Friday, October 7, 2016


The Portrait Society welcomes Casey Childs to the 2017 The Art of the Portrait conference faculty. Casey will participate in the popular Thursday Face-Off event and the new Friday evening Masterful Drawing program.  In this great article, Casey shares his thoughts about finding a balance between the use of photographs and working from life and finding that balance in your own work.

Finding a Balance between Working from Life and Photography - Casey Childs

There has been an abundance of talk about using photographs for artistic reference, and perhaps you have heard that if you want to be a serious artist you should avoid using them. While photographs have their drawbacks, advances in image technology qualify photographs not only as an acceptable replacement for life, but in some cases a better option. However, we cannot dismiss the importance of working from life. The artist's choice of photographs or life as a basis for their work cannot, in itself, account for the quality of a painting. We could not say definitively that all painting done from life, for instance, is superior to painting from photographs. The question then is, when and why should I paint from photos, and when should I stick to the "real thing?"

Simply, the choice comes down to being educated about what each method can and cannot give you. Photos are a great continual reference resource and effective economical tools for artists, but if copied directly can make your work appear flat and lifeless. Working from life gives you a vast visual library to apply to any subject you are portraying, but limits the artist's ability to capture certain ideas or scenes. The best option for the painter is to strike a balance between the two resources.

Let’s discuss photos first. The cameras of today are far superior to anything film could produce. The problem is that even the best digital photographs can lie to us. Think of the four elements of a realistic painting: drawing/proportion, values, color, and edges. Three of the four (values, color, edges) are always wrong to some degree in a photo, and sometimes all four.

Distortion from the lens can make perspective and proportions incorrect. Two or three darkest values merge into black and the lightest values become white (this is what photographer’s term “blowing out” the lights). The color temperature relationships are limited by the dyes used to make the prints or the phosphorus in our computer screens. Furthermore, unlike the human eye's ability to focus on a sharp area in the center of our visual field, the camera's eye "sees" edges as equally sharp. In order to most effectively use images produced by a photograph, one must be familiar with the ways in which the photograph misrepresents reality and compensate for those misrepresentations.

It’s no argument that photos make things much easier for the artist. They are convenient and you can capture your entire painting in one shot. But that’s another main problem--photos can make us lazy.

Let’s consider the process of the Old Masters. It all began with sketches—lots of them. From thumbnails to fully rendered drawings, they used studies to compose, design, and lay out all aspects of the entire work. Then, color studies on location or in the studio were used as reference for the final piece. Countless hours of work would already be invested before ever placing a mark on the final canvas.

Photos allow us to skip all of those steps, which can be a mistake. If the Old Masters had access to modern equipment, I believe they would use it, but not to skip steps by copying the photo. They would still go through their same process of studies and sketches, but instead use photos as a resource for inspiration for concepts and ideas. Leonardo da Vinci said, “The painter who draws by practice and judgment of the eye without the use of reason is like the mirror which reproduces within itself all the objects which are set opposite to it without knowledge of the same.”

Just like at the gym, resistance builds strength. Without the continued reps of our artistic muscles we can plateau as artists if we simply copy a photo. Norman Rockwell wrote in his wonderful instructional book, Rockwell on Rockwell, “People always seem astonished at the amount of preliminary work I do, but I believe that in the long run I make more and better pictures this way.” We grow and become better when we continue to push our abilities and ourselves. Rockwell, who both used photos and worked from life, talks extensively in his book about finding ways to make the work you do your “own” and not the work of the camera. We want our work to be our own and not a copy of the camera’s work.

That brings us to the topic of working from life. The cost of paying and scheduling a model is just not feasible for most artists. Young children, certain expressions and poses, and fleeting lighting conditions are other challenges of working from life. But you will develop and grow your skills as an artist more quickly and efficiently if you work from life as much as you can. A poorly conceived painting from life, however, is no better than one copied from a photo. Merely working from life is not the answer. Hard work must be invested to learn and understand the basics of drawing, form, and color.

