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Cameras and Painting


This short piece is the most informative article I have seen on the use of cameras in the painting process.



  • edited August 2013
    Definitely an interesting take. I have no problems with using photos as references, but I am bothered when the term "realism" is used interchangeably with "like a photograph." In this day and age, we gauge how realistic something is by how close it approximates an image. Its sort of like the witness to an automobile accident who validates the experience by exclaiming, "it was just like in the movies!"
  • If you want your painting to look like a contrasty, color goofy photograph, paint from a contrasty, color goofy photograph. If you want your painting to look like real life as you see it, paint from real life as you see it. If you want your painting to look like something you made up out of the dark creepiness in your mind, then go there. You can even make your painting based on a photo but then change the colors to softer, harsher, blur this, sharpen that... You really can.
  • I was just thinking. I like to compare paintings from before cameras were readily available to after. I'm guessing cameras were readily available after 1950 but not sure on that year. By readily available I mean everyone had one.
  • I like such conversations because they keep me thinking, as do many questions that don't really have a right or wrong answer (hey, I was a philosophy major!). But I make sure that they sidetrack me from things like cutting the lawn or taking out the garbage, not painting!
  • Well said Denis.

    "This difference is what makes art so grand. So, I don't suggest we should be prescriptive about style."

    It would be a predictable and boring world (:| if we all produced exactly the same results. Vive la difference!
  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] admin
    edited August 2013
    I think the reason it's good general advice to paint from life — even if it doesn't apply to everybody — is because photography is an entire artform and skillset on its own. Some people understand and accept that, others don't seem to realize it. So while there are many variables of skill and craft involved in painting, adding photography as a variable is more than just adding one little extra variable… I mean, you can't cover photography in a single chapter. It's not some minor technique. As with painting (and most any complex craft, in my opinion), even most of the people who think or say they have an extensive and correct understanding of photography, don't.

    Another thing about photography that separates it from painting is that — and I don't mean this absolutely, but just generally speaking — you can take some great photos by accident. It's a lot more likely than trying to paint a complicated painting in a specific way, failing in your pursuit, but accidentally turning out something incredible anyway. With painting, the entire product is created manually, every line drawn and stroke of paint and color mixed, is done by your own hand in front of your own eyes and even if you just mess with it and mess with it and mess with it in some roundabout way, you still have to consciously take the painting from nothing to something. Photography isn't like that… there is a lot that you don't handle directly. If I take a photo, I'm ultimately setting X number of options, using X lens and X camera and pointing it in X direction, and then after the shot is taken, I'm opening up a file on my computer and there are X more settings, all with default values already in place, or values not everyone really understands but they still have that visual reference on there screen, so they can still alter those values with some guesswork or "feel". And then there's the printing process, which is more variables, more room to misunderstand but maybe get lucky, and so on and so forth. You can labor over it, be precise, know what you're doing to the Nth degree, but you can also stumble through it and end up with a photo you like.

    And that's fine I guess, but when the photography is a variable of painting, rather than art in its own right… I'm not sure how to explain it well, but it's not the same as misunderstanding color or value or proportion, because by misunderstanding photography, you'll have so many elements that will dramatically influence your final product which were basically created by a machine, not you. Your mistakes aren't laid directly onto canvas — it's not that obvious. Real life won't lie to you but a camera can and will if you are not its master, and I think people who really understand their photographs, who know what's happening and why and why it matters, are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of people who use cameras. In the context of learning to paint, I think this danger is understated. Just my 2¢.

    Separate from my comments above, I wanted to mention that I'm surprised how seldom people bring up lens angle as an issue when taking photos to paint from (or using existing photos to paint from). Speaking of using photos in place of life to achieve the same "from life, not from a photograph" look, I would think this would be a huge issue. If I painted a landscape, for instance, or a large ballroom full of people… I have not done it, so I can't speak from experience, but I imagine I would use a "normal angle". Even in cinematography/photography, I think the sense of realism, of being there, rather than watching a production, is greatly effected by lens angle. Something worth discussing, perhaps in another thread sometime.
  • edited August 2013
    The main difference I find when using a photo instead of painting from life that a photo is flat - 2d. Initially you may think as your painting is 2d this would be an advantage. But the feel of 3d, the tension it creates is seldom evident in photography. Good painters translate the experience of 3d and suggest it through the subtlety of colour and marks of paint.

    I'm not implying photographs are inferior, is just a separate aspect a painter may consider. I think now we have more 3d photography, and 3d screens or ways to view 3d pictures this may change. Very exciting to use 3d photos as reference.
  • If I am going to photograph something to use for a painting, I would use a 50 mm lens, just to get the perspective as natural as possible without having to use software to correct it.
    [Deleted User]
  • I've painted from life for more years than I care to tell and recently started using a photograph as an experiment to see #1, if it could work for me and #2, the difficulties of using a monitor to display that photograph, etc. Which is how I found this website.

    The only real issue I have with using a photograph is color. There are many subtle nuances of color you can be trained to see in any real life object that bring a painting to life in my opinion.

    They aren't there in a photograph. You can push the photo somewhat and see a bit of it, or you can change how you import the raw shot into photoshop to improve that issue somewhat, but you will never get it all. It's just not there, no matter how good a photographer you become.

    How important that color information is to the artist is a personal preference. But once you "see" that info, it can be very frustrating to work without it.
  • I think a few have commented on the limitation of photography, but this is somewhat anolagus to Gainsborough placing brocalli and twigs in his studio and painting a landscape - when we do the painting we bring some experience of the real world with us. So a photo is the same perhapse?
  • edited August 2013
    It depends, I guess. I prefer to paint from life as much as possible, but look at the magic that @sue_deutscher does using a photo as a starting off point. She uses a photo, but the resulting painting is uniquely hers. I have two photos that will one day serve as references for big paintings, and I hope that I can do something like that.
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