Why I Don't Paint From Photos

Why I Don’t Paint From Photos

There’s some important reasons I don’t copy photographs when I make paintings.

There’s nothing worse than struggling for many years in any craft or endeavor only to arrive at a subpar result.   Worse yet would be placing yourself on a path that is headed in an artistic direction that is against your goals as an aspiring, professional painter.

This post is certainly going to rub a few people the wrong way, but that rarely matters to me.  If I cared about everyone’s opinions I would have never gotten my own painting career off the ground in the first place.

The reasons I don’t rely strictly on photographs when creating paintings boils down to these topics:

  • Aesthetics
  • Art History
  • Sales

I’ll be meandering the conversation between those main topics, amongst some other important reasons.

My Goals As An Oil Painter

I wrestled with the title above for a few moments.  I was tempted to title this section, “My Oil Painting Goals” but I think that would be more about the technical aspects of oil painting.  That is not what this article is about.  Don’t get me wrong, the technical aspects of making a painting are important.

My goals as an oil painting is to have a successful career making and selling artwork.  This is tied in with technique but I think this is where many striving artists get confused.  This goal is to actually sell artwork.  Keep this in mind as you read the following passages.

Selling Artwork

When your goal is, like mine, to sell your artwork you really need to take a step back from your body of paintings and take an honest look at its impact in the marketplace.  Your artwork’s impact on friends and family matter not.  It’s what buyers think.  That’s the cold, hard truth. 

Don’t get angry – this is business.

Buyers of artwork want to buy artwork because they like it, are emotionally moved by it, want it as an investment, and the list of reasons goes on.  There are many reasons somebody would want to purchase your artwork, but what they all have in common is the fact that the collector has a mental database of past experiences when it comes to artwork. 

No person experiences artwork in a vacuum.  They will view your paintings from a reference point of all the other artwork they have viewed their entire life up until this moment.

What on earth does this have to do with working from photographs?

My artwork is modeled after the precious, classic paintings you would see in a museum.  The old, timeless types of paintings you would see from the 18th and 19th century.  You know, the types of artwork that is considered to be beautiful by many people.  Paintings that were made to represent things, told stories and elevated not only the medium, but the owner of the artwork. There are reasons why all this skilled, representational artwork has lasted hundreds of years.

It’s not only skilled artwork, but valuable and relatable.

Yes relatable.

The dirty little secret in the art world is the fact that many people don’t understand or even like a lot of modern art.  It’s what get’s all the press but don’t be fooled.  There are many wealthy people who are craving your representational works of art.

Look at this beautiful Painting by John Singer Sargent. ( I took this photograph while at the Sargent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

There are so many areas that are deliberately detailed and purposefully un-detailed. The rug? As you guessed it… not very important so Sargent just hinted at it.  And you can bet that that background was mostly made up to support the beautifully painted faces.

The Problem With Copying Photos

When you take your paints and painstakingly copy a photograph, what you get is a copy of a photograph.  Your painting just looks like at best a big photo, and at worst a bad copy of a photograph. 

I’m not okay with either of those options. 

If the best case scenario gives me what I could have had a machine spit out in a few seconds then you can certainly count me out.  (Remember, I’m trying to build a successful career selling artwork)

As an aside, I would like to point out that using photos as a reference can be very beneficial. 

Photography can help artists, especially portrait and landscape artists do their job efficiently.  However, there is a very big difference in the artwork that is simply copied from a photograph and artwork that is created from an artist that has much experience working from life.

I’m tempted to pull some examples from the internet and maybe I will, but I’ll probably hurt some feelings.  The internet is chock full of drawings and paintings that are solely copied from photographs.  Most of them are horrific. 

If I see one more super smudged celebrity pencil drawing I think I’m going to scream.

Don’t be fooled, these hacks don’t really make any money off these drawings.  There’s no market for it and true collectors know it. 

Even if these copyists can trick some fool to pay $150 for a graphite drawing of Tom Cruise after they factor in the time to make that drawing they have very much worked for minimum wage.  Considering the ancillary time costs and material costs their profit is often even less.

That is the brutal truth.

Don’t be dazzled, or intimidated by some young, attractive kid doing these time elapsed photograph copies on youtube. 

They might have millions of views but that does not equate to, a viable art career with real collectors, able to pay top-dollar in a more viable art market.  Sure these youngsters can, will and probably do make some money but it’s by other means, through ad revenue, affiliate deals, sponsorships, trick-turning, the standard internet marketing junk.

Photos Contain Distortions

Did you know that photography distorts images.  Yes ma’am, it certainly does and that’s why software like Photoshop has lens profiles built into it to help straighten lens distortions among a bunch of other things.

Experiencing a photo is built into our culture as “real” but there are many fake things about a photograph starting with the barrel distortions just mentioned. 

Straight-sided objects nearly always end up curved with photographed.  These problems become even more exasperated when you shove a cell phone close to your subject matter and expect to copy that photograph with paints.

There are also numerous color problems associated with photographs.

In short, a great painting created from direct observation reveals the subject matter how we experience it, not as a camera captures it.  This is probably the hardest distinction to discern when new to painting.  Even painters extremely skilled in copying photographs seem oblivious to this concept.  I almost feel sorry for them.

This is one of the reasons I chuckle inside or cringe slightly (depending on my mood) when somebody tries to compliment artwork as “It looks just like a photograph!”.  If you paint directly from observation it will NEVER look like a photograph.  The two results couldn’t be more different!

Here’s a photograph of a still life containing lemons:

Now here’s a work in progress of my painting of that same subject matter:

Even though my painting is “realistic” it’s not photographic.

