Thursday, March 19, 2009

Using Photo Reference

Yesterday’s post about “Drawing from Maquettes,” brought up some really interesting comments about the pros and cons of using reference, especially photo reference.

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


Unknown said...

Excellent set of guidelines! This would also help artists use images for references without it turning into plagiarism.

Andrew said...

I like your stance on it, James. A healthy mix of observational drawing and a good-sized morgue file never hurt anybody.

I hardly use reference photos, especially when it comes to organic things like people or animals. Usually, I use them to find an exact costume detail or to see how fabric falls on a figure a certain way. I've found at least for myself if I tend to reference living things heavily, it comes out really stiff. But if I'm unsure about how something looks after doing a couple of sketches, I look it up and try to incorporate what I learned.

Frazetta is a GREAT example of someone who clearly didn't use reference. I remember a painting of his that had a woman perched on top of a rock with two lions surrounding her.

The lions are clearly not based on anything, but they're believable, partly because I think there's no sense of him at some point in the painting thinking "Well, I'm not really sure how this is supposed to look. Is that what a big cat looks like?"

Steve said...

It's an old guideline, but it does make a profound difference whether you take your own photo or use someone else's. Being present, using your own eyes, allows a visual memory to form. Later, the photo can serve as a support to that memory, but it isn't the sole source of visual information.

As always, thanks for your great blog.

Michael Dooney said...

I agree with your suggestions. Over time I think every artist finds the most efficient way to use ref. It's funny that the topic of using photos in some form is still an issue at all after all this time. The waters will get even muddier now with a lot of digital artists using the photos themselves as part of their illustrations. The ironic thing is that most of the general public is impressed when a painting "looks just like a photograph" but somehow using photos to get there is "cheating" LOL!

Billy Guffey said...

Those guidelines are good. And I agree that an artist should use his/her own photos as reference whenever possible. But, as technology progresses so does the prospect of using photos in a multitude of different ways.

For example...Using Google Streetview technology to do "virtual plein air" work. I've been playing with this for some time. Using a screenshot as a loose ref. With this application, you can virtually walk the streets, looking around with a 360 degree view.. Finding your comp is now up to you, and not the camera that recorded everything. It's fun exploring. In fact, I'm 35 small studies into a U.S. state series, with plans to use the studies for larger works.

I do think this technology can open some windows of opportunity for artists who are confined to their homes. It gives them a chance to see the world and pick their own compositions.

Just a thought.

craigstephens said...

I recently did a small landscape commission. My client had seen a plein air painting I had done of the Sutter Buttes on my website and had liked it. He wanted a painting of Red Cloud Buttes in Nebraska. I would have preferred to go to Nebraska and do a few paintings on site because it was a really cool looking place but I had to settle for using a couple of photos he emailed me. I was glad that he had specifically mentioned a piece I had done on location that he liked and had reminded him of the thing he was looking for in his painting. He and I were both happy with the final piece. I sure am glad that I had been getting outside to paint pretty frequently though. It definitely gave me a lot more confidence when working from a photo.

Judith Hunt said...

This post brought to mind one of the uses I put my Canon Rebel to.

As an illustrator that flips back and forth between cartooning and nature/conservation illustration I have found photography (mine)invaluable as a reference tool.

The images I take and save on my files are to jog my memory.

Experiencing (drawing from and observing) real life has always helped me to understand size, scale, and lighting. A photograph flattens the "feel" of an object or animal.

My camera is used in conjunction with my sketchbook and notes.

Thanks for the post!

JohnB said...

Your take on the use of photos seems right to me, James. I don't think it's dirty pool to use photos as reference, but it's obvious when an artist relies on them too much to compensate for a lack of drawing ability, or even the ability to think visually. Ultimately, the artist is abdicating creative control over his efforts by allowing photo reference to dictate the terms of his thought process along the way. Having said that, in the end I don't think it matters whether an artist uses photos but rather how he or she uses them that is important.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I get way too hung up on what the painting actually looks like!

How it came to look that way is only important to the guy who has to make it.

Whether or not you use photographs is irrelevant.Its okay to use photographs, it's not okay to have photographs use you.

There are painters who have made "meat cameras" out of themselves, copying that which is front of them so carefully and accurately that they end up with results that might as well have been copied from photographs.

A perfect laundry list of the things before you, rendered without style or feeling is not art it's accounting. Both nature and photography are styleless. I think a painting should look as if it could only have been made by the hand of one particular artist.

Unknown said...


Another great post and another thought provoking take on the use of those darn photos.

