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Pros & Cons of Working from Photos

When creating, what are the pros & cons of using: Photographs, Imagination, or Reality? In this 3 part ARTicle, we’ll go in-depth looking into the answers. By learning each source’s advantages and disadvantages you’ll be able to choose which works best for you and your art. In this, Part 1, we’ll focus on Photographs. Let’s get started!

Working from photos, PROS:

  • Enjoy the Ease: Working from photographs can be the simplest way to jump right into working on a piece. It’s first my list because I think it’s the biggest benefit of the source. Bring up a photo on your phone, computer, a magazine, or work from photos you have on hand. There’s no need to hire a model, go to a location, or set up a still life; having a subject can be right at your fingertips.
  • Perfect Timing: There’s a lot of waiting when working from life. Waiting for a model to arrive or be available. Waiting for the weather to change. Waiting for the sun to be in the right position, or for the flower to bloom. Photos are ready when you are.
  • Follow Tradition: It’s a modern-day master copy. Usually, in art, we say “master copy” we’re referring to a painting copy of a painting done by an old master. Classical art schools today continue the tradition of encouraging their students to learn from the masters by painting copies of their works. William Merritt Chase did master copies. Here’s a book that shows the paintings he copied of greats like Velázquez, van Dyck, and Rembrandt. But how about famous artists who worked from photos? To name a few: Gauguin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas. Below see a photo and the Van Gogh painting that came from it.

  • Stop Time: Have you ever tried to draw or paint children, a sunset, a pet? All these things are shifting while you work. It’s exhilarating trying to capture fleeting moments! But it is also a great experience to observe and learn from photographs of them.
  • Pause Action: If you’re wanting to capture the action of your subject like a jump in mid-air, crossing the finish line, or a freeze-frame of wild laughter, photography is our best friend in moments like these!
  • Save Money: Live models are awesome … but you do need to give them their well-deserved pay. Epic locations are great, but photos can take you there even if your travel budget can not.
  • Dream On: You can have anything, anywhere, and anyone as your subject! Haven’t bought that Harley yet? Draw your dream bike. Never been to Egypt? Paint the pyramids. Believe Elvis has left the building? He can be alive & well in your drawing.
  • Get Nostalgic: We all have photographs of loved ones long gone, a historic homestead, or simple childhood scenes. How beautiful to revisit these images and give them new life through your art.
  • Call the Shots: It’s double duty for an artist when you take photos for yourself or work closely with a photographer. A great example of an artist who did this is Norman Rockwell. This book shows the photos next to the paintings Rockwell created from them.

Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation. Henri Cartier

Working from Photos, CONS (and how to combat them!)

  • Statuesque: Live models are awesome in their humanness. While my models make micro-moves, my drawing is improving its feeling of reality. Bringing a sense of life to your model when working from photos can be done! It’s just more of a challenge.
  • Flatness: When working from life we use 2 cameras: our eyes. Our eyes interpret a 3-dimensional view into a 2D one, leaving a unique imprint of our view as well as a sense of the fullness of form. When working from photos that mental process is lost. To fight flatness pay special attention to think of your photo’s subject in 3D.
  • Creative (Out of) Control: Working from other people’s photographs can take the artistic control out of your hands. We are not copy machines. Enjoy imposing your ideas and vision on images. Think of those photos as references rather than something you’re Xeroxing.
  • Temptation to Trace: Tracing can be a learning exercise, but it can also become a bad habit. Set up your screen or photo out of arms reach. Work from it as if it was reality, and once in a while, you can compare your work to the photo side by side.
  • Infringement: Even if it doesn’t say “copyrighted” images are still intellectual properties of someone. Consider keeping the artwork you’ve created from found photos private; Or seek the photographer’s permission. Photographers are artists too. If you get permission, show proper gratitude by giving credit when sharing your work.
  • Originality in Question: I once saw a painting win a show’s competition only to later be removed from the exhibit when the judges discovered it broke the rules by being based on a National Geographic cover. Very sad.  If you enter competitions or shows, read the rules carefully! Often they’ll say something like “Piece must be original in concept and design” ruling out artworks made from photos not your own.

Final thought: Do photographs inspire and facilitate you to do more art? Yes? Great- keep going! There’s no shame in it. Some of the best artists I know work from photos and their work is amazing!
Stay tuned for more Pros and Cons in Part 2, where we’ll be focusing on Working from Imagination, and Part 3, Working from Real Life.
Do you have a photo you’d like to draw? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave your comment below.

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  1. Awesome! Can’t wait to read the next installments. Thank you for a great workshop today, Kelly. Come back for the full figure or painting!