Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Painting from photographs

A Day at the Shore
9 x 12 soft pastels on Art Spectrum Colourfix
Miki Willa

There have been several posts of late about painting from photographs. I thought I would weigh in on the subject. As you know if you are a regular reader, I use photographs for almost all my paintings at the present time. I paint at 5:30 in the morning, long before there is any light here, in my portable desktop studio. If I didn't use my reference photographs, I would be posting daily sketches of my desk top. Believe me, you don't want to see that on a regular basis. I probably wouldn't be painting at all on a daily basis. So, I have a strong prejudice for using photographs as a viable reference for painting.
That being said, I would also like to state that I think that using someone elses photograph without their permission should be avoided. It is like copying someone elses painting, as far as I am concerned. We have a big swap meet here three times a week that is big business. Tourists come from Waikiki by the busload. Newly arrived go there to buy local souvenirs to send back to mainland family. I have gone several times. There is an artist there on Saturdays who does acrylic copies of oil paintings by well known local artists. For some reason, he keeps getting away with it. He sells his paintings at a very low price. They are pretty well executed, but I am bothered by it for several reasons. First, it devalues the original - I think. Second, I feel like this guy is stealing artistic property. I feel that way about painting from someone elses photographs and then making a profit on it.
On a different level, if you are painting from someone elses photograph, you are using someone elses artistic vision. Don't get me wrong, I have done several paintings based on photographs in the WetCanvas photo archives. Sometimes, I just long to paint something that is not tropical. I would, however, never enter them into a show or attempt to sell them. They are purely for my practice and pleasure. I post them here to share where I am on my journey. I always try and remember to state that the reference is not mine. I have seen some fantastic photographs on several blogs I look at, and been tempted to try and paint from them because they are so wonderful, but I wouldn't do it.
I have several friends who have sent me photos with permission to paint from them. I am very grateful to them for sending me scenes I love and want to paint. I treat them the same way I do the WetCanvas photos. The reason is that I haven't been there. I didn't smell the smells, feel the breezes, look into the shadows, hear the sounds. I am much more comfortable painting from photos I have taken myself, or my husband has taken when we were together. Then I feel like I know the place. I understand all the drawbacks, or things one has to remember when working from photos. Photos lie, especially about value, but if I have been there, I can sometimes remember the place.
One thing I have learned, from practice, is to not be a slave to the photograph. The woman I took classes from gives out Artistic Licenses to her students and urges them to think about how to make a painting better. I am not one who can come up with a scene from no reference. Perhaps that is why I have so much trouble with non-representational art. I have slowly come to understand that I don't need to leave everything in, especially if it detracts from what I am trying to say. That has been a long time coming. I hope I can translate that to plein air painting, which I hope to do more of this summer.
I know there are purists out there who think that unless you are painting plein air, or from life, you are not really an artist. In my recent delvings into the history of Western Art, I have discovered that plein air painting is a rather recent technique. I want to stay open to all the possibilities. That does not mean I am ready to leave my pastels, however.
This painting was done from a reference photo my husband took at a beach on the North Shore of Oahu. I made changes as I went along. I also added very small people. Can you see them in the background?


Tom said...

My compliments on Three Trees, three people and three breaks.
Beautiful done.
I agree, it is said that Vemeer used a device to capture images for his paintings. Pupu on those master pieces done from photos? Studio time should be celebrated as a bridging of vision and skills, not looked down upon. Plein Air is great, too. Let's hope people can learn to love the variety of processes and the creations that we toil to create.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Good post, and love the delicate beach shot. This whole area of intellectual property is a mine field nowadays.

Talking to son about photo use - he says the vast majority of art students use them as reference material; so the old norms are all shifting. Working from life really limits available material.

I find difficulty when the shot has not been taking with painting in mind, but just as a reminder of the place - tend to feel it makes a weaker image.

Think the ideal is to combine sketches and photos, but find even that is not really practical time - wise at the moment.