Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ask Stape; why not just work from photos?

Dear Stape;

I've been following your blog for a while now and while not a real 'painter' (I paint digitally, not with traditional medium), I still love reading your columns and advice.
My question is on this line of your last update entitled 'Take That':

"Learning to paint landscapes from a photo is like learning to swim at home on the sofa.

I'm wondering - why? Is it because our peripheral vision? I'm just trying to have a more complete understanding of this. I mean, is the photo of the landscape not the same as the landscape? (minus the obvious fact that it is cropped)? What are the benefits, etc? (outside of some nice fresh air!)

Signed; Morlock

Dear Morlock;

I could give you a lot of different technical reasons about depth of field and inaccurate color, cropping, the difficulty of creating that D which is three from D by two image. But there is one really, really good reason I can give you that will slay the beastie once and for all.

Can you imagine me saying " I was so moved by this lovely photograph that I painted this picture?" I didn't think so!
If I am outside on location I am experiencing the beauty of nature before me. I convey that through my paintings. I love this world and I want to do something with that. If you are working from a photo it is like doing a portrait of a cadaver. A painting from a photo is a design project or a cold rendering, but the spark and excitement of the experienced world is gone. If you get the same thrill from a photo as from life, you might as well marry a girlie magazine.
Art comes from passion and inspiration, that's why its called art and not mechanics.

That being said, there are times when photographs are useful. There are fleeting effects, posthumous portrait commissions (often of dogs for some weird reason) and places that are impossible to set up an easel. It is a different thing if you are a very experienced artist who has learned to paint outside, (which is where the landscape is stored). Painting a long time outside gives you a mental library of the moves that nature likes to make. I virtually never start a painting from a photograph, but I do take photos of the locations and sometimes use them while finishing in the studio. When I do, I never let the photo use me.

One of the problems with working from photos is that when I stand before the landscape I have binocular vision, I see that D which is three, I use a convention called "form" to mimic that experience. I can't do that from a photo. The colors in a photo are very different than what the eye perceives, I don't copy those colors but they are my starting point. Lastly even a 30 by 50 monitor is far smaller than the viewable image I get outside, its as big as the whole world.

When I am on painting trips I often am struck by a scene and I photograph it, thinking that it would make a great picture. When I get it home I am always surprised, it seems like the picture opportunity has evaporated somehow. I always think, "why did I take that, what did I think was there?".


billspaintingmn said...

If you want something done right~
you got to do it yourself!

Rhonda Hartis Smith said...

Very inspirational words, I need to get outside!

willek said...

One of the best examples of the shortcomings of photos is in depicting the ocean and the waves thereon. Photographs just cannot convey the color, size, transluscency, rythm, sound, horror, movement, power, and dynamism of waves. For that, you just have to get out and paint a lot of waves face to face.

JT Harding said...

I've done landscape paintings en plein air and paintings from photographs. The former have mostly all sold. The later adorn my walls and collect dust.

Philip Koch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philip Koch said...

Stape, I seriously loved this post! In your inimitable way you show that a painter allows himself or herself to be moved by the subject so that their resulting painting can move others.

Looking back over the 40 some years I've been up to my elbows in plein air painting, I know it has been one of the most REAL things I could have done with my life. It brought amazing highs and miserable lows. In short, just like any other intimate and profound relationship we might have.

Thanks for your eloquence.

Gregory Becker said...

I have given up on photo references. I once took a photo of some columns and when I got the picture back it looked strange to me. I put a straight edge on the edge of the column and it was bowed in the center. I thought, if that is wrong who knows what else is.
My eyes are better than cameras and they see colors better.

Tom said...

Its funny the Chinese landscape painters always painted from their imagination and have produce some of the worlds most beautiful landscape paintings, even eliminating color. It seems the greatest source of art is the imagination, which to me means how one thinks about things and how you order them. The biggest mistake is thinking the art lies in the subject; the art lies in the artist. Which seems to be the point of the blog.

And how can you conceive something dimensional or think it through from a photo. I am always amazed at how unreadable photos are when it comes to terrain and form. Even when looking at anatomy texts a photo of a muscle is a weak thing compared to a drawing of the same muscle that has been thought out dimensionally. The form starts to take dimension in your mind in all directions. said...

