Photography In Your Art

Using a photograph as part of our process in creating an artwork has been around for centuries, whether as a reference or a projection onto canvas. Some early masters work under scrutiny, have layers underneath seen by infrared light that reveal precise unhesitating line work and marks, suggesting the use of projection. David Hockney’s research and subsequent book ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters’ revealed the probable use of optics (starting in the 15th century) in many of their works. Even then they did not reveal the method, not just for economic reasons but social ones. The use of these gadgets and results achieved in medieval times would be deemed satanic and therefore dangerous.

Today there is still a bit of stigma associated with using a photograph, particularly the perception that an artist has ‘copied’ and therefore is not being creative. There is much to be said about the practice of copying as it improves your observational and drawing skills, and yes there are many out there on that journey. Using your own reference is another step in that process, making decisions around subject, viewpoint, composition, or telling a story are equally important. The way we as individuals choose to interpret a photograph, the colour choices and mark making make us unique as an artist. It is therefore an unfair assumption when looking at the finished artwork that looks like a photograph to think it is not being creative when you haven’t seen the reference and the thinking behind it. My detailed style is in my genes as it is in many an individual artist, I embrace who I am, and it gives me great personal satisfaction, surely that is what it’s about?

I am a studio artist, and for those that are familiar with my work, they know I use photography in my art practice. I love detail and photography enables me to achieve the level of detail that my genre requires in my paintings. We hear that the camera lies, yes there is evidence of that, but when you have experience and knowledge, you can overcome these limitations. Technology is moving at a rapid pace and the camera, even our phone cameras today can take accurate colour images.  I can capture so much with my camera that my naked eye cannot, the level of information I get is key to my work.  Not just the different viewpoints and capturing a moment but being able to enlarge an image and see the fine detail and nuances of colour.

When I first started to focus on my artwork I used my husbands reference images, he is a great photographer. However, we both agreed that I needed to learn how to take my own. The importance of this is that my artwork now is totally my vision, and my composition. So much more satisfaction in this for me.

How I go about this, and my choice of subject is all part of my ‘creative process’. I am inspired by nature. I take a camera with me when out and about to record images and moments. These initial images, sometimes hundreds of them can be taken in various formats through the lens, whether its landscape, portrait, enlargements, or macro.  When viewing these on a computer I can eliminate or save those I feel are of interest for further analysis.  I can also choose to use more than one image in the final artwork; however this needs a little experience to make sure all the elements involved are cohesive.

Impressionists quite often will use thumbnails – little simple sketches to see how the image can work, I use the camera and my computer program for this.

The thought process continues with the playing of compositions, colour, value, eliminations, or additions until I am happy with my reference image. There is a difference between my still life photography and my environmental photography. Still life requires more thought around the initial concept/idea or subject, selection of elements, placement, composition, lighting etc. before any photographs are taken.

The genre of photorealism or hyperrealism requires accurate drawing, and it is widely understood that a ‘mechanical’ or semi mechanical method to transfer the image is accepted and part of the photorealism process. Every individual has their own method whether it’s tracing an outline over a reference, projection, or gridding. This under drawing is simply a map of where things are placed, some prefer every detail, others just a minimum of lines.  When doing commissioned work this method is far more practical as it speeds up the process.  It pays to remember they are just lines, albeit accurate, how the artist uses them is what makes the final painting.

For myself, the simple subjects I free hand draw, others I use a black and white reference to scale to get an outline or gridding.

Impressionists may use a photograph for the basic structure and go on to play with colour and mark making, that’s their creative process.  I use the completed photographic image having made all my creative choices and adjustments and of course I need it for the detail.

I have always been drawn to realism and for me the satisfaction I achieve when I can create a piece of artwork that goes beyond my photographic reference is immense.

I use the term ‘photorealistic’ just because people recognize my work as such, however my personal objective is always to endeavour to bring my subjects to life, and to be seen as being better than a photograph.  I am using a two-dimensional image to create a three dimensional one. That is what excites me. Good photography is a recognized art form, using the same principle and guidelines as any genre of art, so why not use it as a tool, just like any other in your studio.

What makes a successful painting?

I recently heard this question asked and it got me to thinking. How do we define our artwork as a success? Success can come in many forms, but really, you will determine what success means for you.

My Journey with Pastel

I have always had an interest in drawing, particularly realism. Bringing my subjects to life is always a challenge and very rewarding.

Announcing New Associate Artists!

In May we held a recruitment exercise for new Associate Artists and we were overwhelmed with the number of applications. So much so we will have 2 groups of new artists. Our 2nd group will be announced in August 2020.

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8 Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Living as I have been on the Northumberland coast the weather is not conducive to plein air painting and so my main tools are my small compact camera, my iPhone and a small sketch book for quick pencil references. Working back at the studio allows me to cut crop and amalgamate the photos to get a truly created painting. You mentioned Hockney but throughout the centuries artists have relied on images from camera obscura eg Canaletto and Vermeer come to mind. Well done for your article. For a number of months I have thought about doing a similar article but I am pleased that you got in there first. Stuart Walton

  2. I use my own photographs a lot, but have always felt guilty that it is somehow cheating! Thank you for giving me permission not to feel guilty anymore.

  3. Thank you Julie for your comments very interesting. For me what works is I take my own photo’s then have the photo enlarge to the size I paint , draw it onto paper cut around each drawing, place the drawings onto my home made light box trace them onto the sand paper ( drawing straight onto sand paper is a mess ) I also trace onto one sheet of paper and offen lay that over my painting to make sure I haven’t got to big or small and can’t work out what is wrong with the painting. I also do reach in to what I am painting. Like painting Kangaroos. they lick there arms so the hair would be smooth other wise I would have painting them to hairy and it would look wrong. The best thing I have done is try and think how to go about a painting myself. I love you paintings

  4. Thank you for your information in this. I like realistic and so most of what I do is from photos. Thank you also for putting in some of your own work especially the wave. Living in Northland I love the beach and I think your seaweed paintings are stunning. It does look as though ebbing and flowing with the water.

  5. Love this! I strive for near realistic myself in my wildlife, farm animal and bird paintings. I’m a detail girl, and at this stage of my life (60’s), I don’t apologize for it. I use my own photo references and freehand draw the original sketch before transferring it to the painting surface. I do strive not to simply copy the photo, but work to capture that special something that caught my eye initially. Here in the US, pastels are viewed as more appropriate for landscapes, portraits and still life, but I don’t let that stop me! Love your work!

  6. I too work in photorealism and have done so all my life. In my early years I worked with oils which I loved and applied many layers. Life got in the way with no art of any kind for over 30 years. After a long battle with leukaemia and subsequent health issues I was forced into early retirement then when I started to feel more like myself again I wondered if I could still draw. Turned out I could and decided on pastels which also allows for many layers. I’ve had comments on social media about my technique, some good some bad such as “why paint as a realist when you could be a photographer”. The best comments to receive are that my paintings are better than the photo. Your story corresponds with mine so thankyou.

  7. Yes! Glad you defended those of us who use photographic reference material!! I also paint “en plein aire” whenever I can, so I understand changing light, and all that goes with natural challenges, but my bigger pieces are of things I couldn’t paint on the spot. Art is all about making a beautiful creation no matter how you get there! I love your pieces! Carry on!

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