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Why I Don’t Paint From Photos

Why I Don’t Paint From Photos

Why I Don’t Paint From Photos

There are some important reasons I don’t copy photographs when I make paintings. There’s nothing worse than struggling for many years in any craft or Paint From Photos endeavour to arrive at a subpar result. Worse yet would be placing yourself on a path headed in an artistic direction that is against your goals as an aspiring, professional painter. This post will rub a few people the wrong way, but that rarely matters to me. If I had cared about everyone’s opinions, I would have never gotten my painting career off the ground in the first place. 

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My Goals As An Oil Painter

I wrestled with the title above for a few moments. I was tempted to title this section “My Oil Painting Goals”, but I think that would be more about the technical aspects of oil painting. That is not what this article is about. Don’t get me wrong, the technical aspects of making a painting are important. My goal as an oil painter is to have a successful career making and selling artwork. This is tied in with technique, but I think this is where many striving artists get confused. This goal is to sell artwork. Keep this in mind as you read the following passages.

Selling Artwork

When your goal is to sell your artwork, like mine, you need to take a step back from your body of paintings and take an honest look at its impact in the marketplace. Your artwork’s impact on friends and family matter not. It’s what buyers think. That’s the cold, hard truth.  Buyers of artwork want to buy artwork because they like it, are emotionally moved by it, want it as an investment, and the list of reasons goes on. There are many reasons somebody would want to purchase your artwork, but they all have in common that the collector has a mental database of past experiences when it comes to artwork. 

No person experiences artwork in a vacuum

They will view your paintings from a reference point of all the other artwork they have viewed their entire life up until this moment. What on earth does this have to do with working from photographs? My artwork is modelled after the precious, classic paintings you would see in a museum. The old, timeless types of paintings you would see from the 18th and 19th centuries. You know, the types of artwork that are considered to be beautiful by many people. Paintings that were made to represent things told stories and elevated not only the medium but the owner of the artwork. 

It’s not only skilled artwork but valuable and relatable

The dirty little secret in the art world is that many people don’t understand or even like a lot of modern art. It’s what get’s all the press but don’t be fooled. Many wealthy people are craving your representative works of art.

The Problem With Copying Photos. easy drawing for kids 

When you take your paints and painstakingly copy a photograph, you get a copy of a photograph.  I’m not okay with either of those options.  If the best-case scenario gives me what I could have had a machine spit out in a few seconds, you can certainly count me out. (Remember, I’m trying to build a successful career selling artwork)

As an aside, I would like to point out that using photos as a reference can be very beneficial

Photography can help artists, especially portrait and landscape artists, do their job efficiently.  However, there is a very big difference between the artwork that is copied from a photograph and artwork that is created by an artist that has much experience working from life. I’m tempted to pull some examples from the internet, and maybe I will, but I’ll probably hurt some feelings. The internet is chock full of drawings and paintings solely copied from photographs. Most of them are horrific.  If I see one more super smudged celebrity pencil drawing, I think I will scream. Don’t be fooled; these hacks don’t make any money off these drawings. Paint From PhotosThere’s no market for it, and true collectors know it. 

Don’t be dazzled or intimidated by some young, attractive kid doing these time elapsed photograph copies on youtube

They might have millions of views, but that does not equate to a viable art career with real collectors, able to pay top-dollar in a more viable art market. Sure these youngsters can, will and probably do make some money, but it’s by other means, through ad revenue, affiliate deals, sponsorships, trick-turning, the standard internet marketing junk.

Photos Contain Distortions

Did you know that photography distorts images? Yes, ma’am, it certainly does, and that’s why software like Photoshop has lens profiles built into it to help straighten lens distortions, among other things.

Experiencing a photo is built into our culture as “real”, but there are many fake things about a photograph, starting with the barrel distortions mentioned

Straight-sided objects nearly always end up curved with photographs. These problems become even more exasperated when you shove a cell phone close to your subject matter and expect to copy that photograph with paints. There are also numerous colour problems associated with photographs.

In short, a great painting created from direct observation reveals the subject matter of how we experience it, not as a camera captures it

This is probably the hardest distinction to discern when new to painting. Paint From Photos Even painters extremely skilled in copying photographs seem oblivious to this concept. I almost feel sorry for them. This is one of the reasons I chuckle inside or cringe slightly (depending on my mood) when somebody tries to compliment artwork “It looks just like a photograph!”. If you paint directly from observation, it will NEVER look like a photograph. Paint From Photos  The two results couldn’t be more different!

Even though my painting is Paint From Photos“realistic”, it’s not photographic

It’s just a work in progress, by the way. I never actually finished that painting for reasons I’m not getting into right now…

Let’s run through a quick and easy example illustrating the photocopying problem

Say you want to paint a landscape with some tall buildings near the edges of the composition. Paint From Photos The edges of the building are straight, right? They go vertically up and down…. straight as an arrow. But once a photograph is taken of the buildings, they will curve slightly. This is a feature of all lenses.  So do you copy the photograph verbatim and paint the building slightly curved? Not if you are interested in showcasing reality,  Paint From Photosbut how we experience it!  

Again, photography can be very helpful to artists who are already skilled in drawing and painting from life

But I urge beginners to work from life as much as possible. It’s harder at first but will yield bountiful rewards later on.

Colour Problems

Perhaps one of the biggest problems with photography is the loss of colour information in a natural setting.  Paint From Photos It’s as if we have made several sequential photocopies of reality and expect them to hold up to human experience scrutiny. It reminds me of that silly game “telephone” in which the message becomes distorted more and more as it gets passed from one person to the next! The lens distorts the colours a bit, and then the camera’s software further distorts the colour. Next, the image is saved into a file; most people use the compression format “JPEG”, which is none other than, you guessed it… a compressed format, further distorting the colour. Then you print the photograph or view it on a screen, further distorting the colour.

Still, think the photograph is an accurate representation of how you experienced that scene?

That’s some of the reasons why many of your photos seem to be a disappointment after-the-fact. You remembered the glorious weather and sky while your photo came out rather blah.  I have found that photography very much loses the high-chroma dark colours. Everything that becomes dark in a photograph automatically becomes very low in saturation, but in real life, you can see much more colour.  I realize that HDR photography attempts to solve some of these problems, but copying an HDR photograph won’t help me 

make paintings that have that classic look and feel

A skilled artist knows how to capture the experience. Paint From Photos  That John Sargent painting exhibited near the top of the page does this extremely well.  These artists knew how to accent the important colours. A good painter knows just how to subdue less important parts of the subject matter. Cameras are lousy at doing this, and post-production work still fails miserably. At least in a way that makes a composition that will make a great painting that a collector is willing to pay for.

The Work is Hard (but worth it)

So I continue drafting compositions from direct observation. The work is hard but rewarding. I

t has forced me to make observations beyond what I would have seen if I were merely copying a photo

get to know my subject matter intimately. I’m no drive-by copyist!  purposely abstract some elements of my subject matter while drawing attention to other parts via detail and contrast. 

creating original paintings that look like they were created by a skilled painter, not some cheap photograph

(Remember, I’m coming from a professional painter’s perspective and in no way is putting down the art of photography)

This is not to say I restrict myself to all old techniques. I embrace a more modern, enlightened approach to painting wherever I can, and I think you should too.

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