Monday, January 8, 2018

Should you paint landscapes from photos?

Laurent Guétal (French, 1841-1892) used a combination of photographs and plein-air studies to push his landscapes to a higher level.

Laurent Guétal, Lake Eychauda​​, oil,
182 × 262 cm (71.7 × 103.1 in)1886, Grenoble Museum
According to the Grenoble Museum, Guétal discovered a photograph of Lake Eychauda, ​​located in the French Alps. He went to the scene, at over 8200 feet in elevation, where he painted a plein-air study from the same point of view as the photo. Using the two sources of reference, he completed the painting in three weeks.

Laurent Guétal, The First Snow, oil, 1885
Other images by Guétal seem to be based on photos. Depending on your taste, the photographic influence either adds conviction and truth to the image or it makes it seem more mechanical.  

The plein air studies have all the verve and invention of anyone facing changing light with a paintbrush.

Laurent Guétal, The Bérarde en Oisans, 1882
The water in the foreground of this painting seems to match up with landscape painting conventions of the day, but I'm guessing he used photography to help with the far mountains.

To answer the rhetorical question in this post's title, I would say that photography can be a helpful supplement to—but not a substitute for—direct painting from nature. As Ivan Shiskin said:

"... Let me give you one major piece of advice, that underlies all of my painting secrets and techniques, and that advice is — photography. It is a mediator between the artist and nature and one of the most strict mentors you'll ever have. And if you understand the intelligent way of using it, you'll learn much faster and improve your weak points. You'll learn how to paint clouds, water, trees — everything. You'll better understand atmospheric effects and linear perspective and so on...----
Read the full post about Shishkin and Photography 
Other related posts: Zorn and Photography


Anonymous said...

I think the bigger issue with painting from a photo is that if you aren't the original photographer, you're deriving someone else's expression and you're interpreting someone's work and the landscape at the same time.

Lino Drieghe said...

Thanks for sharing this James.

In the other post you mentioned "...Shishkin was conscious of not mindlessly copying. He told his students that the way an artist uses a photo will reveal the artist with talent, because "a mediocre artist will slavishly copy all the unnecessary detail from photos, but a man with a flair will take only what he needs."

Same good feedback I once got is someone asking me what made the painting any different or interesting from the reference picture. She told me if the piece was intended as a reference or mood painting it should add something extra to that, otherwise you can just use the photo instead.

AnneGinkgo said...

In reply to rotm8 1 :

The answer is pretty simple - use only your own photographs. I agree with you that one should not use someone else's composition and insight for your paintings.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Anne. I agree. I was assuming we're talking about photos taken by the artist, not ones taken by others.
• Another basic point is to base the painting on a lot of photos, not just one.
• And you can desaturate the photos to grays so that you just are using them for form ideas.
• Use the plein air study (plus your imagination) for the color, because photos usually fall short on color.
As Lino suggested, the artist can always go way beyond the photo and create an image that no photographer could never capture.

Unknown said...

Thanks for another great post, James!

I was wondering, what is your opinion on the values captured by photographs?

Like you said, the form information provided is incredibly insightful, but it seems to me like light information (both color and value), aren't really captured in the same way that human vision does it.

I don't know much about the technical aspects of photography, and it does seem like there's a lot there that can complicate things, but, as far as your average, contemporary camera, what are your thoughts?

James Gurney said...

Johnathan, in my experience, photos do OK in soft or overcast light at capturing values accurately, but in direct sunlight, and especially in sunsets, you lose information in either the lights or the darks. Of course you can shoot to bracket the exposures, but you can never capture the range of brilliance that the eyes can capture in a scene.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for lack of clarification. My assumption was based on Guétal finding a photo in the beginning of the post. Do you know if he took his own photos?

jeff jordan said...

I create the images I paint (oils, gouache) by making collages (photomontages) from magazine pages. So what I do is based in photography. I learned long ago to use the parts you need in a photo, but that isn't every single thing. I think of how Andrew Wyeth would edit his paintings of Kuerners, say, in comparison to photos taken at their home. Missing trees or whatever. The painting didn't quite resemble the place the information was gathered.

As an artist I feel no need to slavishly copy every single detail in a photo, just as plain air painters might skip elements that exist in the location for the sake of aesthetics or whatever. I use the parts I need. In other words, there's no right or wrong way to create a painting. Whatever works!

Tom Hart said...

I wouldn't say that painting from someone else's photo should be considered off limits in all cases. At one extreme, there are digital reference libraries and stock photo companies that offer free use of their photos for reference (e.g., the reference library on WetCanvas). Also, as jeff jordan and others have mentioned, the photo reference can be used in varying degrees, from general atmospheric inspiration to slavish copying. This has been true throughout history, and I don't think that even slavish copying is necessarily unethical, whatever we think of the resulting painting. The ethics depends (imho) on the expectation of the photographer. Norman Rockwell used photography extensively and as fas as I know he was never the photographer, although the photos were taken under his direction. Tear sheet libraries were a staple of a professional illustrator's studio for years. Of course we're all free to like or dislike the finished work, but the process isn't automatically unethical if the painter wasn't also the photographer.

James Gurney said...

Tom, you make a good point. There's a way I've always used magazine photos as reference for science fiction painting. I call it the "scrap surround." Around the painting are maybe 20 different photos taped to the drawing table: one for the color scheme, one for the pine tree, one for the reflections, and one for the rusty machine parts. Even though I didn't take any of the photos, they're used laterally rather than literally. From a legal point of view, an artist is in no jeopardy if their use of the source material is transformative.

James Gurney said...

Jeff, I just read your comment, and you and a I are on the same page. Even with straight landscape painting, it's possible to combine all sorts of references, including some from magazine clippings or Google images.

Rotm81, Yes. the quote I ran across said Guétal "found" the photo, so I'm not really sure who took it or where he got it. I remember reading that Thomas Moran would go through the newspaper looking at photos upside down and borrow the value designs for his landscapes. So an upside down train wreck picture might turn into a Moran landscape. Many ways to find inspiration!

ol'red said...

Extremely interesting discussion. One of my instructors long ago admonished us NOT to directly copy another's photo without giving credit because it is a violation of the copyright laws and it's a poor substitute for your own vision.
Copying was and still is the foundation for artists who are in the Photorealism school and although the interest in photorealism as faded somewhat, there are still artists using photos and I include slides, as the base for their images.
Frank B

Lino Drieghe said...

Hi Frank,
as a digital artist I like to use photo's in two different ways:
As a reference or as a base in my paintings to paint over.

-If the photo's I'm using are my own, I can do whatever I want with them, I have the full copyright.
-If the photo's are not mine, I use them solely as a reference or literally use and adjust them heavily so the original image is not recognizable anymore.

I never use parts of artists paintings though, because those are imprinted with a certain signature and style of the artist and I would have the feeling of stealing someone else work.

Unknown said...

That definitely sounds consistent with my observations, as well. It also seems to me like low-light scenes are also captured in a much different way than the eye perceives them. Thanks for the reply and insights!