Painting from Photographs Makes Sense
In this popular article, Timothy Jahn raises a few good points on why we should be open to painting from photographs, what kind of things to be watchful of when you do, and the different kind of images you can get from point-and-shoot, phone, and DSLR cameras. All his insights serve as a great warm up to Johannes Vloothuis’ Paint Along 33: From the Photo to the Painting: How to Simplify, which is taking attendees right now. Teach yourself alongside Johannes and see if painting from photographs is right for you and your art. Enjoy!
It seems as though people have been arguing about the use of photography in fine art since it even became an option. Many artists feel as though using photography or painting from photographs is cheating or they are misled regarding the use of the tools. I’m reluctant to learn new technology, but happy when I do. Yes, I use digital photography as part of my reference gathering techniques. And while it’s true that digital photography was not available to Rembrandt, that’s not going to stop me. I also use Penicillin, multivitamins, and light bulbs. Some inventions just make sense to utilize. We all have to make a choice between the tools available to us and our enjoyment of our process. If you get excited about only working from life, by all means keep doing it.
Now that you all know that I am a big giant cheater, here are some of the tools I have used and some suggestions for those of you who are considering dancing with the dark arts of photography. There are so many choices in cameras that looking at all of the options can be overwhelming. Many of the sites about cameras are written for photographers or photography students. While many artists quietly work from photo reference, they don’t often share opinions on the tools they use because they want to stay out of the debate on the subject. Consequently, there is little sharing available to aid in your research. Your primary decision is between a point-and-shoot camera or a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.
If you’re pursuing painting as a hobby and are looking to use photo references, a simple point-and-shoot camera may be a good choice for you. There are many wonderful choices and even some that work really well underwater. There are advantages to a point-and-shoot camera. Due to the size, it’s easy to slip one into your pocket and head out looking for great subjects. You can get in the habit of bringing one along for any sudden inspiration (scroll down for another solution for this). The next big advantage is price. For the most part they’re cheaper than a DSLR, although there are some options at the high-end. With your point-and-shoot, you will be able to take pictures in auto mode, and while the quality of images produced varies greatly from camera to camera, they generally shoot quite well in this way.
Finding a Balance: Photography and Fine Art
Venice Love Letter (above) is a painting I completed from a series of photos taken with an Olympus Tough TG-310. During my honeymoon I had a problem with my DSLR—I left the battery charger on my kitchen table. Fortunately, my wife, Holly, always travels with a simple point-and-shoot and I was able to create a painting from photographs when I got back into the studio based on several nice photos I shot with her camera. As Holly and I walked around Venice, I found many fantastic spots and so much inspiration for paintings.
If you’re pursuing an art career and are willing to take the time to learn how to operate a new piece of technology, a DSLR might be a good choice. Due in part to the larger sensor size, the DSLR camera has the advantage in image quality. You also have the option to use a multitude of lenses, which makes a DSLR hugely adaptable, and allows you to get a higher quality image for the subjects you’re painting. I use an 85mm lens to shoot portrait and standard 50mm for still life. If I were interested in doing wildlife images, I could use the same camera with a 500mm lens to shoot animals from a great distance.
Above is a figure in an interior that I completed using photos from a relatively simple Canon 300D Digital Rebel. While I may have really enjoyed painting this from life, the situation didn’t allow it. I had limited time in this space and my model was living in Atlanta, so it became necessary to work from photos. The camera I used was the first DSLR I owned and while it was not anywhere near as advanced as the current entry-level cameras are, it worked very well and was wonderful to learn on.
Many cameras have predesigned automatic modes that do a lot of the work for you. The DSLR, however, is designed with a photographer in mind and allows you to control your own settings in manual mode. You will be able to fully adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. This is really where the learning curve is, but if you invest the time, the control is worth it. As you gain skills and confidence with the camera, you will be able to minimize the adverse effects of creating paintings from photographs.
Cameras for Artists
There are many wonderful camera companies, although I’m most comfortable with Canon. Some of my apprentices have recently purchased the Canon EOS Rebel T5 and it takes great photos. Nikon makes wonderful products as well. Our studio uses an entry level DSLR D3100 by Nikon and the images are easy to work from. Keep in mind that if you buy a DSLR, learn how the operation system works and purchase lenses for that system, you are setting yourself up with the chance to upgrade within that company. So you may want to have a long-term look at the situation and pick a company that you can grow with. I purchased my first Canon in 2004 and have gradually upgraded. After getting accustomed to the first camera, I purchased a 85mm lens for portrait photography, which I still use.
The final image I wanted to share with you was completed with a photo from an iPhone. You probably already own a piece of technology such as this, which allows you to become very reactive to your impulses. While I had several methods available to complete this painting, including doing it from life, I wanted to see if I could get a good image with the camera I have at my disposal every day.
Art has always been intertwined with technology. There was a time that frescos were the best thing in art and some crazy monk came up with oil paint. Could you imagine if Da Vinci was like “Nah, I’m not going to use that new oil painting stuff because fresco is the real art?” Don’t feel guilty if you want to explore or utilize technological advancements or create paintings from photographs. Just remember why you started to draw in the first place—likely it was for fun and expression. If your artworks display what your true interests are, the viewers will enjoy them immensely!
See Timothy W. Jahn’s work in Strokes of Genius 3, The Best of Drawing: Fresh Perspectives. Visit his website at TimothyWJahn.com.