The pros and cons of painting from photos

I must confess, I always paint from photos. I’ve never painted plein air landscapes. It’s something I’d love to do at some point, but first I’d like to improve to a point where I feel I could do it justice.

Some purists would argue that you should never paint from photos. Others (like me) only paint from photos. And some people paint from life to begin with and then use photos as reference to finish their paintings in the studio.

As with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to painting from photos.

The obvious advantage is that you can paint from the comfort of your home or studio. You don’t need to stand out in the cold, or worry about changing light or weather conditions, and you can take as long as you need. Painting from a photo is simply much more convenient than painting from life.

The main disadvantage is that a camera is unable to capture all the subtle colours that we can see with our eyes. Most photos will make the darks too dark, and the lights too light. Especially in scenes with strong lighting, it’s difficult to capture what we can see, using a camera.

Dark areas in a scene often have lots of colour in them when you look with your eyes, but when you take a photo, the shadows might look flat and uninteresting.

One way to get around this (to an extent) is to use a camera with an HDR (high dynamic range) setting. This mode takes two separate photos for each scene, one exposed for the lights, and one exposed for the darks, and then makes a composite of the two images, so that the lights and darks are well balanced, and more like what you see in reality. It’s not a perfect solution, but it definitely helps.

The most important thing you need to do is make sure you don’t become a slave to the photo. Don’t paint everything exactly as it appears, but use your artistic license and your knowledge of the limitations of photos to adjust things as you see fit. Paint the colours that you can’t see in the shadows, but you know are there. Tweak the saturation in your painting (because photos often aren’t as saturated as they should be). Move things around for a more pleasing composition. Use the photo only for reference, not as an exact image that you have to replicate.

I’d love to hear how you feel about painting from photos. Leave a comment and let me know which you prefer and what the pros and cons are for you.

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