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Working From Photographs

Today I finished working on my painting of two pink peonies. For my flower series, I have been working from live sketches and photographs. First, I make thumbnail sketches to choose the best cropping and then I make notes about the original colors I see, since the human eye can always see more than a camera. Finally, I use the thumbnails to take some photos. The photos capture the finer details and exact lighting of the moment.

Contemporary painters are split on the use of photography as a tool to create paintings. On the one hand, you have traditional painters that believe using photography is a crutch that will hamper the development of personal style, and on the other hand you have photorealists who champion the use of photographs, even multiple photographs, pointing out that painters have always used technology to help compose work. Van Gogh, for example, used a tool called a perspective frame.

Basically, as you can see from the picture above, it's a wooden frame with strings attached. The painter holds it up in front of her while looking at a scene, and the perspective frame helps her keep the middle of the scene in the middle of the painting. Before Van Gogh, painters used Camera Obscuras and Durer drew this picture of a device that he used called a Perspective Machine (see:

The reason traditional painters worry about using photography is because of a historic fear that photography will eventually replace painting and cause it to become obsolete. Alternately, they ask why that one would use paint to represent a scene realistically when the camera is obviously so good at this task. Instead, why not use paint to do what only paint can do . . . i.e. create abstract compositions that show off the quality of the paint itself, or heavily stylized work that comes from the imagination. Interestingly, even Van Gogh encountered this challenge to his work from fellow painter Gaugain, who felt that painters should paint from the imagination and not from observation. Gaugain even went so far as to suggest that a painter should only paint from memory and never have the subject of the work in the room while working. Van Gogh, in contrast, preferred to paint by looking directly at still lives or while out painting en plein air.

I would like to master painting from observation, using the tools that are available to me. I have years of drawing experience, and could rely solely on my drawing skills to help me quickly sketch a scene. I also have some painting experience and could, like the impressionists, try to capture a moment quickly with bold strokes before it disappears. Currently, however, I am using photography to aid my sketching and painting because I want to extend my ability to observe a moment past the moment itself. I want to improve my ability to study a single instance of lighting at my leisure, and the camera lets me do that.

I also have some additional reasons for using photography as a tool. When I was younger, I had an uncorrected astigmatism that caused me to lack depth perception. In other words, things looked flatter to me than they did to the average person. This past year, I finally had my vision adjusted correctly and now perceive the world in its full 3D glory. Surprisingly, this affected my ability to draw. Because drawings are inherently flat, seeing the world as flat was actually an advantage when I was composing. When I see the world in 3D now, I see objects first and shapes second. I'm in the process of retraining my brain to "see" shapes and shades in a dimensional reality. Snapping a quick picture helps me to check what I see against an artificially created flat image.

I also take pictures of my painting throughout the entire painting process. This is less to document my work and more to gain a new perspective on it. With digital photography, I can see a picture on a monitor instantly. What this does for me, is it allows me to see a very small version of my work. I can walk back to see the picture from a different distance, but I can only do so within the confines of the room. The photographs give me a quick way of shrinking the work to mimic what it would look like from a greater distance away. The same thing is true when capturing the original image that I work from. Snapping a picture lets me quickly assess whether or not something that I am looking at up close would also look good from a distance.

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