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« Vettriano Redux--Art & Photography | Main | Elsewhere »

April 06, 2006

Photographic References in Painting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Friedrich's recent post on photography and its use by painters raises some interesting points. Enough interesting stuff that I decided to forego commenting to write this post on the matter.

I want to consider use of photographic references from the point of view of the artist.

To my way of thinking, the important thing is the resulting painting. The goal of the artist is to produce the painting and how he goes about it is his business.

Actually, things aren't so simple. For example, there are certain expectations that affect the marketing of the art; a commissioned portrait normally is "understood" to be done in oils and not to include, say, collage elements (unless negotiated by artist and client before work begins).

Then there informal expectations. I can't say where it came from, but as an art student I absorbed the idea that use of a live model as reference was good and basing the work on photos was bad -- cheating, really. And I can't be alone on this because I've come across many instances of artists trying to avoid going on record as users of photography or making elaborate justifications when found out.

Nevertheless, I now happen to think using photos is just fine in many cases if not all.

A few words about camera lenses

What the artist needs to understand is how camera lenses influence the look of the photograph.

If I remember my photography lore in the 35 millimeter world, a moderate telephoto lens (105mm for my Nikon F, for instance) is considered best for portraits. Telephoto lenses tend to "flatten" depth. When an activist wants to campaign against cluttered streetscapes, he'll dig out a photo taken with a 200mm or stronger lens sighted down a commercial strip with lots of signs. The photo will show nothing but a huge gaggle of signs and this will horrify voters, hopefully for him.

A "portrait lens" also flattens the face of the subject, but to a lesser degree. The nose is shortened, for one thing. Telephoto lenses also have a smaller depth range ("depth of field" is the term of art) for sharp focus than a "normal" or a wide-angle lens (extreme wide-angle lenses show nearly everything in focus). So the portrait lens has the added virtue of blurring the background (and possibly some foreground) while leaving the subject sharply defined.

A portrait painter, knowing this, might choose to compensate by having the nose stand out just a little more than the photo indicates.

For the record, a "normal" lens for a Nikon F is about 50mm and a moderate wide-angle is 35mm.

How artists have used photography

This is unprovable, but I believe that most pre-photography masters would have jumped at the opportunity to use photographs, had they been available. They had to make a living by pleasing the clients they managed to scare up and by cranking out as much art as possible as quickly as they could without noticeable loss of quality. Unless they happened to be rich, the notion of "art for art's sake" either never occurred to them or was a seconday consideration. (Tenured art professors have things much easier.)

An artist with a good knowledge of anatomy as well as a good understanding of the effect of light from a specific source on flesh and muscle could likely "wing it" for much of a painting, having a studio assistant or family member doing quick modelling service to confirm details and for getting the draping of clothing right. Less-skilled artists either had to rely more on models or produce less-convincing images. A portrait painter had little choice but to have the subject sit for sketches and some -- if not all -- of the painting process.

The first several decades of the age of photography saw little help for artists because the technology was crude: cameras were bulky and film was "slow." It was only towards the end of the 19th century that photography became a marginally practical tool for artists such as Degas (who was not part of the plein-air Impressionist crowd in any case).

Alphonse Mucha, the Art Nouveau poster master relied heavily on photographs he took of models in his studio. I was thumbing through a book about him recently that had reference photos juxtaposed with the final artwork. If what I saw was any guide, he altered the poses slightly in the finished art, using the photo to get proportions and light/shade correct. The photos might have been even more useful for referencing the clothing, particularly the folds and highlights/shade. What Mucha altered most was the face. The model shown in the photos I saw had a pretty good body, but her face was far too plain for a Mucha poster. So Mucha tacked on one of those classic Mucha-gal faces, something he doubtless could do without much or any need of a model.

Maxfield Parrish was another heavy turn-of-the-century photography-dependent artist. His laborious painting method that involved many layers of slow-drying glazes required a great deal of planning and time, so use of live models was impractical.

