Jerry Lebo, 2007
Two posts back I showed you a simple exercise to help see grayscale values more clearly by painting directly on a printed photo. If you have tried this exercise, you have probably noticed that it may not lead to a very interesting result--at least not something that you would want to hang on the wall. There are several reasons. First, as Josef Albers points out in his book, "Interaction of Color", photos lose the finer nuances and delicate relationships that one would see in nature. Put another way, there is much less information to paint from when painting from photos in comparison to standing outside and looking at the real thing.
Another problem with painting from photos is that photos distort value relationships. If you have every compared a photo of something to the actual subject, you will have seen that colors change, and values tend to merge together. For example, the shadows in photographs tend to darken and simplify—and the lightest lights tend to get higher in value and merge together. If you want to test this—try this experiment. On a cloudy day, look up at the sky and take a few minutes to notice the all the shapes and value changes you can see. Then, take a picture. You will see very quickly (assuming that you did not apply a variety of photo filters and exposure techniques) that the subtle variations will be lost in the photo. In some cases, the sky may simply become a single value. As Alber's puts it in his book:
"…photography registers all lights lighter and all darks darker than the more adjustable eye perceives them. The eye also distinguishes better the so-called middle grays, which in photography after are flattened if not lost."
There are other distortions taking place in photos that are less obvious. For example, take a picture of the Grand Canyon and print it out as a 4x6 print—do you think that the photo will give you the same sensation as standing at the Grand Canyon--obviously not? A photo is much smaller in scale than the real thing, so the physical sensation and peripheral sensations of standing there are lost. This is in addition to the value and color distortions I mentioned above. It is no wonder people's eyes glaze over when you show them vacation photos—these are a poor substitute for the real thing.
This brings me to the point of this posting. That is, that a good painting has to convey something to the viewer--and a direct reproduction of photo is unlikely to provide the necessary information to convey that sensation. Another way to think about this is to consider paintings that you like--and compare them to photos you have seen of the same thing. For instance, would you prefer to see a Manet painting of a bowl of peaches—or a photo? What would it take to make a photo of peaches as interesting, or better, than a painting? As Edgar Payne says, "A pictorial representation (painting or photo) is always a translation." The art is thus in the translation. So, if you are going to paint from photos—don’t rely entirely on the photo—think about the translation.
There are of course many ways to translate visual ideas in paint, and I am not going to be able to say much in a few paragraphs. Instead, let me focus on some ideas to help you if you are going to paint from photos in your studio.
1. Don’t lose your focal area. A good painting needs an area of emphasis, or focal area. One of the problems I see in photos, since they tend to distort values, is that they may lose or even move the artist’s intended focal point. For example, in landscape photos the far shadows darken and tend to draw undue attention. In other cases, the subtle changes in values that naturally occur in photos will reduce the emphasis/complexity out your intended focal area. Or, the opposite could occur—where more than one point of emphasis emerges (for example, due to a over-darkening of a secondary shadow). Think back to what drew your attention when you took the photo—and work to ensure that that is the focal point in your painting. Don’t rely on the photo too much.
2. Add variation in shadows. I can almost always tell a painting that has been painted from a photograph—mainly due to the darkness and simplification of the shadows. The most common mistake I see is either to make the distant shadows too dark—or the near shadows too simplified (and dark?). Put an object on the still life stand and take a picture. If you compare the photo to the actual subject—you will see there are subtle value and color changes in the shadows that will lost in the photo. If you are going to paint from the photo, you will need to put these back. If you hold your photo directly under a bright light, you may still be able to see some of the subtle changes that were actually there. If not, I recommend mixing a least three shadow values (two of which will be a half value step or so above the darkest value you plan to use). You should use these higher two values for the majority of your shadow area(s). The darkest value can then be used as an accent as needed—noting that the darkest values tend to occur where two objects meet. A cast shadow will always have some reflected light in it, so will never be the darkest dark—despite the fact they may appear that way in a photograph.
3. Reserve your highest highs. Just like shadows, the highest highs in photos tend to brighten and merge. Thus, do the same as you would for shadows. That is, don’t use white or near white values right off the bat. Start by taking down the highest values in your photograph by least 1 to 1.5 value steps. For example, the sky in most photos will appear to be nearly white—but if you look outside—the sky is usually 1-2 value steps lower (hint: hold a white cloth out at arms length and look at the sky--which is darker?). Also, the local color of the highest values in your photo may be lost or distorted—that is, they will appear washed out. You may thus need to add a bit of color back into these areas (the color of the sky on a cloudy day is not white). If you don’t’ know what color to add—start with the local color of the object and the color of your light source. The highlight is usually some variation of these.
Let me close with a quote from JF Carlson from his book on landscape painting where he says, "We must not train our eyes to copy tone for tone, but think of the bearing of such colors and harmonies up the main idea of our picture.” In other words, the problem with painting from photographs is not only that they are not an accurate record of values and/or colors—but a good painting is more than a direct copy. It is a translation of reality. So, when painting from a photograph, always keep in mind the sensation and idea that you are trying to communicate—and adjust your value and colors based on what is needed to covey that to the viewer. Don't be a slave to your reference photos. Even if you managed to get it perfectly correct, it is not likely to result in a compelling painting, so go ahead and loosen up.
Hope that is helpful.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist.