Monday, 18 October 2010

Don't work from photos

Or I should say, don't work from photos if you have another option.

Yesterday I was reading the blog of a very creative and talented blogger. She had posted a painting that she did of a cup. She described her process, the first step was to photograph the cup. This was interesting, as she owned the cup. I commented with the question "Why not just paint the cup? Why paint from the photo?"

I have nothing against using photo references. I use them when I cannot take the actual thing (usually a person) into my studio. I would always prefer to work from life, but it is frequently not an option.

It is frustrating to work from a photo. Why? Because photos lack information. Colours are different, usually colours are missing. Whole bits of what you are trying to paint or draw disappear into shadow. You can' t see what is happening around the corner, you often can't even see that there is a corner. Volume flattens in too much light. I spend hours in the studio trying to re-imagine all that is missing from my reference photos.

Now granted, the blogger I was speaking of was painting a study. And it turned out okay. Maybe she got what she was after.

But when I asked her why she didn't just paint the cup, she answered that she isn't good enough at painting.

That got me worried.

It is true that when you paint from life you have to convert it from 3-D into 2-D -- but this is a lot of what drawing is. And if you want to learn to draw it is the difference between taking the dead end road or the ongoing journey. If you work from photos to learn to draw and paint, the drawings (or paintings) might look better in the beginning, but you won't get very far. (this is not intended as any criticism of the creative blogger. I am sure she knows what she wants.)

My advice to anyone who wants to advance their drawing and painting skills: Do it from life. Painting an actual teacup will take you further than painting (or drawing) a photo of anything. This is nearly always true, but especially especially when you are still learning.


Lotus said...

Excellent advice! I try to sketch in real time whenever possible. I sometimes feel that the photo is actually doing the work for us.
Our eyes and brain see so much more than what a machine can capture at the moment! And you're so right... you can't grow when the work is already done for you!

Chel said...

I agree and disagree. I have had teachers tell me both ways, and I have had success drawing from real life and drawing from photographs. I do agree with Lotus says above me- photographs "flatten" things out.

But I also know that when you are starting out with drawing and just want to get the *idea* of something, it's often helpful to draw from photographs. Light changes VERY quickly "in real life", shadows change, shading changes and when things are constantly changing and you are brand new to drawing, it's an invitation for frustration. Sometimes it's nice to have a permanent record, and once you realize "hey, I can draw this cup!" then it's nice to officially start training for the race that drawing in real time sometimes becomes...

Mary Helen-Art Saves Lives said...

I am thinking carefully about this post...the fact is working from life gives life to whatever we intend to honor in our drawings and paintings. You have a eloquence when you pose this information and I realize that even when I am uncomfortable in the "Life" painting I need to continue the process. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

Zom said...

Chel, you have some good points. You can set up things to control the light, whether putting that teacup inside a box (on its side) for dramatic light, or just setting it up someplace where the light moves more slowly. Thanks for giving another viewpoint.

Good point about the life giving life Mary Helen. That is really true.

Rbarakat said...

Interesting. I have never thought to paint on a picture of a cup - I might take a picture after I've painted the cup...

Rona Gregory said...

Hi! I just stumbled on your fab blog via another! I'm a sort of late beginner artist! I was pretty good at school and then dropped it only to start again in my late forties! So I'm sort of self taught, experimental and in need of much guidance!

I agree with a previous comment, I find when trying to sketch a person or animal they move, the light changes and so on. I often revert to a photo just to try and practice the basic shapes and proportions, then I try to go to the real thing to get the true detail. I hope one day tho to have 'trained my eye' to get all this from the real thing!

Have clicked the follow button too because your blog is so friendly and informative!

Have a great Day


Zom said...

Okay Rbarakat, hopefully my drawing is better than my writing, lol.

Rona, maybe you could go back and forth. Try drawing your own hand or yourself in the mirror as well as from the photos. More drawing is definitely better than less!

Zom said...

Okay Rbarakat, hopefully my drawing is better than my writing, lol.

Rona, maybe you could go back and forth. Try drawing your own hand or yourself in the mirror as well as from the photos. More drawing is definitely better than less!

Maggie said...

Hi, I just found your blog! Very nice.
Photos vs. life—what a conundrum that is. I try to draw from life as much as possible, but sometimes I have to use photos, since I just don't have access to what I need for any given picture. I find that drawing from life gives me the experience I need to be able to imagine the missing information in the photos.

But the best thing is to draw, draw, draw. Anything and everything.

Eden said...

Ahh, You are not the only one I've heard this from and a new draw-er, I am scared to death to draw from life....the few times I've done it, I was really disappointed in my product. I guess I should take a class. OR can you suggest a good book with some tips to help us beginners. What you say makes complete sense....Darn it!!! LOL!!