Painting with Photos

Armand Cabrera

I’m a big proponent of working from life or memory. There are so many benefits from working from nature that it would be hard for me to list all of them and how they affect your painting. Having said that there are times when working with photos can be helpful.

Because of the lens, the background appears larger than it really is
Photos are great for capturing fleeting effects, movement or details and when used as a tool to help in the completion of a painting, they can save time. Using photo-like processes as an aid in painting has been around for probably close to two hundred years.
one type of lensflare
There are drawbacks though and one of the biggest problems with a reliance on photos is you never really learn to paint or draw. Painting and drawing from life is translating three dimensional objects onto a two dimensional surface. Using a photo is just copying, it doesn’t matter if you change it so it doesn’t look like the photo, you are still just copying two dimensional shapes and making other two dimensional shapes. This will always limit your ability as an artist.
Depth of field blur; the background trees were only a few feet away
Photos are not a substitute for thinking, so if you use photos you need to understand what the problems are with them. Watch out for mechanical photographic effects in the image; focal length exaggeration from zoom lenses which will cause the background to look larger than it really is, lens flare, and depth of field blur; these are caused by the equipment and should never be included in your painting. Shapes can be distorted too; this is usually from being too close or at an extreme angle to the object or objects. Knowing some perspective and how to draw helps correct these problems.
 perspective distortion and extreme value shifts

Watch out for values; the range is small for cameras and so the low or high end gets lopped off and things turn black in the shadows or white out in the lights. It is better to look at the relationships of the lights and darks and use that as your guide instead of copying them exactly.

the camera can’t capture the value range in this scene so color is washed out

Digital cameras use interpretive algorithms, so color is not accurate either. They have to take what are essentially continuous tones and colors of nature and chop them up into little squares of color and value, to do this they average things, sometimes this works but most of the time it doesn’t work well enough for painting things only from a photo. It is better to use photos for shapes and details and outdoor sketches and observation for color and value accuracy.

I painted the background for this painting on site marking the color notes of the boat as it passed by; 
 in the studio I painted it again on a new canvas adding the boat using photo reference for details and my outdoor painting as a guide for color

Most of my paintings are done from life or memory. When I do use photos I limit them to the things I know they are good for and use them in conjunction with color sketches and drawings. They are never a substitute for painting from life but in their proper place they can be another effective tool for your art.

6 thoughts on “Painting with Photos

  1. It's so impressive to see your painting at the end of this post. After looking at all the photos, your painting had the ring of reality, like you're standing there and getting hit by salt air, and light so bright you have to squint.

    Great analysis of the pros and cons.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I photograph a lot, but only paint a little and sometimes find using photographs irksome. Your post helped clarify some of my issues. Thanks, Karen

  3. Jim,

    Thanks. It was a gorgeous day on the San Francisco bay. That scene is from Tiburon. Photos are a great tool and used right they can really help the painting process. I could never have painted that boat to the level of finish I wanted on site,it was gone in a matter of minutes.

  4. Karen,

    Yeah, the trick with them is to know their strengths and weaknesses. When used in their proper place they can be a great help to most artists

  5. Hi Armand,

    Thanks for this article. It helps explain why we should go outside to paint and how cameras don't give the whole truth.

    For a while now, I've been taking a least three images of the scene I'm going to paint for reference when I get back to the studio. Most digital cameras have a feature that is very useful. If you push the button (that takes the picture) half way down, the camera will "lock-in" the light range where the camera is pointing.
    I take one picture locked in on the sky by pointing the camera up above, but still including a small portion of the scene. Then, with the button still half way pushed, I point the camera at the scene and snap the picture. I do the same procedure for the ground and the last I take pointing directly at the scene. The combination of the three pictures gives more accurate inforamation about the true colors and relationships of the scene.
    I use those pictures and my small plein air painting as reference for larger paintings.

  6. Armand

    As a "mostly" plein air painter, I echo your post. Thank you for that reinforcement.
    ..If one wants 'life' in a painting, one must paint from 'life'.

    Take care..

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