So, one of the things I'm beginning to notice is that when I take reference photos, and then I go back to look at them to paint, I can’t choose one because there always seems to be something missing. Either, I wish I'd also taken what I saw to the left, to the right as well as straight ahead. Or, while the photo is lovely, it would not make a good composition for a painting.
Not sure why, I tried again and again to follow my photography instinct to take reference photos. And time and again, it was a great photo that would not lend itself to a great composition. It didn’t matter if it was a landscape or still life. There was just something . . . not right. After mulling this over for a really long time, months, I think I am beginning to see the reasoning behind this quandary.
Keeping in mind this is only my opinion and I haven’t run this by any photographers, or for that matter, painters, I still think it may have merit. This is not in any way to be derived as derogatory toward photographers or photography. Actually it's a plea of sorts, a plea to see a shift in the universe of painters who use photographs for reference and the photographers who take said photos.
A photographer loves drama. Light, fog, shadow, subject, exposure. Color, gray scale, those elements make a photographer’s lens very busy. An artist loves drama as well. Light, shadow, subject in diffused light, a center of interest, value and composition all keep our brushes moving.
The difference is this;
A photographer will amp up the shadow and exposure for drama and atmosphere, and will place items in a composition for maximum effect, drama, or to make a statement.
A painter must take that information and then shift items or lighting to make sure that the subject is not too close or far away, move items into a center of interest, thus placing them so that they don’t go out of the field of vision, and, tone down negative space into a shadow that is full of texture, color and values that are not too dark or not too light. After all, if the shadows are black, there is no further communication of what is in there, and, if the light is all white, there is nothing to stop the flatness of emptiness.
A photographer will highlight one thing in a composition – a red door, a cardinal in snow, a row of pears. They will allow those pears to line up perfectly or go off the edge of the photo.
A painter has to make that red door be within an environment for it to mean anything; it may be burgundy against bougainvillea or it may seem orange next to a wall of ivy. The door itself, while it can be the center of interest, is not hanging out in space and needs a context to be compelling. The cardinal must not have snow obscuring the beak unless it’s on purpose, or it loses the value of a reference photo and will look deformed. That row of pears won’t have any sense of form or shadow if there is just an overlapping, or worse, if each is just kissing the next, with no drama of one cut open or on its side to give the full sense of how round they are and how the colors vary in light and shadow.
A photographer will overexpose for the sake of drama, or underexpose for the sake of atmosphere.
A painter needs the information inside the light and inside the shadow because they must create that air, and therefore burnout and negative space don’t exist for an artist.
A photographer and artist will see different things; our eyes look upon the same scene and see different virtues. An example: The golden mean is a mathematical calculation that is evident in all of nature. To the advantage of a painter, it can help calculate where the eye moves in a painting and what is the most appealing size for a painting, where is the best placement of the center of interest. Specifically, that could be a canvas size that, at the golden mean ratio of 1:1.61803, has a height and width size approximately 8” x 12”, 10” x 16”, 11” x 17”, and so on.
On the sweet spot, if a photograph or painting were placed in a grid, the sweet spot would never be in the center! It would be in the outer quadrants; lower right, upper right, lower left, upper left – but close to the center of the entire canvas those areas. That is where the eye travels when looking at a painting and where you’d want the viewer’s eyes to rest on the center of interest, whether that is a pear or a cabin on a mountain.
However, a photographer will usually place the center of interest in the center, which seems logical. But for an artist who may be using that photograph for a painting, that would require a composition that is far different in feeling, sense of space and shadow and surrounding information from the photograph. It may be a great photo that someone might want to paint but the information was created for the photographer’s eye, not the painter’s, and therefore would need to be adjusted for those principles.
I’d like to think that I now beginning to recognize what was nagging at me relative to using a photograph as a reference for a painting. Reference photos are taken with the eye of a photographer and not always with the eye of a painter.
If a photographer is offering photos for reference material for painters, or, if the photographer is the painter, it would be important to keep in mind that the elements necessary for a painting are not the same for a photographer.
The subject should not be to big; not zoomed in too much, not such dramatic light that there is over or under exposure, that the center of interest can be in the center area of the canvas but should never be in the exact center, that the lines made by the traveling eye in a photograph are not the same as the way the viewer’s eye moves around in a painting. And most importantly, a painter never wants the eye of the viewer to move out of the painting. There needs to be elements that move the eye back in and around so the viewer continues to be in and on the painting.
Finally, I realized that that if using photographs for reference, that photograph should not be taken literally or copied to the full extent of every leaf and every nuance of the hairs on ones’ subject’s head. They should be used for inspiration to create the universe inside the drama and feeling of a photographer’s eye that is then translated into the universe of imagination that is the vision created by the painter.
The photographer can help by taking photographs with a painter’s need of reference material that meets the criteria of a good painting composition, good painting values, and good painting sense of spatial relationships of subjects or light.
A painter can’t really reciprocate to the photographer since it is not the painter’s creations that are being used for the photographer, but the other way around. This is not really a symbiotic relationship and to me, should not be. Why is the artist painting photographs? Is it to see what was around the corner or to copy leaf by leaf the shade of an oak tree? That does no favor for the artist or the photographer although if not the artist, it can boost a photographer's ego to know that someone is copying leaf for leaf what they thought was relevant enough to copy, I suppose.
I have seen a tendency of painters in recent years to do exact copies of photographs, and of painting teachers to demand that same exactitude. Photo realism has taken over the art world to the point of becoming a huge genre that is celebrated and held up as the benchmark of a ‘good artist’. I, on the other hand, would like to say that is only the benchmark of one type of artist, that the ability to exactly copy might be a stunning ability, but to me, is not the best use of a painter’s imagination and reservoir of talent. Show me a painter who can look at a photograph and paint IT and then show me a painter who can look at a photograph, discard the photograph and dig deep into their well of knowledge, and then create an interpretation of that environment and I’ll take the second painter every time. To me, therein lies the talent! Use of the memory of trees mixed with a good dose of the imagining of trees rather than the documentation of trees approaches the very definition of 'Artist'. To record what one feels can only be revealed and nurtured by the elimination of the photo as blueprint.
I use photos, I love photos and I love to take them to record my universe, not only for my use but for the future. However, I now know that what using a photo can have for me must not become a crutch or the sole resource for my art. I have to take that photo and make it into a vision that is mine alone. Not the vision of the photographer, even if that photographer is me. Great photo/not so great painting. And that is the difference and reason I wasn’t satisfied with the photos I used for years. My world is not a reflection of the camera lens. My world is a reflection of me.
By injecting into their creations the translation of their own artistic signature, an artist can then re-imagine their universe into something that is rich in texture and invention instead of a replica that is derivative of a camera lens. After all, if it’s that close to reality, why bother painting? Just take a picture.