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Painting from Photos: Almost Like Being There

Taco Winter

Most artists are quick to acknowledge the value of painting from reference photos even while they know they can’t paint by photos alone. Experienced artists know that the photos are no substitute for actually viewing the subject of their painting firsthand—the landscape, still life, person or whatever it is—because that in-person experience informs their vision in subtle ways the photo will not.

I studied art during the period when no one was painting realistically except in life drawing classes. Because I didn’t learn to paint from photos I still find it difficult to do so now. If I were given a photo of a place I’ve never been, I couldn’t paint it as well as the places I’m most familiar with. I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t choose to. But if I had to, I’d turn the photo upside down and pretend it was just an abstraction. After covering the canvas with paint I’d turn it over and try to imagine myself in that space.

Being there” is a way of feeling the three-dimensional qualities of the world, my place in it, and what I see in relationship to the canvas. Painting from a photograph feels like a squashed and limited version of the world. The joy of being in the world and looking at it intently as I do when trying to put it on canvas, doesn’t happen during the more intellectual process of designing a painting in the studio from references.

I only use reference photos when I’m painting a very large work and must work in the studio. This year I did several paintings ranging from 5 to 12 feet wide. I’ve painted pieces as large as 7 feet wide on location, but that size doesn’t work when there’s a breeze.

“Being there” is an intense participation with the world. Working in the studio is solving problems. One is joy and one is work.

I use reference photos for all my paintings, and in most cases I take the photos myself. This affords me the opportunity to personally experience the location. On the occasion I use someone else’s reference photo I still find it important to visit the location myself if at all possible.

When I’m not able to go to a site in person I’ll commission a local photographer to go and take additional reference photos. I need these additional shots because a single image, while it may show me the perfect vantage point I want to use in my painting, it may not provide enough detail, especially in the shadows. I don’t like to paint vague images or scenes; I’m all about the details. Extra photos, shot in great detail, allow me to see everything including the subtleties of the background.

Ideally, a combination of plein air sketches and photos will produce great reference for larger paintings. The photos provide the information and the plein air work the atmosphere.The crux of the whole matter is being able to interpret atmosphere from photos and this comes with practice. When we try to imitate the photo with a painting we set ourselves up for failure. Painting is about atmosphere and not an exact visual likeness taken from a photo.

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