’t like models. You can loosen them up all you want, but in the end, they are always posed static. I like using a camera candidly–taking photographs of people in their lives. Reacting to the moment. At times when they are themselves and think no one is watching. A model who shows up to sit, is a paid employee and the paintings always lack energy. My photography skills are as important to the quality of my work as my painting skills. The advice Robert gives in this article is sound photographic guidance. Know your camera. Know the light. Know the shutter speed.

  5. I have recently completed three pieces from photographs of people. Some I know, some I don’t. I didn’t take the photos but the shots were so evocative, they inspired my work. I didn’t feel like a slave to the camera or the models for that matter. There was a moment captured in the photo that inspired the painting. Models are pricey and hard to come by.

    • I agree there is more excitement and inspiration from a dynamic or emotions stirring pose. I have seen them from live models. They are true professionals. To my inquiry, they answer they love what they do: to inspire artist to grow and create better and better work.

  6. I recently saw an ad by an art gallery, requesting artist’s works; none could be submitted that were produced by any means, mechanically.

    I assumed that meant not using an opaque projector (which I do). It may also have meant not using photography as reference (I do).

    I am going to have to totally disagree with those who think less of an artist for use of tools. Once the artist has proven oneself by way of creating art that shows good under-drawing and accuracy of realism; then the tools are just that–tools.

    “…explored an enigmatic vision that raised the resulting works above photographic naturalism” ~ from your article—wonderfully put. This would be the goal.

    Excellent article, thank you.

    • a reply to Maureen:
      I don’t know which ad you found with this specification, but I also have seen that phrase of “none could be submitted that were produced by any means, mechanically.”
      Often the phrase is pointed at folks who think they can submit copies (giclees) instead of an original work. You should correspond with the gallery to understand their meaning fully.
      As for the article:
      For those of us who love to paint urban street scenes where the pedestrians star, instead of the architecture, yup, the camera is a really good friend.

  7. When I first read the title ‘Shoot the Model’, not unlike Alex, it evoked several images. Gun. Messenger. Piano player, as in Elton John. I painted for a while some years ago while recovering from a long illness. I liked painting. Abstracts. Acrylics. Painting didn’t like me, though, so after one small but well-received exhibit, I simply stopped and went back to Music Production.
    Now retired, I’m teaching myself photography after acquiring a pretty decent camera. Lumix. I do go out on ‘photo safaris’ on occasion, but the winters here are not conducive so I’ve been wood-shedding on photographing found objects placed in ‘fictional settings’. Eggs on a deep bed of dry sand. I use halogen desk lamps with the camera on a tripod. A light table with semi-transparent papers under kindergarten blocks will bring a voyage of imagination. Here’s the thing that makes the lighting a palette that is apparently endless – the halogens all have dimmers on them. Simple, inexpensive household dimmers, a few feet of zip-cord and a handful of plugs. It’s quite safe and compact enough I can set-up easily and position to my eye’s content.
    A dimmer ‘turned up to 11’ brings the halogen to a severe, white, high-contrast that generates dramatic shadows and reveals minute details in textures. Dimming down, the halogen becomes successively warmer all the way to ‘candle’. Often tempted to rearrange my ‘Fictional Architecture’, I’ve learned to first adjust my light levels before moving anything around. The first ‘sketch’ is usually the most ‘honest’.
    Eventually I might get around to working with a model, which would be intriguing, but I’m not sure I really want to.
    Incidentally, I find my ‘shoots’ generally last longer with a suitable choice of music. Classical rarely fails to let me down and prevents me from ‘thinking too much’. Tangerine Dream. Brian Eno. Vocals and drums are distractions.

