Camera Versus Eye

Camera Scorn

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.

 DCF 1.0

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)
I've noticed that the camera tends to go way over the top with the glowing yellow sometimes. When I painted this scene I didn't even notice the tree was in the way.

I've noticed that the camera tends to go way over the top with the glowing yellow sometimes. When I painted this scene I didn't even notice the tree was in the way.

In reality the yellow had much closer boundaries and the bay had a lot of beautiful purple and blue midtones. The horizon was actually green along the top.

In reality the yellow had much closer boundaries and the bay had a lot of beautiful purple and blue midtones. The horizon was actually green along the top.

  • 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
There was a major difference in these two in the tone of the water.  The camera captured it as very dark and it missed the greens and yellows.

There was a major difference in these two in the tone of the water.  The camera captured it as very dark and it missed the greens and yellows.

Look at all the cadmiums that the camera missed where the sun was glowing through the clouds. I reshaped the clouds to give the composition more of a swirling movement.

Look at all the cadmiums that the camera missed where the sun was glowing through the clouds. I reshaped the clouds to give the composition more of a swirling movement.

  • 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.
These two images don't even look like the same day. The camera turned the clouds sort of a brown-grey color and really darkened the horizon.

These two images don't even look like the same day. The camera turned the clouds sort of a brown-grey color and really darkened the horizon.

In life the scene was much cooler and a little lighter. The horizon was a few shades lighter.

In life the scene was much cooler and a little lighter. The horizon was a few shades lighter.

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. 
One of the great advantages of painting is that it can be very abstract, where the camera is very literal.

One of the great advantages of painting is that it can be very abstract, where the camera is very literal.

  • 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.
In the scene that the camera captured the horizon merged with the dark part of the bay.

In the scene that the camera captured the horizon merged with the dark part of the bay.

Since I was painting, I could choose where the lights would look the best as well as showing off the greens at the top of the sky.

Since I was painting, I could choose where the lights would look the best as well as showing off the greens at the top of the sky.

  • 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.
The camera did not do justice to Lilly (sorry Lil!). She looks stressed. I could not have made a painting from this photo, but I managed to make a painting from life of her from the exact same standpoint.

The camera did not do justice to Lilly (sorry Lil!). She looks stressed. I could not have made a painting from this photo, but I managed to make a painting from life of her from the exact same standpoint.

Lilly is beautiful and I think my alla prima sketch came closer to showing off her soft features and rich curls than the camera did. 

Lilly is beautiful and I think my alla prima sketch came closer to showing off her soft features and rich curls than the camera did. 

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.