Twentieth century commercial artists have tended to be heavy users of photography, particularly as cameras became smaller and easier to use. Part of this has to do with cost. Models can be expensive, so it makes sense to carefully plan the illustration and then bring in and photograph the model(s) during a comparatively short session. The artist likely would have a corner of his studio set aside for this. Some props and possibly costumes would be available. Most important would be the availability of various lights so that the model could show the light/shade pattern indicated in planning sketches. No doubt a variety of pose variations would be photographed "just in case" and then the model would be sent on her way.

Still, some commercial artists felt their results were much better when live models were used. If I remember correctly, John La Gatta was one. And during his heyday he had the money to pay for models.

Photography can be helpful even for landscape painters. Some effects of light (dramatic sunsets, for instance) are highly transitory. If I were to do landscapes, I'd be sure to snap some digital photos so as to "freeze" the light and shade relationships, not to mention colors. The sun is constantly moving as are clouds: the scene before the artist simply won't "sit still" for him like a model. That's why Monet did his haystack and Rouen Cathedral series and why Sargent spent weeks in 20-minute spurts painting a twilight scene of children ("Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose").

Another class of subject not likely to "sit still" is animals. Okay, painting a sleeping cat is a fairly reasonable proposition, but that's pretty much it. Unless one is really familiar with the anatomy of the creature, it's hard to avoid photography.

To reference does not mean to copy

I mentioned above that Mucha did not slavishly copy the photos he took. Parrish copied more closely, especially bodies and draping. But he too was more original dealing with faces, sometimes using Sue Lewin as a body-model for male characters.

Later artists tended to do pretty much the same thing -- using photos to get the gist of the subject and extemporizing the rest.

Even Jack Vettriano's copy of the central pose in "The Singing Butler" (see the comparison here) is not exact. Note differences in the light-shade relationships.

Of course, some painters do try to copy photos exactly or as nearly so as they can manage. I need to read up on the photorealist school because, while their paintings looks like photos, it's possible that they are composites or are based on references, the high degree of "finish" providing the impression that the whole thing is a copy.

But the hair-by-hair detail in animal paintings Friedrich mentions could well be attempts to totally copy photos.

I do happen to like Richard Estes' work because the "art" is in the impact he creates. But I'm not sure that I'd like some of the paintings Friedrich alludes to. To me, a mindless copy of a photograph isn't really art: a true artist needs to add something of himself.

Enough for now. I await Friedrich's next "elephant."



posted by Donald at April 6, 2006


Wednesday night the CBS evening news did a piece about a company in China which did Old Master and other art reproductions from photographs they received on the computer.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 6, 2006 02:43 PM


You write:

To my way of thinking, the important thing is the resulting painting. The goal of the artist is to produce the painting and how he goes about it is his business.

Actually, things aren't so simple. For example, there are certain expectations that affect the marketing of the art; a commissioned portrait normally is "understood" to be done in oils and not to include, say, collage elements (unless negotiated by artist and client before work begins).

Aha! You've addressed my main point, which is that there are a bunch of unexamined issues here. To give a very few examples out of more than I can think of right now:

(1) What is your definition of a "painting" in your second sentence above? Won't people agree or disagree with your sentence depending on what definition you adopt?

(2) Why are we making a painting at all? Is it because we prefer oil paint to photographic emulsion or glossy paper? What if we could put oil paint through an ink-jet printer? Would that change our minds about methods? Would you have any objection to a painter silk-screening a likeness onto a canvas which was then overpainted? How about gridding the photograph and transferring the resulting drawing to a canvas?

(3) Is a photographic rendering really the ideal we should be aiming at, even in portraiture? Bernard Berenson thought the point of painting was to create, using visual stimulus, a tactile impression of the object being rendered. I would say that portraits by Holbein probably give us a more thorough spatial grasp of some of his sitters than, er, the sitters themselves would have provided in the flesh.

(4) What of the role of caricature, exaggeration, or general distortion? I rather like El Greco portraits, and I suspect the likeness would have been clear to people who knew the sitter, but I'm sure that they're not exactly photographic. Likewise, I've never seen a photo of a person in a Lucian Freud portrait so I can't judge the likeness, but they give a terrific (but doubtfully photographic) sense of individuality.