  8. Jim mcchesney on

    I rely on my canon 40 d doing round barns in upper Midwest,and winter means having good pics with color of the seasons,thanks for your memo today,John mccheney’s brother,flat rock

  9. The photograph can be a slave, but mainly it is a godsend to any artist. The biggest problem in art today is the slavish use of projection. I call it the trace ‘n’ paint method. All of the over-sized portraits and a lot of the normal sizes ones are done this way – and it tells. Works are becoming photographic and loosing the essence of painting, that is capturing the moment. The camera rarely captures this, as it is mainly designed to capture visual accuracy and not feeling or atmosphere – this is the job of the artist. The web is swamped with realist paintings done this way and some are even painted over photographs which have been transferred to canvas. The public tend to love paintings that look like photos and many artists are going down this track. If someone says that my painting looks like a photo, I take it quietly as an insult.
    I think, leave the accuracy to the photo and leave the drama, romance and feeling to the brush.

    • I’m fully in agreement here Mike. Photography can, paradoxically, be a tool for abstraction. That’s how Vermeer used it (the camera obscura) as well as Degas and the English painter Sickert. Translation into the language of painting becomes a fascinating process of celebrating qualities one responded to in the original visual experience. Digitisation has taken this process to a new level and the on-screen paintbox provides further opportunities. I think of what I can do with all these tools as being like the way a 747 pilot prepares for take-off. They provide a runway to the eventual freedom of full flight that is painting.

    • If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the camera is good for capturing a subject “accurately” but incapable of capturing the drama, romance, and “feeling” (I love the vagueness of that one). In other words you are implying that drama, romance and feeling don’t even exist in the actual scene photographed (captured accurately) until the talented artist adds them into his painting. Are you even aware of how many photographers you insult with such comments? You say the camera rarely “captures the moment” and yet a photograph is taken in a minute fraction of a second. How much more “moment” can you get than that? An artist may believe he is adding “feeling” with his brushstrokes, but that does not mean it has that same feeling for anyone else looking at the painting. A viewer may get much more “feeling” from an accurately depicted scene which allows that viewer the freedom to experience his own feelings.

      • Peter – I can see from your words and works that you believe photographic reality is the key to better painting.
        I did make some sweeping statements but the fact remains that many artists don’t understand the power they can potentially possess to transform a scene into something more substantial than a photograph.
        Honestly, if photography is so good why try and copy it?
        Photography gives all the information and all the color – both these things can hamper a good painting, but not many seem to understand this. Simplification of scenes can better focus on atmosphere or feeling (sorry you didn’t understand this) – this is the work of an artist – to enhance what is there and draw the viewer in, not just to copy. Sorry if I offended, that was not the purpose of what I wrote, I wrote to encourage artists to break out of the trace and paint mentality.
        Let photographers, photograph – let painters, paint but not like photographs!

        • Mike, I don’t believe realism is “better”. Let me be clear that I think you are an excellent painter and I have no issue or problem with your style. All I’m saying is that there are legitimate merits to other styles and that the style you personally prefer cannot lay exclusive claim to conveying the drama, romance, and feelings that you talk about. Just because my painting style appears photographic does not mean I have copied a photograph. Certainly I use photographs as reference material, but I still change colours, lighting, add and subtract elements of the composition, alter the perspective, and in general put a lot of feeling into my painting. Like you, I dislike it when people say my paintings look like a photograph, but I know they say that because they look realistic and their comment is meant to be a compliment. Unless the painter is doing nothing but copying a photograph (which I’m sure we would both agree is a waste of time and effort), I suggest there is a big difference between a copy of a photograph and a painting that looks realistic. There is no reason in my mind why a realistic painting can’t convey as much emotion as a painting in your more impressionistic style. Some people get swept up by classical music while others far prefer jazz. Neither style of music can claim superiority over the other.

          • Good discussion Peter – thank you – and I take your points.
            I think you are right when people say “Wow, it looks like a photo” there are trying to give the best compliment they can. I actually do like your work and the way you have explained your processes. Cheers Mike

  10. Nonny Kor Kudel on

    recently, a friend gave me a posed picture of his adorable blonde, blue-eyed 4yr old, in hopes I could maybe paint her?…. yeah, well…. Maybe….. Then I saw her at a picnic, little piggies with ribbon already gone or hanging, cute little pink shorts outfit, already well played in…. And when she turned my way… The biggest pink toothed grin, cupcake icing over 80% of her face….including the sprinkles!!….MY kinda portrait……

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