I really admire photorealists like Ralph Goings and Richard Estes but somehow I never wanted to paint like them. Being " Exposed" to painters such as Sargent early on in my career made a huge impression to learn how to paint and draw from life. The photo was just an aid to the process. I remember feeling a sigh of relief when I read that artists like Thomas Eakins and Brangwyn used photo reference that they commissioned and of course Norman Rockwell , among many other illustrators.

As you know, by painting from life, one can see where the photo reference, especially one taken from a landscape, will make shadows darker if you expose for the light and light areas lighter if you expose for the dark. Being trained on site , outdoors is a wonderful teacher and really helps us SEE.

But I also think its also a matter of taste. Does one like the stiffness of an Ingres or the alla prima approach of Sorolla?

I am still thinking about your recommendation of putting away the photo reference...that's a good challenge.

Victor said...

Somewhat off-topic, but vote for James Gurney in this contest!

I submitted Mr. Gurney's "T. Rex/Watering Hole" as a contestant. Let's help him win; right now he's getting pounded by Charles Knight.

Unknown said...

Goes to show the readers of WIRED are wired.

I voted for Jim....

badbot said...

such a great question...
personaly, i think that photography is a great help for understanding complex things like drapery, or unusual body contours. But it would be a shame to be addicted to this. To me, the first vision that you have in mind, when you begin to think about a new painting, is always stronger than any photo reference you can produce to help you during the process...

that's why i totally agree with your safeguards, especially the first one.

about photoprints in B&W, it's a good way to avoid some superfuous things. mistakes (especially according values ) can easily be commited, due to color photo references. i use this tip myself ( to my ink cartridge fault, at first, but i thought that it was much better finally :D )

thank you for keep posting plenty of great posts. it a wonderful blog that i check every day since more than a year!!

(sorry for my english mistakes :-/ )

DweezelJazz said...

Thank you for this great post. I've recently learned, through my own paintings, that using a photograph too literally can kill the flow and life of the outcome.

I'm changing the way I use photographs, using them now to provide me with a general guideline. I've been thinking about it deeply, trying to expand my outlook and knowledge to incorporate more movement into my paintings.

I very much want to focus on emphasizing what I find uniquely interesting in a scene or object, rather than to present all its details in accurate duplication.

S. Weasel said...

I'd strongly second your guidelines -- especially the part about refining the idea as much as possible before turning to photos. A picture in your head is delicate and tentative, a photo is powerful and right there in front of you. A really good reference photo can completely overwhelm the thing you had in mind. It takes real skill to work with them and not get that look.

For beginners, the most common errors are at the opposite ends of this spectrum: either trying to work solely from imagination (dude! You're a beginner, you're not Frazetta yet) or slavishly copying reference photos.

Oscar Baechler said...

Excellent advice!

In a similar vein of thought, I read recently that even Caravaggio used a low-tech form of photography to create his compositions. Read about it here:

I'm a 3D guy, any thoughts on using 3D for reference? I've done it a few times, using a rig to get a visual of a pose in my mind, if just for the sake of figuring out the perspective, for the same reasons you give; if too much of it ends up in the final product, I could have stopped with the 3D render. It's along the same line as using the maquettes, but with more points of articulation. Similar benefits, similar pitfalls.

Anonymous said...

I believe there's absolutely nothing wrong with photo reference.

Most of us have access to a very limited number of subjects that we would want to draw, and many, many more things that are simply impossible for us to witness in person - using photo reference is crucial for this point in particular.

I also think that there's another (touchy) side to this topic, and that is the ego, i.e. artists who feel they're above using photos.

I think these artists need to swallow their pride and learn to use photos to become better artists.

Having said that, it is of course many artists' wish to have the freedom to draw accurately purely from the imagination, however this does not come without the years of dedication to studying from life and photos.

innisart said...

James, I wish you were one of my college professors!

When I was studying illustration, we were taught to shoot our reference as slides, and to project and trace the images. There was little editing, and there was limited ability in combining aspects of different photos to make a single figure. We were even required to watch the movie "Loving" in which the star George Segal plays an illustrator, just so we could watch his technique: he sat in a dark room painting on a canvas with a super-imposed projector image on the surface, and would pull a chord by his shoulder to turn on the lights every couple of minutes to see what he was actually painting.

At first, it was great. It was as if my drawing ability had improved exponentially overnight. Then the second semester hit, and I was depressed because I no longer felt integral to my own art, but by then I had lost all confidence to draw any other way. My drawing class didn't help any, since we were encouraged NOT to draw the model posing for us, and received assignments like "draw what it feels like to sit in a chair, from the chair's point of view." I really learned to draw by tracing photographs!

When I think of using photo-reference I liken it to the often mis-quoted phrase, "the LOVE of money is the root of all evil." Like money, photo-reference is not good or evil; it's the way you use it that counts. The photos should be used as tools to further your own art, not crutches on which the whole work is based.