Let me be clear, I'm not either pro or con on photography in art. I can also see both sides of a discussion that makes extreme accuracy the goal of manual draftsmanship. While I've met some macho draftsmen who ridicule the need for photographic reference in art ("What, you can't draw?"). I've noticed that even they use photography to finish their portraits.

In other words, I consider photography in art to be a fact, but not a very thought-through fact. Or maybe representational painting in a world with photography is what needs a more thorough thinking-through.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 6, 2006 03:57 PM

Interesting story today on the NPR show called "Here and Now." It was about court artists, who draw pictures of the trial when cameras are forbidden. Cameras are considered distorting and somehow unfair, but drawings are thought to be more controllable. Sometimes the judge won't even allow drawing implements in the courtroom, so the artist must work from memory after the trial. Many assumptions here.

The artist (female) told about drawing the Central Park incident of "wilding" in which the victim was severely brain damaged. The artist said she had a hard time keeping her feelings out of the drawings so that she made the (admittedly unpleasant) alleged perps (who were cleared after they had served their time) look nastier than they really were. She was ordered by the judge NOT to make the victim recognizable but didn't say whether she left the woman's face blank or pictured her from the back or ?

Her reporter friend (the two of them have written a book which was the occasion for the radio interview) told about a case in which a particularly evil criminal was very handsome and that's all that showed in the photo -- but the artist pictured his "soul" which was distorted and demonic. No explanation how, in technical terms: colors, slanted drawing?

The impression I got was that because drawing and law are old institutions in our society, the dangers of bringing the two together is less scary than using a supposedly "objective" medium like photography without knowing what might be revealed. In other words, there is a certain amount of collusion expected between artist and the courtroom cast of characters. As is the case in any portrait.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 6, 2006 04:27 PM

I have several friends who are well-known illustrators in the adventure game business. Most of the subjects they are asked to illustrate are science fiction or fantasy. They work extensively from photographic references.

Since the subjects are inherently unreal, they use the photos mostly as you mention, to get shadows in the right places, folds in cloth believable, and body positions anatomically possible. That said, some of the resulting pieces ended up as pretty good portraits of the models. Regrettably, none of the pieces I modeled for really work that way. Perhaps I just have a face for radio.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 6, 2006 05:05 PM

Animal painting is ancient. You shoot it, you stuff it, you wire it in place, then you paint it. That's what Audubon did, which is why his 'realistic' poses look so unrealistic to someone who has watched birds through binoculars - he tried to use 'real' poses, but he really couldn't see the live animals as well as we can, so he missed. Photos are now standard models, but even these days David Sibley went to museums and studied specimens in depth to make his drawings for his Sibley Guide to Birds. (It is a field guide and not pure 'art' but the quality is artistic, rather than Peterson's rather technical drawings.)

Many birders use drawn field guides rather than photographic ones because they believe the drawings to be more usable in the field - the photos tend to conceal field marks, create deceptive shadows, etc. The bird in the field moves, so the observer can get a better overall 'look' at the bird than any one or two photos can provide, while the drawing shows all the important things. Even the photos tend to be touched up to emphasize identifying marks. The drawings 'universalize' the imagery, taking the image out of time and emphasizing the species, rather than the specimen.

Posted by: rvman on April 6, 2006 05:16 PM

Dinosaur artists use a different sort of model. Quite literally a clay model of the subject created using what skeletal remains are available and borrowing from anatomy, physiology, and techniques developed by forensic artists in recreating human faces from skulls. In some cases the painting is done from a miniature sculpture of the animal in question.

Which raises a question. Have any artists outside the paleontological field used clay models as stand-ins for living models?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on April 6, 2006 05:28 PM

Harry Jackson was well on his way with a Manhattan career that got him a big spread in Life magazine. The main painting was a mural sort of portrait of the inside of a tavern, I think.

