I always paint from life- never from photographs. I’ve noticed that many painters, especially beginners, do work from photographs. I can usually tell simply by looking at the painting that it wasn’t painted from life. Edges are hard, 3-dimensional forms are unconvincing, colors lack subtlety, there is not enough detail in either the darks or the lights, and there is little sense of light flowing through the work. Why should this be? Doesn’t a photo show us just what reality looks like?
The answer is, no! The camera does not reliably show us what the world looks like. How many times have you seen something beautiful or striking, and photographed it only to see a disappointing result? The camera can reproduce only a limited range of values and colors. If the light is too bright, the darks are completely washed out. If there’s not enough light, the camera registers only dark with no details. Looking at a photograph, it is impossible to truly study forms and light flowing around them.
Another problem with painting from photos is that a photo captures the view from just one point. It might happen that from this one point, an object’s shape is confusing. It’s true form may not be visible. The resulting painting would be unconvincing, as the artist is obliged to guess at the true form. If the artist were working from life, however, he would merely have to move his head a little to be able to see the shape clearly, and paint it as it really is.
Finally, using a photo puts an artist a step removed from reality. I can’t imagine studying my set-ups and painting without being completely immersed in what’s before me. If I used a photograph, I’d be painting the 2-D photograph, not the world. I want my work to show what I see, in an immediate, visceral way.
I do use a camera in my work, but not at the painting stage. When I am composing a painting, I use my camera to record the potential set-ups so that I can judge how they will look as 2-D compositions.