As illustrator Eric Peterson once said to me, "if it were the goal of every artist to be a photo-realist, then the only thing that would make someone's art different would be what they COULDN'T do." Photo-reference has that ability to rob art of personal identity (unless, I guess you claim that the subject matter alone makes the art unique). The best art seems to reflect the artist behind the creation, whereas too much reliance on photographs makes art that is often too clinical.

Artists like Norman Rockwell may have used photographs, but it was a matter of expediency and only after years and years of working solely from a live model. He never let the reference dictate the painting.

There is a certain energy which comes from working from the live model. There is a give and take between the artist and the model which fuels the art (muses perhaps?), and it is in the decisions of what we include and exclude that we really claim the subject as our own. When we impart more of ourselves into the art, we create our best opportunity to move beyond talent, and reach for genius.

I struggle too much everyday now because my previous reliance on photographs still leads me to draw from life in a manner that looks like I traced the photo! This is why I turned to plein air painting to try and help me break old, bad habits.

To me, James, your guidelines are right on the mark, and I wish I had learned them in school, rather than having to learn them over time from my mistakes.

As always, great posts!


S. Weasel said...

Whoa. Wait a sec. I absolutely won't get on board with the idea that working from photos is somehow superior to the alternatives. Or that artists who refuse to use photo refs have a distasteful motive for refusal.

Working from life is a thousand times more enlightening...for all sorts of reasons too complicated to cram into a Blogger comment.

Working from photos is an aid that too easily can become a crutch...if not a crippling weakness. I do it...but I do it very, very carefully.

Unknown said...

I may be mistaken but, I have to respectfully disagree with stapelton kearns when he said "..Both nature and photography are styleless." Nature is, but I don't think that photography is. I think that if everyone who commented on this blog went out and shot the same subject, we'd all come back with completely different original photographs, with a huge variation of styles.

Stapleton Kearns said...

S.M. Forgive me.Perhaps I might have said it better.I meant no disrespect to photographers.I am not actually talking about photographers.
While a photographer may have a style,photography itself is styleless.
There are cameras that can be strapped to a tree that shoot a picture of anything that passes by. Does this machine have a style? Would two different models of such a device have differing styles?
I sought to clarify the problem with the uncritical copying of photography in the creation a painting.
My point is that human decisions are essential to style, It is created by a mind . Style is imposed on nature and not discovered there.You must think to have style. A photographer may think,photography itself does not.

Anonymous said...

As primarily a wildlife artist working in oil, I draw from live animals as much as possible, but, to get where I want to go, must use digital images as reference for my finished paintings.

Fortunately, my illustration training (Academy of Art, 1987-89, BFA), included a lot of instruction on how to correctly use photo reference, most of which you covered in your excellent post.

I also only use my own reference except for specific details that I can't see and still have most of my old scrap file from my illustration days, plus an extensive reference library. And now there's.....Google Images!

I don't paint what I haven't seen and photographed/sketched myself and have spent a lot of drawing time learning to compensate for the distortion and flattening effect of photos. That is where the live animal drawing is invaluable.

My painting took a BIG step forward when I got a 24" glossy screen iMac last year. The luminosity makes it easier to see form and the colors and details in the shadows. Having 10 megapixel RAW images helps, too.

I paint from a combination of preliminary thumbnails, drawings and then directly from the monitor.

I do small (6x8s or so) oil studies in a couple of hours or less every week to keep loose and to avoid getting, as they said at the Academy, "seduced" by my reference.

For fieldwork, I carry two Nikon D80s, one with a Nikon 80-400mm and one with a Promaster 28-300mm, because with wildlife, there's never time to swap lenses. Each camera has a 2gb memory card, each of which will hold about 165 RAW files. I never shoot jpegs.

A wildlife artist named John Banovich told us at a workshop once that "you are only as good as your reference", mostly with wildlife art in mind, and I've encountered nothing in the succeeding years to contradict that statement.

Unknown said...

I 'collect' information in my head on objects by looking at photo references or observing real objects. I prefer observational, especially when I can pick something up and turn it around. For photos I prefer a 3/4 view if I can't get several angles or a video. From there I can build a 3-D image in my head that I'll distort or change to fit what I want to draw. In my case, I don't really need a reference photo for most of what I do, so I look them up very rarely. Many of the other artists I know like to collect references and use them quite a lot in their work (though it does bring up a question at parties on why someone has a bunch of dead birds in the freezer).