Some of the best painters working today only work from life. And I’m convinced that if they needed to work from a photo they could get nearly the same results as they do from life. This is because these artists have a deeper understanding of key elements—i.e., spatial relationships, atmosphere, form, color, value, edges, etc.—gained from working from life that help them better translate the information provided, or lack thereof, in a photo. So we must learn how to translate what we see in the photo from our knowledge of working from life.

Look at the great works of Jean Leon Gerome, who used photos extensively in his work; they’re no less wonderful because he used photo references. He effectively achieved a level of illusionistic atmospheric realism that had not been seen before. But what made Gerome great was not his use of photos, but his mastery of the human form gained from working from life BEFORE working from photos.

Most artists, especially beginners, are apprehensive about working from life because of the challenges associated with it. They think using a photo is much easier because the subject doesn’t move or lighting doesn’t change or whatever else, and once they’ve mastered working from photos THEN they will work from life. In reality, one advances as a painter from taking the opposite route.

Working from life is often easier than working from photos because the eye sees in a more comprehensive way than the camera. Our eyes are constantly adjusting to subtle shifts and movements in value and hues, and both eyes work together as two cameras to view an object in a three-dimensional space. The camera can only see two-dimensionally and does a comparatively poor job of capturing nuances in light and shadow. When working from life, we learn to see the elusive, sparkling color in half tones. Our shadows start to have a sense of light and air in them instead of being dense, opaque blobs.

This is why images from cameras can appear flat and less vibrant than we remember seeing them. If we want our paintings to appear how we see them and not how the camera sees them, we can’t simply copy a photo. Working from life makes nuance much easier to capture because we can just copy what we see instead of having to translate what we see from the camera.




Here are a few tips that might help maintain the balance between photos and life and get the most out of using photos:

1. Take your own photographs:
Get the best camera you can afford, and learn how to use it. There’s no reason to work from bad photos. Shooting your own photos allows you to get references of your models from multiple angles and views to help you better understand form and structure. If possible, avoid working from photos that you have not taken. Your painting will be more authentic if it’s conceived and executed entirely by you.

2. Proper lighting:
Learn to take pictures that appear as close to the way the world appears to the naked eye. Learning to light your subject properly, it will go a long way in helping get rid of the misconception that using photo reference results in flat, mundane images.

3. Learn how to adjust your own photos:
Using a good camera and shooting with proper lighting are the key ingredients of good photo reference. But the icing on the cake is knowing how to adjust the photo digitally once it has been taken. Computer programs such as Photoshop and Lightroom allow you to adjust shadows for more depth and fix the blowing out problem in the highlights, as well as adjusting colors to more accurately match the color of your model. If you do not know the programs, learn them. There are many classes out there to teach you how to use these programs. Your paintings will improve if you can get the best reference possible.

4. Work from the largest image possible:
When I was in college, before anything was digital, I remember using 5x7” prints as references for my paintings. I was trying to paint a life-size portrait from a reference that was about ½-inch tall, and my results were not good. The work was little better when I blew up the prints as large as I could. My best work at the time was from life simply because I could see more information. You’re only as good as the information you have in front of you. I now work from a high-resolution digital image on a large monitor where I can zoom in as far as I need. Granted, once you have built up a visual library in your mind you won’t need as much information, but working from the largest images possible will help add to your visual memory.

5. Pretend you are painting from life:
Try practicing painting from a photo like you would from life. Set a timer and pretend you only have a set amount of time to paint the subject in photo. This helps give a sense of immediacy to the painting and helps avoid the overworked look that can happen when working from a photo.

6. Work from life as much as possible:
The best thing you can do, and you will hear this over and over at this year’s conference, is to work from life—it will make you a better artist. You will develop and grow your skills as an artist more quickly and efficiently if you work from life. It is so much easier to develop good edge control working from life. And your sensitivity to subtlety of color and temperature will improve drastically. We just cannot see those nuances in photos. After you have the experience of working from life, you will see a noticeable difference in the works you produce from photos. I found that my own work didn’t improve until I made an effort to consistently work from life.

Becoming a great artist requires time and effort whether you work from life or a photo. Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” Photography can be a great resource if used correctly. Working from life is the best method to grow and develop as an artist. So find that balance, embrace both, and let’s all make the next painting better than the last one!

1 comment:

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