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Readers Respond: Do You Paint from Photos?

Responses: 48


The argument about whether photos are a valid tool for a painter or a cheat is as old as photography itself. Do you use photos in your art and, if so, how do you use them? Do you copy one specific photo you like, do you work selectively from one photo, or do you compose a scene from several photos you're using as reference? Do you use your own photos or other peoples? Share your thoughts and experiences on painting from photos here.

Overcoming the Cyclopes Camera

I use my own photographs as reference for my paintings, especially when doing portrait work. My subjects don't tend to be professional models, and photographs are the best way to get pets, children, and wild animals to be still. The drawback is that a camera has only one eye, and a painting from a single photograph will always appear flat. Additionally, photographs rarely capture the full character of the subject (especially mine--I am no artist with a camera). I take hundreds of photos from every angle when interviewing my portrait subjects, often over the course of several sessions. Then I choose one that gives the best angle, and half a dozen related shots that help recreate the roundness of the subject. A few more detail shots will help me fill in important features. While sketching and painting, I am constantly referencing several photographs, so as to restore the in-the-round feel that one gets painting from life, while benefiting from the convenience of photographs
—Guest Janet

No heart or soul from photos

Art must be developed from an original experience if at all possible. In other words, those that are true to themselves and their art do not use photos for a primary reference. If they are used at all they should be taken by the artist and be backed up by sketches that provide the primary reference. Photographs are already compressed into a 2D format and therefore restrict what needs to be seen from the original subject. Not only seen of course but experienced and felt. As an art tutor I insist that my students do their utmost to paint from life or from their own sketches and then as a last resort a reference photograph.
—Guest maxhale

Photos are a valuable reference tool

I use a combination of photographs that I have taken myself, onsite sketches and other images either from brochures, the internet or wherever I find reference to a certain subject matter. The important thing is your intention. Photographs should only be a reference source and if used as an exact image to work from, must be your own photograph and composed to suit the image. In many of realism pencil drawings I take one primary photo to work from then about twenty to sixty or more others to use as reference. Photos are essential. When I painted 'Old Rattler' I held up the entire train to take about ten photos. I settled on one but used another ten for the train in the background. Photos are great if used in the correct context.
—Guest cindy wider

Reference Photos for Inspiration

If I don't have a photo or sketch of my own to work from, I may look at several photos of a specific item for inspiration first, but I would never work directly from a copyrighted photo unless specific permission is given to create derivative works from it. Since I have had problems with people using my own copyrighted images without permission, however, I am probably a little hypersensitive about this issue.
—Connie G.

Since the Beginning....

Artists have been using photos - even other people's photos - since photography was invented. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in NY once had a very important exhibit of artworks created after images in popular advertising, called HIGH AND LOW: MODERN ART AND POPULAR CULTURE. To expect artists to ignore the images surrounding us is unrealistic and if controlled too tightly would certainly begin to infringe on freedom of expression. If an artist wishes to make a social commentary on such images, it would prove impossible to do so if the images themselves could not be "quoted" visually.
—Guest Erica

Mixed Media Art is Art!

My photographs are the bones of my painting, without a great photograph my paintings would not be strong enough. I work in 2D and I want my finished piece of art to be 2D. Sometimes you need to break away from tradition to uncover new exciting art. Art School taught me there are no rules, the artist's interpretation of its subject in whatever media they choose is what translates in the emotion of the spectator. Not the blurb on the gallery wall which makes reference to the media it was made from.
—Guest Theobald

"Portraits of the Sky"

I live on a mesa in Taos, NM. The sky dominates everything. I paint from photos I take myself with an old Nikon FG, which I use as a point-and-shoot. Taos Valley has a larger variety of cloud types than anywhere else I have lived. It's mountain country and open sage land, with a clear sky view to the west. Unbelievable sunsets! Yes, I paint directly from my prints. I don't grid them, however, or project them onto the canvas. This allows a lot of adjustment, creative mistakes, and enhancement of light and color. I enlarge things, or make them smaller, manipulate the composition, add details or remove them, connect two images for a longer painting or mask a print for a different focal point of the image. I enhance the color, light, omit or emphasize details. I may enlarge or decrease the size of a cloud, etc. The result of this manipulation is often a 3D effect.
—Guest Taoscloudwoman