One of my teachers once gave my class a cheap take-out carton (seen in stereotypical Chinese food places) and told us to learn every feature on the box until we could draw it in our sleep. Then we were required to do a drawing of it with one imaginary/fantasy element. Mine was of an octopus opening the container to find a human inside, while a friend's was of the carton with its flaps out, landing on an airstrip.

Anonymous said...

Oh, thank the Celestial Teapot that someone is teaching the youth to use some source of reference in art.

Even if it's weird, I think you need to engage him in a big manly hug for helping spread ideas about good art practices.

eric angeloch said...

Hi Jim,

This is great topic which I have extensive thoughts about. As soon as I am through with this flu I will be in touch with specifics. Looking forward to your workshop at the Woodstock School of Art!

Roberto said...

This is a great topic! (Sorry I’m so late to the post.)
So what did artists do before the invention of film?
They used the camera obscura to project an image into a darkened room and traced out their cartoons or sketched directly onto their canvas. They also used concaved mirrors and lenses to project their subjects’ images for tracing. David Hockney has done an extensive investigation into this subject and written an excellent book about it called ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.’ (as refered to in Oscar’s link)

Before that they resorted to something we moderns would never do, they copied from each other, or from statues and casts. Many of Michaelangelo’s figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have a remarkable resemblance to the Laocoon, , a Greek statue unearthed in Michaelangelo’s time and that he had a hand in its exhumation and authentication.

Raphael, Ttian, El Greco, and Rubens based the composition of some of their paintings on the ancient sculpture, and even the French artist Gericault inserts Laocoon-like passages into his famous political painting, The Raft of the Medusa.

Ever since the invention of the modern camera and film artists have had a love/hate relationship with photography. Degas was definitely influenced by Photography, and Muybridge’s studies are famously admired and valued as reference. And what would Mr.Warhol have done?

But what really interests me are the questions this topic raises.
If you do a painting of a photo, is it the same as a photo of a painting?
If you compose a painting, such as a still life, with a photograph as an element, is that plagiarism? What about the other created objects in the still life? The vase (Chihuly?), the clock? The hand carved duck? The candle? The shawl?
What if you photograph a room with a painting on the wall?
What about a sketch of a building? Is the building the art, or are the plans the building is based on? Why is an orchestra’s performance of a musical score any different from constructing another building from the same plans? Or painting a painting of a sculpture? Of a painting? Of a piece of furniture? Of a photograph?
Just putting it out there (tee-hee ;) -RQ

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Roberto. You raise a lot of interesting points. While I don't agree completely with Hockney (some of his claims have been debunked by Science News and other sources), there have been a lot of revelations about how artists of the nineteenth century and before used photos or lenses.

And your second bunch of questions raises lots of rich topics that apparently aren't settled in the law.

Roberto said...

Thank you for the Science News lead.
I followed the trail to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and then back here to Pasadena, Calif. (I wish I had known about the Society for Literature and Science meeting last Oct., I would have loved to attend!)., Hockney, Falco, Stork, Tyler, et. al., are very much like the Lilliputians fighting over which end of the egg to crack. I tend to agree with John Wood, the lead optical engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope, who heard Stork's arguments at Goddard. Both Wood and Kemp say they still find the Hockney-Falco theory persuasive but not convincing beyond the reasonable shadow of a doubt.
Hre's my $.02, I think that these old ArtBoyz were all extremely talented draftsmen and amazingly talented artists. They new the rules of perspective and their observational skills were acute. They didn’t need to use these tools as a trick in order to create their illusions/paintings. They could easily render a rug’s pattern, or a chandelier, in accurate enough detail so that the vanishing points lined up, etc.! I think the only real question is this: Did they have access to the technologies in question? During the Renaissance, under the patronage of the Pope, and with the resources of the Medici they would not only know about them, they would have access to them. But they wouldn’t use them as a slavish template or crutch, carefully tracing each and every line like a novice or a student trying to get everything perfect and precise. They would have used these tools only as a guide to check, or to correct their work, or as a starting point to set their landmarks and then build from there. Lesser artists might be tempted to misuse these technologies, making both Stork’s and Hockney’s arguments easier, but lesser artists would not have the resources or access to them.
Thanks for The Journey, that was fun! -RQ

Sonica said...

Really stunning!!
Canvas Prints From Photos

Drrum said...

While I think photo reference is an invaluable tool (especially with regards to perspective and anatomy), great care should be taken when choosing or posing photo reference material. So often working from a photo gives the final artwork a stiff, static feel. I see it in my own work and also the work of others. That's where I think working without reference sometimes forces you to observe and capture other nuances besides just structure. It helps you see how things move and change in various conditions. Their relationships to each other and their environment. Texture, light, weight, etc. The physics of objects, not just the shape.