Then he decided he wanted to move his studio to Wyoming and paint cowboy stuff. One of his first big paintings was to be a graveside scene and to study the lighting, he made himself some clay figures. They weren't very detailed. But as time went on, he got more interested in the clay figures and became a "cowboy" sculptor. Then the story was about the sculpture of the burial and the accompanying stampede of longhorns in which the main figure of the burial was killed.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 6, 2006 06:17 PM

"This is unprovable, but I believe that most pre-photography masters would have jumped at the opportunity to use photographs, had they been available."

Didn't some of them use the nearest thing they had to photography -- the camera oscura? I seem to have some memory of seeing a museum exhibit about this. Whether by lens or by pinhole projection, an image of the desired object could be projected on a flat surface and then traced. But my memory is vague about who or when -- the arts guys would probably know -- and I would assume only the really well-equipped and well-heeled artists could afford to have such a set-up.

"Is a photographic rendering really the ideal we should be aiming at, even in portraiture?"

I once saw a seemingly near photographically accurate portrait of a boy of about twelve in a museum in Europe, painted a few hundred years back. It made you wonder if the doting parents who commissioned the portrait realized what they were getting -- it may have been a little too accurate. The kid was grossly fat and had an arrogant, spoiled look to him (Dudley in the Harry Potter books might be his modern equivalent). The painter had not prettied up the little porker, and the kid's nastiness just oozed out in his expression even after the passage of centuries. But the parents probably smiled indulgently when they saw it and said, "why, it looks just like our little Hendrik!"

Posted by: Dwight Decker on April 7, 2006 02:52 AM

Winifer -- I see a big money-earning opportunity for the museums holding the originals -- selling Giclee prints! No matter how good the copyist work is, a Giclee will be better in most respects.

Friedrich -- You seem to be viewing this from a meta-perspective and I was looking at it from the point of view of an artist using traditional materials. So I'm saying, given the just-stated POV, it doesn't much matter to me whether the artist has a model before him or a set of photos of the model. And whether or not the artist is attempting an exact depiction of the subject is a side-issue to me for the purposes of the post. I took pains to mention that many artists using photo references make no attempt to actually copy the photo -- they use selected details (and the same is true, probably to a lesser extent, when a live model is present).

The questions you raise regarding technology are interesting, but your items 3 and 4 represent the key matter so far as I'm concerned: what is the ultimate goal of the particular project ... total reality? ... interpretation ... and if the latter, what kind ... etc.

It will be fun kicking this around.

Mary -- What an interesting, messy world we live in.

rvman -- I'm not much into birds, so I learned a lot from your two paragraphs.

Alan and Mary -- They're wood or plastic and not clay, but commercial (and other) artists can make use of those movable little body models they sell in art stores.

Dwight -- The Art Renewal Center web site has (or had) a piece about the camera obscura. Apparently Hockney (or someone) claimed that Renaissance (I think it was .. too much on my plate today to look this up) artists were not good at drawing and had to use the devices. The ARC article explains that the camera obscura was only useful in pretty constrained conditions; it was not a general-purpose tool.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 7, 2006 01:18 PM

Donald, I've always thought that if I became an academic, I would buy an antique pose-able mannequin -- the kind you mention -- to put on a shelf with books. SO stylish! If I became something more -- well, moneyed, I'd get a life-sized one to pose in my parlor, but it'd be nice just to have one of those clever jointed wooden hands once used to show off gloves for sale.

But I also like the "ecorche" (there's supposed to be an accent over the final e) statues -- you know, the ones flayed to show the muscles. I sometimes think it would be a good memoir title: "The Sculptor's Wife Ecorche."

Yes, Michael, the whole book is full of stuff like I write here. Though I did have to throttle back a little after some U of Neb Press ladies needed smelling salts. I'd had a very interesting conversation with a Manhattan foundry director about dildos. Couldn't use any of it in the book. Have to use it in another one that's not academic.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 8, 2006 12:05 AM

Interesting article in today's NEW YORK SUN:

An Art Form for Which There Is No Art School
April 7, 2006

Stephen Christopher Quinn took a group on a short expedition Wednesday to see elephants, buffalo, gorillas, and antelope. No roars or stampeding hooves were heard; the creatures stood uncannily still. But Mr. Quinn brought them to life on a museum tour as he discussed his book, "Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History," published by Abrams in association with the museum.

