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.

10 Tips for Hobby Painters from a Professional Artist

About every two weeks someone asks if I give lessons, but unfortunately I barely have enough time to paint much less teach other people how to paint, so everyone gets turned away. After having a hobby painter over for a studio visit today I got to thinking that there are probably some basic tips that I could share for someone who doesn't have the advantage of networking with professional painters.

I'll address some equipment/supply issues as well as the frequent question of "how to paint looser."

1.  Gamsol. Forget the minerals spirits and turpentine. Even the odorless versions are pretty fumy. Gamsol is the safest odorless solvent out there and the favorite of most professional painters.

2.  Papertowels. They're your friends. If you want to keep from getting muddy colors you need to frequently wipe your brushes on papertowels. Another good tip for keeping your colors cleaner is to keep a dark brush and a light brush and try not to mix them up (which is trickier that it sounds). The other advantage is keeping your space clean. You don't want oil paint on your clothes, but more importantly you don't want lead (make you crazy like Nero) or cadmiums (cause damage to your nervous system) getting on your skin. If you just can't get it under control I'd recommend looking into Gamblin paints since I feel like they really focus on safety.

3.  Stand back & Step Back. If you want to have looser brush strokes you're not going to get them if you're sitting down 6 inches from the canvas. You should be standing far enough away that you can completely extend your arm with brush in hand (holding onto the end of the long handle). This way you make strokes with your whole arm, not just your wrist. Step back frequently to check if things are working from a distance. I have a cushy velvet couch at the studio that I like to lounge on while I ponder.

4.  Longs. Did you know that they made long bristle brushes? They make it so much easier to lay the paint down since they're flexible. The extra length also buys you more useful life on the brushes. My favorite sizes are long filberts (slightly rounded on the edge as opposed to brights which are square) in #2-#10 range. I probably use my #6 the most. The goal is to keep the paint at the tip of your brush, not down in the ferrules, so the longs also make this easier.

5.  French Easels. I hate my french easel more than I hate this awful picture of me wearing Brian's shorts. DON'T buy one of these. They are heavy, clunky and tricky to set up if you're not technically inclined. If you're thinking about doing plein air work ask a plein air artist who you trust what they like. I still am undecided as to the best travel/outdoor easel brand, but the clunky french easel would not be in the running.

6.  Attitude. My high school art teacher used to say "when you're frustrated you're learning." This was a huge comfort to me when I was first learning to paint. Another sure attitude adjuster is remembering that you are not Leonardo DaVinci. Your work is not worth $1,000,000 or even $1,000 so who cares if you mess up once in a while. You're learning. And, don't over-invest yourself in a painting that's just never going to work. Figure out where you went wrong, throw it in the garbage and do better next time.  I slashed 5 canvases last year without a second thought (if I don't slash them I run the risk of someone fishing them out of the garbage so they can reappear and haunt me later).

7.  Be a destroyer, or if you want to put it in Ghostbusters terms "Choose the form of the Destructor!" You can destroy it now so that it can be fixed tomorrow or you can destroy it forever by trying to work around a problem instead of correcting it. This is part 2 of the attitude spiel in case you haven't figured that out yet. Don't noodle around the problem, show some initiative and fix it! Be brave and get out your pallet knife and scrape it off while the paint's wet, or let it dry and start over on top. Don't get attached because you worked on it forever. If it's not working it's not working, so play the destroyer and start over fresh tomorrow.

8.  Contagious colors. Titanium white should not be used in mixing darks unless you know what you're doing. I'd be more likely lighten a dark using another color than to use titanium white, because it will make your darks chalky or cloudy looking. Thalos are even more contagious and hard to eliminate, and they make your brushes hell to clean, so use them sparingly.

9.  Premix with a pallette knife. The pallette knife set me free to paint fast and show off some brush strokes. You can premix large pools of color and have big quantities of paint available without slowing down, or trying to be sparing with your paint. I especially like doing this for impressionist style landscapes or for painting clothing, whereas the colors in a portrait are more nuanced and require more customized mixing. 

10.  Fat over thin & light over dark. Ideally, you want your darks to be translucent and thin, and your lights to be opaque and have more impasto (be thicker). Also, you want to start with thinner coats of paint, and finish with thicker. You can address both of these issues by painting dark to light. I paint my darkest and thinnest areas first and slowly work forward to my lightest and thickest. So, if I were to paint a landscape with trees I would put in the dark trunks first, then work in the mid-tones, and lastly, cut in the sky around the trunks and make "sky holes" in the canopy. Crazy. I know. Oh, and you must somehow coordinate this with painting from back to front if you're doing a landscape.

Below is an example of back to front, dark to light, and thin to fat (all at once) in a portrait format.

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BONUS TIP: Eat more chocolate.

It may make you fat if you paint too often, but you will paint better.