Discussion –  Painting from Photos

Discussion – Painting from Photos

Chuck Close painting from photographs
Painter Chuck Close is famous for large realistic paintings from photographs.   From BBC article about learning to paint after his paralysis (click image to read)

Recap Discussion for Lesson #6

Let’s talk about painting from life vs painting from photographs.   The self-portraits we worked on exclusively used a photograph even as a mechanism for tracing and finding the right color. This might have felt more difficult than working on the live apple painting. Why? Faces are very complex and we look at images of ourselves with the most critical eye, seeing and caring about details others do not.

Putting the psychology aside though, photographs are flat, they cannot capture everything our eye can, the subtlety of light and shadow from a specific angle, the color accuracy or depth of field. In some ways, the camera lies to us, showing us an ideal or showing things not quite as they really appear.   When using reference images, best practice is often to use your own images,    use multiple images,   use a small section of an image or inspiration for a specific quality of the image in your final piece.

Many painters (digital and analog) use photographs for reference or for straight recreation of the image, transferred into a different media (digital ‘paint’ being a medium also).   When using images, the artist must interpret what they are seeing and not seeing in the photo to some extent and craft the work to reinterpret the scene.

What do you think? When is it easier to use a photo reference vs real life? What was your experience and thoughts over the last few weeks in terms of what you valued from each experience? Is there part of the process of using a photo for reference you found particularly helpful?   Is there something lost when you paint from a photo in terms of quality?   What do you think about using other people’s photos for reference, when and how is that okay or not okay, ethically or legally?

Reply on this post and comment on other’s replies.


  1. rhwillcox

    I think that for digital painting, using photo references is definitely easier and better. That being said, I did enjoy using a real-life reference because I felt like I was less restricted by the feeling of needing to make my painting look just like the picture (which is how I felt using a photo reference). Using a photo reference was easier because I didn’t have to worry about changing lighting or even like how I was sitting in my chair. Also using a real-life reference to digitally paint is pretty impractical for most things. It’d be incredibly annoying to set up my computer and tablet outside to paint anything from nature.
    I definitely feel like one can lose a lot of interesting color choices when using a photo reference if one is using the eyedropper tool to use the same colors as the reference. That isn’t so much of an issue when using a real-life reference.
    In terms of using images belonging to other people for reference, I think that if it’s a direct and recognizable reference, one should probably only use it with permission or it would be copyright infringement. If one is using an image for a more vague reference or using a combination of images, I don’t really see the harm in doing that and I don’t think many people could tell anyway. That being said, I’d much prefer to take my own reference photos if possible because then you could get exactly what you want and it wouldn’t look like anyone else’s work.

  2. Avatar photo slager

    I talked about this in my journal post too, not remembering it was our discussion post for this week.

    I preferred drawing from the photograph to drawing from life. I found it enabled me to quickly throw down lines where I wanted them and pull colors for my base palette. If I wanted to take an image in a more whimsical direction, I could either free hand it over the sketch, or incorporate other photographs to capture the details/spacing, etc… as necessary.

    Ultimately, I’d rather use my own photographs to avoid any concerns about ethical and legal use of the image. In practicality, I know that isn’t possible all the time. In the case of using other people’s images, I think that there are two different questions you must ask yourself: first, how closely you are copying the image; and second, if you are copying the image rather than using it as a point of reference, do you have the photographer’s permission? Ethically, I think it’s probably okay to use a photographer’s image of the Taj Mahal for reference (size, shape, color, sun rise/set direction) without attribution. Realistically, multiple source images will probably be used in order to try to capture the true shape and life of an image so giving attribution to every single source may be unnecessarily cumbersome. If making a direct copy of the image, I think it’s important to attribute the source material (ethically and legally). If it’s a free-use image, attribution may not be necessary, but it certainly can’t hurt. I imagine it’d be a treat to discover that an image I contributed to an open-source platform was used to make more art. You may also be helping out the original artist by attributing your source material, which may lead them to be able to make more art and contributions.

  3. Ken

    I found both assignments equally difficult and frustrating due to my lack of experience and native talent when it comes to drawing humans and objects that aren’t comprised of right angles. I discovered that for both assignments I would get drawn into the minutia of getting specific details looking correct.
    Gun to my head I would have to say photo reference would have to be the easiest method to work from as you can dig into some of the more subtle details and maybe using that to make some subtle changes to make the final portrait a little more interesting or different than one might expect.

  4. crocha2

    I would prefer using a photo. Just because I can focus in more on the picture. Both drawing assignments were very difficult for me as well. Due to the fact that I don’t have enough experience or talent to draw as well as others. Going back to why I like using photos instead of real life, because I can focus on details on the photos then I would in real life. I think you can use people’s photos as a reference when having their permission. I think in some sense when paint using a photo quality. Just because like you mentioned, in last weeks exercise there’s many color in a photo.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.