Dioramas have been called an art that conceals in order to reveal. Are they a craft, like painted pictures in a landscape tradition? Are they classifiable as exploration, virtual reality, installation, performance art, or sophisticated scientific illustrations? All of the above, suggested Abrams's editor in chief, Eric Himmel. Museum chairman Lewis Bernard noted that dioramas are a form of art for which there is no art school in the country.

"When I first suggested to my colleagues that we pursue the museum to do a book about the dioramas," Mr. Himmel said, "one of them raised the question whether the dioramas in photographs might be indistinguishable" from photographs taken of nature.

But, he continued, "The dioramas are to me indisputably works of art. They are composed and posed into memorable images that stay in the mind." Mr. Himmel recalled having said to his colleague that in dioramas, one is seeing "not nature, but pictures of nature, the kind of pictures we'll need more of in this century, made by artful scientists and scientific artists."

Mr. Quinn explained that the dioramas are not generalized depictions of an example of a species, but are exact replicas of specific individuals that were collected.

There are three applied arts that go into making a diorama: curved painting that creates the illusion of place and distance; three-dimensional foreground elements; and the sculptural taxidermy. The real magic of the diorama is the place where the three-dimensional foreground meets the two-dimensional background, he said. This is called the "tie-in."

Mr. Quinn described the decadelong process of working on the book, and thanked the museum's library staff for letting him take over a storeroom for a year to lay out images and materials. He related anecdotes about the explorers, conservationists, naturalists, background painters, and taxidermists who made the dioramas.

One such story related to sculptor, explorer, and taxidermist Carl Akeley, who was mauled and nearly killed by an elephant on Mount Kenya. During his lengthy convalescence, Akeley is said to have dreamed of an African hall at the museum that would be dedicated to preserving Africa and telling the story of the habitats of Africa.

These and other great dioramas, Mr. Quinn said, were tools for teaching natural science and nurturing environmental awareness. They are portals to a larger world. "Will they become a record of a world before we despoil it? Or will we nurture the wonder and beauty and diversity of wilderness and wildlife that they so beautifully display?" he asked.

For his presentation, Mr. Quinn stood in the African Hall with its imposing elephants in the center. Under a tall ceiling, the room is ringed by dark marble that frames 28 glowing windows. He pointed out how the glass in each diorama is canted down to throw reflections down rather than directly back at the viewer's eyes.

The tour began at the gorilla diorama, showing a scene from the Belgian Congo. Mr. Quinn said Akeley saw the opportunity to be the first museum professional to visit that site and describe the animals accurately.

Mr. Quinn told the words that Akeley wrote:

He was a magnificent creature with the face of an amiable giant, who would do no harm except perhaps in self-defense or in defense of his friends. Of the two, I was the savage and the aggressor.

Akeley was instrumental in establishing the first national park in all of Africa, Mr. Quinn said.

But dioramas - and dioramists -aren't all business all the time. If you look closely in the gorilla diorama, you'll find a barely perceptible eastern chipmunk - right there in the republic of Congo.

It's an older version of "Where's Waldo?" that was intended as a joke played by a background painter, George Frederick Mason, on his colleague, James Perry Wilson, while they were creating the work.

One the tour, freelancer and museum-goer Marianne Wiesinger noticed that one can look at these animals in the eye, as one never could in real life. Museum admission may be steep nowadays, she said, but it's a lot less than the cost of an African safari.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 8, 2006 12:19 AM

Big thanks for this, Winifer. I love these dioramas. When things got really rough for me, I used to hang out in front of the narwhale diorama in the Field Museum in Chicago. There was a bench in just the right place and few other people came along. One could get lost in an imaginary underwater arctic world.

(There was no chipmunk.)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 8, 2006 11:22 AM

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