It?s been said that politics and religion are subjects best avoided at social functions. But in a gathering of artists, passions flare brightest at the mention of working from life vs. photographs. Such is the stigma in some minds that I?ve even known artists who publicly decry the use of cameras, yet secretly paint a large number of their works with the aid of this so-called ?enemy of art.?
Personally, my own views aren?t so extreme. I believe every method of doing a painting has its advantages, whether you work from life, sketches, photos or a combination of these. There are lessons to be learned from each approach, and deciding which one to use for a particular subject is crucial in the creation of a successful painting—not to mention to reaching one?s full potential as an artist.
Ironically, once you learn how to paint accurately from life, it?s actually far easier than painting from a photograph. If I try to paint the same subject from life and from a photo, the photo study generally takes twice as long to complete. That?s because I?m forced to struggle with those areas of the snapshot that lack the information the real subject would have contained—so I have to try this, then that, until I finally get it to look like something ?real? rather than just a copy of a photo. I?m sure this is partly why so many people hate photographs. And unless you?ve painted enough from life, you?ll likely find it impossible to get good results from photographic references. You simply won?t know what?s missing in the first place.
Most of the best artists I know who work from photographs could easily become professional photographers as well. After art school, I continued my education by taking film and photography classes at another college. I feel that these courses have been every bit as helpful to me as an artist as the traditional ?art? classes. Instruction in lighting, in particular, is something that can benefit any artist. It forces you to study the many ways of lighting a subject (in art school we basically had the same spotlight hung from the ceiling day after day), and covers the subject of color theory as well.
When deciding whether to work from life, a photo or a sketch, I?ll go for the live version if it?s at all possible. As I said before, it?s much easier working from life, so why make the painting process harder than it already is? However, if the situation calls for it—say, it?s a pose that?s too difficult for the model to hold, a market scene or fidgety children—then I get out the camera.
Lynn McLain, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, received his bachelor of arts degree in architecture from Texas Tech University. He works in an architectural firm and has been painting and teaching watercolor professionally since 1978. He?s a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, past president and signature member of the Southwestern Watercolor Society, and an active member and president of the New Mexico Watercolor Society. He?s won numerous awards and has exhibited his work nationally.