Painting from Photographs

Sometimes an artist has to paint from photographs. The light changes, the subject can't sit still. However, I work only from my own photographs and only when I can't get outside to work. It is never the same as working from life. You need the three-dimensionality that exists in real life. I use photos only as a reference. From there, I make it my own. In art school, we had to work from life, and we learned to see. But, you do what you can. The main thing is that, as an artist, you do it. That's what counts.
—Guest Anne

Art is a Vision Shared by Everyone

I am a digital photographer who combines all forms of art with photography. It does not matter what type of art you favor, as long as it fits your idea of art appreciation.
—Guest Troysong

Common Sense

If you want to be sure you do not abuse copyright use only your own photographs. It all depends on what you are going to paint whether you need a photograph or not. Personally I would rather work from my own photographs or my own imagination. There is great satisfaction when what you have painted is a fair copy of what was in your head. Sometimes paintings will point you in a different direction to the one you first started out on. That is what makes painting exciting and satisfying.
—Guest Francis

Yes I Do

Yes I do paint from photos - sometimes one sometimes a few... at first I practiced with one taken from the net. But now I use my own or my husband's (hobby photoguy). I do change them or crop them. I do most of my painting at night (I work) so to be out in the day doesn't work for me. I don't do exactly the same as the picture and my paintings look like paintings. I put lots of love into a painting that I do so no one can say it doesn't have feeling. Many people who have purchased my childrens' portraits love them because the photos I used have captured the essence of that particular child. I would not get that by just posing the child. I use candid shots. But without the photos I could not accomplish want I want to do and see as a painter. But just to add to the argument. Many very old paintings before the camera were done with a camera obscura. The artist tracing the projected image of the person posed. The Astronomist was done with a camera obscura. Just some food for thought

The True Litmus Test

Whether you claim the photo you used was merely an inspiration or that you are amazed how artists tend to set rules for themselves and then apply the rules to everyone to follow... there is one litmus test and that is the legal system, its precedence (who has already fallen), and the money paid in damages. You might refuse to follow the rules cause they are unclear... you simply stay away from the line that separates clarity from uncertainty. Otherwise... to your utter surprise I may be living in your house and you may be on the street. A little joke there... but you know where I am going with this. It doesn't matter what you think on this subject... you step over the line then you may be in some legal hot water.
—Guest JD

I Paint from Photos

Yes. It is a great way to learn and sometimes necessary, because you can't always have your subject with you. I will often take photos and use them as references later.
—Guest Curt Russell

Painting from Photos Without Permission

I saw a painting of a movie star in an exhibit... I asked the artist how he came to paint this famous person and he did it from OPP (other people's photos)... bad news. I see these kinds of problem all the time. You can use any photo for reference, even copyrighted ones on the Internet in which you do not have permission. This isn't to say that you would be copying any portion of the photos. If you wanted to do a moonlit lake scene... you could study photos of moonlit lakes to learn how the moonlight looks on the ripples of the dark water and what colors are apparent, etc. After looking at many examples and incorporating your observations to memory... and without any photos you have seen in front of you you can contrive the details in the water... the color and lighting from the moon without copying anything in whole or part. In short, you can learn through observation in nature or observation of photos of others and use that information to improve your work.
—Guest JD

Making a Scene from Many Photos

I like pulling one or two items from each photo and creating my own scene. It's so common to see a photo of a field that could be filled with kids playing or a dog on concrete outside that would be great in front of a fireplace. I enjoy putting the subjects where they would be happiest.
—Guest Mary Walker

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