I have a giant copper lined humidor room where I am stock piling all those GREAT cigars. The day I turn 80, I'm gonna be smoking through them Nothing to loose at that point.I'm closer every day.

I always see a a lot of paintings from photographs being sold because they look like an accurate picture. Usually artists who rely on photos do so because of drawing issues.It is much easier to trace, copy or project a photo? More fun to draw every day.

I don't begrudge people painting photographs...obviously there is a good market. It's just that it's not for me and it is not the way for anyone to learn to paint. My paintings aren't perfect but neither is life. Color speaks for itself.

Susan McCullough said...

Whenever I do a plein air painting and take a picture of the same scene, I am always amazed at how much life is lacking in the photo as compared to the painting. Over and over again. If I were to see that scene and take the picture only, I can guarantee you that I wouldn't want to paint it because the picture is so blah!

Stapleton Kearns said...



Stapleton Kearns said...

Get outside!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Study the waves outside, paint seascape inside!

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is heartening to hear.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. That was a real question posed to me via e-mail

Stapleton Kearns said...

The columns may have had entasis, that is a deliberate swelling of the midsection that makes them look better. It is proper and classical.

Stapleton Kearns said...

While I enjoy looking at oriental art, it is not something in which I am expert. I have no informed opinion on the subject.
.................Stape I

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thats what happens to me!

Deborah Paris said...

"self important tongue swallowers"......oh, Lordy, I have to remember that one! I have had a lousy day and you just made laugh so loud I snorted. Thanks!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Watch out for them. They make a sort of choking sound.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Every gallery I am in has someone who paints copies of photographs. They usually are one of the best selling artists in the gallery. They are also, for some reason, self important tongueswallowers.

Ocean Quigley said...

One major distinction between painting from life versus painting from photos (and I do both) is that painting from life sets a deadline!

The act of painting becomes a sort of performance, requiring a focus and intensity that painting from photos doesn't, and that's reflected in the vitality of the brushstrokes.

Daniel Corey said...

"like doing a portrait from a cadaver" LoL , another Moxie coming your way!

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...


Long-time reader, first-time poster.

Love your somewhat curmudgeonly, yet avuncular perspective on landscape painting. I often find myself nodding in agreement as I read along, and I appreciate how you'd rather talk about the act of painting, and the things which make for a good painting, over mere process and materials.

Having said that...

I totally agree with your point. Working from a photo source is secondary to working from direct observation. But, if one must shoot some take-home references for later indoor touch-ups, setting the focal length of your camera lens to about 55mm (or the 35mm SLR film equivalent) will most closely approximate what our eyes were seeing in situ, with regards to minimizing potential perspective distortion.

(Meaning, 55mm lens focal length on a 35mm SLR film camera. Remember 35mm film? How old-school is that? The equivalent 35mm focal length for most DSLRs, or all digital compacts, will vary according to their sensor size so some math is required. If a reader here doesn't know what I am talking about then ask any camera-geek and they will be happy to 'splain it to you. All you'll have to remember after that is what the equivalent focal length equivalent is for your digi-camera, and to set it before snapping off your reference material.)

Of course, the resulting images will still have the same limitations as before, and perhaps provide you a lesser field of view, but at least the photos won't contain exaggerated distortion, and all the objects within the image frame will be in natural scale to each other as they recede into the picture plane.

But to get back to your real point: To paint from life is best, and I too will put up with almost anything to get to do that -- barring objects being thrown out at me from passing cars, accidentally falling off a cliff when stepping back to check the painting, being charged by free-ranging steer (happened to me as well), and endless young children trying to stick their finger in my paint while asking me "What color is that? Are you an artist? Can I help?"

Or, once having a disgruntled farmer tired of city-slickers hanging about his orchard pull a shotgun on me, rack a shell into the chamber, and say, "Git offen mah land!" (Quickest jump over a fence I ever made. A fine, "Howdydoo son", before lifting the barrel would have been nice, if you ask me...)

In the end, plein air work keeps it real and pumps life into a painting in a way photos cannot. Plus, there are those side health benefits to remember: it gets us outside and into fresh air like mom always insisted we do. Yeah! Go Vitamin D!

Great blog. Fun to read every day. And helpful. Part of the ritual morning cup of coffee.

Thomas Kitts