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July 06, 2008

Shoot First, Paint Later

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently bought two books that happened to have a common sub-topic. They are:

Richard Estes

Jack Vettriano: Studio Life

That topic is use of reference photography by painters. This is something purists have been declaring for years to be Avoided At All Cost, lest the artist be shunned (or some other dire fate). What you're supposed to do is hire models if you're painting people or gather up a bunch of equipment and supplies and head to the countryside and do the plein-air thing.

Painters of a practical bent shrugged off the guilt-trip long ago. Edgar Degas is known to have been a photography fan. Alphonse Mucha routinely took reference photos of models. There are books about him that include his reference shots along with the finished art. This book is a collection of his photos.

Illustrators tended to use reference photography extensively. This is partly to save expenses on model posing time -- an hour or so before the camera is a lot less costly than a day in front of an easel. Norman Rockwell, for example, used live models early in his career but later usually worked from photos. John La Gatta, on the other hand, preferred a model before his easel.

The Richard Estes book cited above includes a partial transcription of a 1977 interview in which he holds forth on art (he doesn't much like Modernism) and the use of photography. (Note: The book is bi-lingual Spanish and English, so isn't as meaty at its 190-ish page count might imply.) Estes really has no choice but to work form photos because his depictions are mostly of transient conditions. He shoots lots and lots of photos and will return to the scene later to get more pictures if the first shoot was inadequate. He seldom or never works from a single reference photo, instead combining parts from several. One reason for this is photographic exposure: Most photos are exposed for a sunlit subject or a shady subject, and a scene combining both adequately on one image is hard to get. But his paintings usually demand both convincing lighted and shady areas, so different reference photos are needed.

Vettriano is self-taught, initially working from stock photos in how-to-paint books or pictures from magazines and other convenient sources. He continues to rely exclusively on reference photos, most of which he takes himself. Although he can easily afford model fees, he doesn't like to paint from life because it makes him nervous, he claims. A shy man, he gladly switched from film to digital imaging because he felt embarrassed dropping off film rolls filled with images partly undressed women at the local Boots store (Boots is England's large drugstore chain). He saves some money by using himself as the model for male figures in his paintings. As for female models, he says he prefers older (say, mid-30s) women to younger ones because they show more character. He also admits to the occasional affair with a model. Like Estes, Mucha and others, Vettriano does not slavishly copy photographs. Instead, he will make changes he thinks will result in a better painting.

Skilled reference photo users understand the limitations of photography and try to compensate for effects introduced by exposure meters, lenses of various kinds and so forth. Artists also can combine some work from a live model with reference shots of the same person. Exclusive use of live models or nature is a fine ideal, but practicality also counts.



UPDATE: In response to a comment, I need to clarify that none of the artists mentioned above exactly copy reference photos. Vettriano can come close at times, but in his poster-like, simplified style. The Mucha books showing photos and finished works are instructive. He almost always altered the faces of the women considerably. The photos were mostly to get the draping right. Poses were sometimes altered slightly -- an arm might be repositioned. Rockwell probably kept pretty close to photos to meet deadlines but, like Mucha, would modify faces, though not as drastically.

posted by Donald at July 6, 2008


Go ahead. Be my guest. Copy a photograph. But that's not painting. And it's not what Richard Estes does.

A painter has only two ways to go: he can work from life; he can work from inside his head. And the key to both is imagination. Not copying.

Estes does what every plein-air painter does. He doesn't just go out there and take photographs like a machine. That's just for the details. He's thinking, deciding, imagining how to convey the feel of the scene in front of him by NOT copying it, rather by lying in paint in order to be true to both the scene and his reaction to it. Then he takes what's inside his head - just as Degas did - back to the studio and begins to paint his fiction.

Details! Have contempt for details. Then the journey will begin.

Posted by: ricpic on July 6, 2008 11:26 PM

ricpic -- I should have been a tad more explicit instead of relying on illustrator jargon -- the term reference photo. I left out the point that such photos are not usually copied exactly, at least not by top-level artists. I'll add an update to the post, so thank you for calling this to my attention.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 7, 2008 8:59 AM

The problem with photo-copiers is that all their work looks the same--it looks like a photo! If you can't draw from your imagination, you have nothing to add, so of course you are a slave to the photo.

Any really good painter can draw from his head or from life really well. Rockwell could paint really well from life, and he routinely changed things he saw in his reference photos to make the painting work. Look at Mucha's sketches to see how well he could draw from his imagination. He too often changed the things he saw in the photo for the picture.

There are many painters who shunned photos. JC Leyendecker never used them--he either hired models or drew from his imagination. Frank Frazetta never uses photos. It can be done. And before photography, life and imagination were all that existed.

The main reason not to use photos these days is because just about everybody else does, so it makes your own painting stand out that much more.

Posted by: BTM on July 7, 2008 9:33 AM

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