Some realist painters scrupulously avoid photo reference altogether, including Jacob Collins and his group of artists studying with the Hudson River Fellowship, mentioned in an earlier post yesterday. They get fine results by concentrating on purely observational work.
Other artists in the comics and fantasy field, such as Moebius and Frazetta, achieve extraordinary artwork by drawing entirely from their imaginations, creating forms from their visual memory.
And some artists use photo reference extensively and unabashedly, especially for action poses and effects that are difficult to observe, such as water effects, explosions, or action poses.
An interesting historical note is that some realist artists, including artists in the academic tradition, have been using photos for nearly a century and a half. According to art historian Ross King, forty percent of all photographs taken in Paris in the later part of the nineteenth century were commissioned by artists, usually taking photographs of nude models for “academies” or figure reference studies.
When Pascal Dagnan Bouveret painted “Breton Women at a Pardon” in 1887 (above), he took photos of women sitting outdoors. But in his final composition he clearly didn’t use the photo literally, and was in control of the design of his picture.
In this photo you can see that he drew each of the figures on a separate piece of tracing paper, a method I’ve discussed in a previous post.
My own views on this topic are moderate and pragmatic. There’s no right or wrong method: the final result is the test, and you should choose a process that will give you the results you want.
I have done some paintings without photo reference and others with it. I use photos as one kind of reference, along with traditional charcoal studies from observation, maquettes, and scrap file reference.
The caution I feel about using photos is that I’m easily lured into copying their
random details. Photos are compelling. Without conscious effort, I tend to forget what I had in my mind’s eye at the beginning of the picturemaking process. Characters based on photos of friends or neighbors sometimes have a mundane snapshot quality, rather than an otherworldly “storybook” feeling.
There’s also the danger of copying the colors and the black shadows literally from the photos.
If you want to work only from observation or only from imagination, more power to you! But if you want to use photos, let me suggest the following four safeguards:
1. Do your initial sketches purely from your imagination and develop those sketches as much as you can before going after reference. Even if those sketches don’t look that great, trust your mental image and let it guide you later.
2. Try using the photos only for the comprehensive stage, and put them away for the final painting.
3. Print your photos in black and white to avoid being influenced by the color.
4. Take lots of photos, and use more than one model or more than one costume.
I’d be very interested in your thoughts on this topic.
I am indebted to art historian Gabriel Weisberg’s article on Dagnan’s use of photography, link.
GJ post on tone paper studies, link.
GJ post on action poses and photography, link.
GJ post on tracing paper as a compositional tool, link.
More in my book: Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter