When A Photo Will Have To Do


My digital camera and sketchbook.

As spring begins to emerge, many pastelists find themselves busy packing portable palette boxes and adjusting easels in anticipation of another season working on location, en plein air. Being able to relate one-on-one with reality allows us to make painting judgments based on what is true versus what is artificial. This produces a creator and subject intimacy. When a photograph is used, a third element is being interjected into the relationship, one that is artificial.

So what are we to do when there is simply not enough time, or circumstance
doesn’t allow for us to paint directly from life? Should we just ignore the inspiring scene and wait for another day when time allows? Some may answer “yes” and they make a valid point about the detriment of the overused photo reference, but many opt to go ahead and take the photo, hoping it will provide enough inspiration back in the studio for a
satisfactory outcome.

When it comes to taking photo reference, beyond understanding the mechanics of the camera, it is paramount to be the photographer of your own reference material. It might be tempting at times to borrow a beautiful image from a friend, but to overcome the
curse of paintings that clearly manifest the influence of photography, you have to have been there, not just in the physical place at another time, but in that actual moment. Whether you are aware of it or not, you have internalized that experience. All of your senses were involved, sight, sound, smell, and touch. These sensory memories
provide the key to painting with more of a plein air sensibility. One
method I use to bridge the gap between the photograph and painting directly from nature is to use a sketchbook and the display back of my digital camera. When I don’t have time to paint, or even to do an elaborate sketch, I take a photo and then display it on the camera back while still in front of the scene. Then I compare the two. When possible, I jot down quick notes of my observations. This challenges me, through comparison, to analyze the actual scene against the limitations of the photo reference. Back in the studio, I am less disappointed by the photo and ultimately find it easier to rekindle memories of what I
saw and how I felt.

As every artist knows there is nothing that can compare to the tactile dance of artist and subject. The key is to understand the limits of the photograph and to spend time analyzing the scene with sensitivity. If these two can be put together, a photograph may provide the visual stimuli to allow intuition and memory to guide the painter’s hand.


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