Saturday, February 21, 2009

PONDER: Why Painting From Life?

The insistence on painting from life is one of the things I initially thought the artiste elite said in order to make the path difficult for us self-taught folks. I mean, you have to paint from life, copy Bargue plates, study in Italy, use $20 brushes, buy $600 rolls of linen, etc etc etc. True? Not all of it.

So, I started by painting from photos. And I can get pretty true to the photo *golf clap.* But what I know now is that painting from photos is part of what slowed my self-education. When I finally relented and painted from life, I got a lot better, really fast. It's actually pretty easy to make the time and space to do this - easier than working from photos, it turns out. Here's how, and here's why (I think).

1 - Painting from photos reinforces bad habits you were taught in grade school. Because you're copying a 2-d image to a 2-d image, the impulse is to COPY. And that means contours and outlines, and that means filling in contours like a coloring book. Sometimes - and you can find lots of this on Youtube - it means TRACING. That's right, it's only natural. If your goal is to make something look like the photo, well, you want everything in just the right spot yes? Tracing is an effective way to get it in the "right spot."

2 - The procedure for life is fundamentally different. When I copy a photo, I draw the contours and color them in. When I work from life, I situate the important landmarks relative to each other and then build the form in planes. The painting is brought up as a whole. Each thing is done so that each next thing makes sense and has a place to live - like making sure the background is the right color so that I can see whether the light side of the object is working. The artifacts of this method - edge variation, exagerrated focal point, vivid color and brushwork, perspective - are what makes a from-life painting look more alive.

The benefit to building forms in planes is that they look more natural. One of the hallmarks of a copied photo is value transitions that don't go anywhere. The painter analyses the photo for shapes to copy, and then puts them on the canvas. But those shapes all are supposed to mean something, and what they usually mean is "I am a form of XXXX shape in XXXX light and I am angled this way." Once you've divorced the form from the symptoms of form (e.g. changing values), you get a lot of miscellaneous shapes and values that don't necessarily do the job of making XXXX form turn where it's supposed to. When you're painting from life you'll eventually ask yourself, "Is it round? Is it the right kind of round and the right kind of shiny?" But with a photo you're more likely to say "What shape is this context-free band of grey?"

3 - We don't see like a camera. The camera takes its best guess at highlights and deep shadow. There's some distortion - uhm, to be honest I don't think I see that as much as other people say they do. But what I know is true is that the highlights and shadows are wrong. When you look into a shadow, you see more. Same is true for highlights. Prove it to yourself - take a photo of the thing you were going to paint from life and see if they look the same. They don't. Not to mention, your head moves and the camera doesn't. Painting from a photo is like pinning a bug to a board and recreating it in chunks. Painting from life is like following the bug around, disassembling it mentally and reassembling it in your brain.

4 - Painting from photos makes you look like a noob. Everybody knows. You can totally tell. (See #5)

5 - Painting from life makes photo work a million times better. Come on! Who the heck always paints from life? There are effects of light that you can't paint because they're gone in a few minutes. Kids and animals do not sit for portraits. Flowers die and fruit changes colors. Sometimes your spouse wants the dining room back. OK? But if you have practiced painting from life, you can make photo work LOOK like it was painted from life by building it as though you were painting from life. It makes you smarter. The photo then is a resource, not a goal.

6 - It's totally easy. Make a box, line it with paper, light it from the side. Controlling the lighting simplifies the scene. Light your canvas with the same kind of bulb. Mix your paints to match what you see, on the real object. It will take a half dozen or so tries to stop trying to get the scene totally static in your mind if you're used to photos. Trust yourself. Use the Force, Luke.

Of course, if you're a photorealist, this is all moot. Carry on.

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  1. Once again you've written a thoughtful, helpful, yet funny blog. On #2 - Building the forms in planes, more easily applied to still life, yes? Would you say a landscape equivalent is massing values?
    #3 the moving head is key. Enables us to achieve a google earth effect. Squishing a panorama into a standard size canvas, etc.
    #4 Shouldn't that be spelled newb? :)

  2. Thanks Dale! You're right, I was thinking figures and still life. The massing of values in landscape is the same thing at the start, but when you get to the stuff of your landscape - the tree, the rock, the bison - you'll be modelling planes again.

    LOL noob is funny. Newb and newbie work too. ;-)


  3. Just what I needed to hear. It really is the difference between thinking and not thinking.
    Or rather artistic thinking and not thinking.
    I draw quite a bit from my imagination and I have to think my way around forms and it is challenging. (I like that though)
    Drawing or painting from life is seeing in stereo. Even though the result is 2D what we see in 3D helps us to draw and paint in 3D.
    If you look at something with one eye shut and then switch eyes and go back and forth and then open both eye together it becomes obvious how important working from life is.
    Camera 2
    We see more with 2 cameras.
    BTW I thought that was a typo and that you meant to say boob since the b is next to the n.

  4. Fantastic post. I think point 2 has the most bearing on the difference between working from photos and life, but point 4 is my favourite because it's the funniest. That's the one I'm going to wheel out next time in one of these discussions :)

    >It really is the difference between thinking and not thinking.
    Excellent point, completely agree.

    >Drawing or painting from life is seeing in stereo.
    I don't agree here though. I work sight size a lot and generally work with one eye closed. It's still very different from working from a photo. The point about thinking was much nearer the mark I think.

    Much great work has been done from photo reference no doubt, but by people who had mastered working from life first. I religiously avoid using photo reference personally because learning to paint realistically is hard enough as it is without giving yourself two version of reality to deal with.

    The hardest part of learning to paint and draw, I think, is learning to see, training observational skills, and using photos is counter-productive to that goal.

    It has to be said too, that very often people use awful photo reference. That really, really doesn't help.

  5. Great post - one more:

    My reason for not working from photos is that art is a record of an experience, the experience of the time and attention you give your subject. Painting from a photo is a record of looking at a photo. It makes the painting a product, not a process.

    That said, I don't look down on anyone who does it, working from life is a time-expensive luxury, and sometimes you gotta just make a product if you want to make a living :)

  6. Your eyes see differently in a complimentary way. Your right and left eye create different images that overlap to enable us to percieve a greater sense of depth.
    Closing one eye to percieve measurements is a good tool but, if you switch eyes, those same measurements are placed differently in the same space and relationship to space changes although it is only side to side.
    Finding the space that an object occupies in stereo creates a greater sense of placement, depth and realism.
    Here's a fun experiment to try:
    Stand stationary and with a camera, take a picture with your left eye and another with your right eye.
    Develop or upload your photos and place them side by side.
    Now slightly cross your eyes. You will see 3 images. One on the left and right, and one in the middle. The one in the middle is a merged photo of the other two and it will be a 3D image.

  7. Great post-so right on. Add painting is creating. It's emotion..... it's making the view feel something. Duplicating is just that. It's not art.

  8. See... now THIS is why I always said you were a great teacher...!! Funny, informative, revealing, enlightening, creating light-bulb moments in your readers heads...!!