Pastel Pointers | Photographic Pitfalls

pastel pointers with richard mckinley

Various cameras from film to modern digital.

With the resurgence of traditional representational art in the marketplace, the debate as to whether photographic reference should or should not be utilized is again a popular topic of discussion among artists.

Artwork always reflects the Zeitgeist in which it is produced. Cultural, political and technological factors, combined with individual intent, ultimately coalesce into the final product. One of the most frequently utilized technologies by artists throughout history is optics. Devices as diverse as the camera obscura (which was the optical predecessor to modern photography), the camera lucida, film and digital cameras, opaque projectors, slide projectors, digital scanners, and various other optical/mechanical devices have all been employed at one time or another by various painters. There has been a lot of debate concerning the merits of these devices and my intent is not to add my voice to that discussion. Instead, I would like to share some observations concerning photography that may make it easier to utilize.

  • The camera is monocular. It utilizes a single lens and doesn’t represent the same depth perception we perceive. This tends to flatten out objects.
  • Wide-angle and telephoto lenses can greatly distort the perceived depth and size of objects. A wide-angle lens will expand distance between objects and a telephoto lens will foreshorten.
  • The aperture setting on a camera lens can alter sharpness of focus. A tiny aperture setting will extend focus beyond human capabilities and a large aperture setting will create artificial blurring in front and behind the focal plane.
  • Fast shutter speeds will freeze action that the human eye is incapable of stopping. Consider this if you are painting fast moving water, or any objects in quick motion.
  • Light and dark representations within a photograph can be vastly different than human perception. Film and digital sensors are not capable of representing the degrees of value the human eye can differentiate.
  • Color is a close representation at best in photography. Film and the chemical processing procedure can produce color bias, and digital photography is dependant on white balance settings to determine accurate color. Remember that color photography is based on pure white light and natural light is rarely balanced. It always has a bias.
  • Flash photography produces a very artificial representation of reality and should be avoided as reference whenever possible. A flash, or strobe light, is capable of split second surface penetration. This illuminates areas that normally would indicate shadow. It will also produce bizarre sharp edged cast shadows even at considerable distances behind objects. It is better to have a grainy, slightly blurred photo as reference than a flash photograph.

While there is no sin in utilizing photography as reference for your artwork, if your intent is to produce a painting that represents human perception, it is paramount to scrutinize the subject matter in advance of copying the photo to surface. Spend time in quiet observation. Pay attention to how things look and make note of them in your sketchbook. These human observations, when combined with a few simple thumbnail sketches and a reference photo, can make all the difference. Otherwise, any discerning judge or critic will know that you gave your creative control over to the photograph. It used you—instead of you using it!

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