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Mar 26, 2010

Artist Daily Avoid Pitfalls of Working from Photographs

March 26, 2010
I just love this excerb from American Artist and though I would share it with you.   Great reminder to not let photos dictate YOUR art!  The source reference is below. 

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Working from Photographs

El Mercado by Mark Haworth,

2006, oil, 16 x 20. Private collection.

Winter Stream by Denise LaRue Mahlke,

2008, pastel, 14 x 18. Private collection.

I’ve spent way too much time in murky classrooms looking at slides, slides, and more slides. I’m convinced that the entire academic field of art history would grind to a halt without projectors, carousels, and slides. But what is weird about looking at so many images is that I find myself thinking that I know exactly what a sculpture or a painting really looks like because I’ve seen a photograph of it. Photographs can never tell you the full story of an object, landscape, or person’s face, but they are convenient references for artists. The reality is that most artists use source photos in some capacity when they work, whether to jog their memory of a particular place and time or to record specific visual details to incorporate in later pieces.

But to produce a successful piece of art, an artist has to be wary and attentive to what he or she is seeing—and not seeing—in a photograph. That starts with understanding the limitations of reference photos. Artist Mark Haworth, whose landscapes were featured in American Artist’s March 2009 issue, puts it this way: “The camera cannot see like the eye can when it comes to color accuracy, depth of field, and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows. There’s a lot of distortion that comes along with photographs.”

Pastel artist and instructor Denise LaRue Mahlke, a finalist in the American Artist 2009 cover competition, agrees. “Following a photo to a ‘T’ is a big mistake, because the camera lies,” she says. “Photos can be indispensible as a jumping off point, but even if the photo is an excellent one, you want to reinvent the scene for a painting to work.”

Haworth, for one, puts decidedly less emphasis on reference photos than on preliminary sketches made on-site or notes written in the field. “When I’m traveling through an area, I write what I am seeing,” he says. “My notes often give me what I can’t get in a picture. Photos don’t give the subtleties I look for to capture the look and feel of a place.”

When Mahlke is on-site and doesn’t have time to paint, she’ll often do the same—sketch and take notes. But she acknowledges that sometimes she takes as many photos as she can. “Having that multitude of photos can give you a lot to work with,” she says. “When I’m ready to start a piece, I’ll pull from many different photos for inspiration and do thumbnail sketches to familiarize myself with the subject and composition I’m working toward.”

I asked Haworth and Mahlke if constantly referring back to photos can lead to overworking or to a painting filled with a bunch of little details instead of a cohesive composition. Both artists knew just what I meant. “It can go from painting to documenting,” says Haworth. “You can take in all the details and go crazy.”

Another point both artists stressed is the importance of working from photos they’ve taken themselves. “When using someone else’s photos, you aren’t painting your own concepts, just copying,” says Mahlke. “I tell my students, ‘Work from your own photos—your ideas are there.’”

What’s more, a reference photo, no matter who clicked the shutter, shouldn’t lead to a sense of obligation to show exactly what is depicted in the shot. Instead, an artist should feel free and inspired to manipulate or leave behind a reference any way he or she chooses. That assures there’s vitality in a piece of art and means you won’t miss seeing—and hopefully recapturing—the moments that will make a painting great.

In every issue of American Artist, practicing artists share their experiences and insights so that every reader comes away with creative and technical food for thought, and many offer advice about the advantages and potential pitfalls of working with photographs. The May 2010 issue is available now.

Courtney Jordan is Editor of Artist Daily.

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American Artist May 2010 issue

cover art by Patricia Watwood

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