Does it make a difference if you paint from photographs? Normal people aren't aware of this, but there's a big push within the traditional art world to only paint from life. Relying solely on the camera is really looked down upon because less experienced artists tend to just paint what's in the photo, and well, the camera lies.
What's Wrong with Photos
I had to find out if painting from life was really going to produce such different results, so I decided to record the difference in a series of photographs and plein air paintings during my vacation. What I discovered was that I would have ended up with drastically different paintings had I worked from photo references.
Here's what I learned about the shortcomings of photographs:
- The camera can't see as many colors as I can
- The camera tends to overdo it with contrast, especially in dark areas (like horizons)
- In photos of faces taken outdoors I sometimes can't even identify which direction the light is coming from.
- You lose edge variety, so all the edges in an area are either sharp or hard
- Photos appear static and lack the nuance that you get when out in nature like when the light changes (hopefully for the better) or when you can see thoughts skim across the face of your sitter
- It's easier to make adjustments that improve the composition when you're working from life. When you look at a photo there's a lot of temptation to just copy what's there and get locked in.
- The camera adds 10 lbs!!! It's true. Because of the way it flattens you forward you look bigger.
Bridging the Gap between Photography and Painting
The simple prescription for improving your paintings is to paint from life, we know that's not always possible. So here are some hints for humans who have to rely on photos once in a while.
- Leave some mystery. If you were painting from life you wouldn't notice every minute detail. Just because you can see it doesn't mean that you should paint it.
- Paint faster. When you paint quickly you don't get so nit-picky about minutiae and it makes your painting look more alive.
- Simplify and mass. Big patches of light and shadow (unbroken by extra details) make for a stronger painting.
- Feel free to move things around. Just because the tree is smack in the middle of the photo doesn't mean that you have to keep it there, and clouds are crazy anyway, so feel free to move them around as you please.
- Emphasize atmospheric perspective above and beyond what you see in the photo.
- When possible, do a small color study from life that you can reference during the painting process. I've even just mixed colors while I had the person hang out so I got skin tones right.
- Make sure you can clearly identify where the light source is. If you don't know you won't be able to make up anything believable.
- When you take photos check the viewfinder and make notes of any differences you observe. Like if the horizon is showing up too dark, or what color the shadows are.
Bottom Line is Do What's Best for the Painting.
Whether painting from life or from a photo you can't just rely on what's there. It's necessary to make adjustments and compose the painting so that you're not just getting a record of what you see, you're getting something better.