It’s just a work in progress, by the way, I never actually finished that painting for reasons I’m not getting into right now…

Let’s run through a quick and easy example illustrating the photo-copying problem:

Say you want to paint a landscape that has some tall buildings near the edges of the composition.  The edges of the building are straight, right?  They go vertically up and down…. straight as an arrow.  But once a photograph is taken of the buildings, they will curve slightly, this is a feature of all lenses. 

So do you copy the photograph verbatim and paint the building slightly curved? Not if you are interested in showcasing reality, as in how we experience it! 

The photograph will also have color issues.  The photograph will more than likely suppress the blues in the sky or some other aspects of the landscape.  Or make the sky too blue and suppress all the other hues. 

In short, there are compromises made that the camera technology does without your permission as a means of presenting a good photo to you.  There can be hundreds of slight little “lies” in a photograph and when you paint strictly by copying the photograph you are perpetuating these untruths to our experience.

Again, photography can be very helpful to artists whom are already skilled in drawing and painting from life.  But I urge beginners to work from life as much as possible.  It’s harder at first but will yield bountiful rewards later on.

Color Problems

Perhaps one of the biggest problems with photography is loss of color information that is present in a natural setting. 

It’s as if we have made several sequential photocopies of reality and expect it to hold up to a human experience scrutiny.  It reminds me of that silly game “telephone” in which the message becomes distorted more and more as it gets passed from one person to the next!

The lens distorts the colors a bit, then the camera’s software distorts the color further.  Next the image is saved into a file, most people use the compression format “JPEG” which is none other than you guessed it… a compressed format further distorting the color.  Then you print the photograph or view it on a screen further distorting the color.

Still think the photograph is an accurate representation of how you experience that scene?

Now you’re getting it!

That’s some of the reasons why many of your photos seem to be a disappointment after-the-fact.  You were remembering the glorious weather and sky while your photo comes out rather blah. 

I have found that photography very much loses the high-chroma dark colors.  Everything that becomes dark in a photograph automatically becomes very low in saturation, but in real life you can see much more color. 

I realize that HDR photography attempts to solve some of these problems but again, copying an HDR photograph still won’t help me make paintings that have that classic look and feel.

A skilled artist knows how to capture the experience.  That John Sargent painting exhibited near the top of the page does this extremely well. 

These artists knew how to accent the important colors.  A good painter knows just how to subdue less important parts of the subject matter.  Cameras are lousy at doing this and post-production work still fails miserably.  At least in a way that makes a composition that will make a great painting that a collector is willing to pay for.

The Work is Hard (but worth it)

So I continue drafting compositions from direct observation. The work is hard but rewarding.  It has forced me to make observations well beyond what I would have seen if I was merely copying a photo.

I really get to know my subject matter in an intimate way.  I’m no drive-by copyist!

I purposely abstract some elements of my subject matter while drawing attention to other parts via detail and contrast. 

No matter how “realistic” people experience my paintings there are levels of abstraction to each painting. This is an artistic convention that has been used with the best European painters that have come and gone long ago.  The best and most interesting paintings always had a clear separation of form lighting and shadow.

I am not just a copy artist.

As a result I would like to think that my paintings do end up looking like some of those old 18th and 19th Century paintings.  Actually, this is completely by design and why copying photographs will never get me to where I need to be: creating original paintings that look like they were created by a skilled painter, not some cheap photograph.

(Remember, I’m coming from a professional painter’s perspective and in no way is putting down the art of photography)

This is not to say I restrict myself to all of the old techniques.  I embrace a more modern, enlightened approach to painting wher eever I can and I think you should too.

So here I am, hand drafting my paintings and painting under conditions similar to those oil painters of yesteryear… that’s all very intentional.  It definitely has attributed so much of my success as a person who sells their artwork.  

Would you rather have your work compared to a photograph or a classic masterpiece being showcased in the world’s museums?

Yeah, me too!

13 Comments

  1. You obviously feel very strongly about this.

    I’m a beginner and mostly draw and paint from direct observation. I never copy photos only occasionally try to copy other artworks of classic artists.

    But I know people who only use photos. I asked one person and she said that drawing from life was too hard, but that is what I like about it. Especially trying to draw animals, they never stay still! It feels enormously rewarding if you catch them at all.

    1. John Morfis says:

      I do feel very strongly about this, but I have much at stake. It’s my job to sell paintings; I’m not dabbling here! Yes, If you put the time in drawing from life, you’ll be able to better understand how to use photographic references.

  2. Heather Rushing says:

    I haven’t painted in quite a while but I have thought often of why that is. I think your thoughts here speak to many of those thoughts . I think it answers some of the questions I tend to ask myself. All my life, I have sought to be unique. I have learned that no one is ever going g to be completely unique. Someone else has done what you are doing . However, each of us is completely unique. Speaking from my faith, God made us that way. On the other hand the writer of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, wrote that there is nothing new under the sun. So, as an artist we just have rest in that. Be who God made you to be and let your art be an expression of your personality and perspective. That is very freeing.
    Thank you for helping me with your thoughts here. I think it will help me when I get to sit down with my paints, brushes and canvas.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Wonderful, enjoy your painting!

  3. First, I’m not the least bit interested in selling my paintings, but I still want them to be the best I can make them. I usually use a photo to get myself started, but find I soon put the photo away and carry on without it. Maybe I instinctively know some of the things you talked about.. You make so many good points about the limitations of the camera that I’m going to try and paint from life more. Thank you.

    1. John Morfis says:

      I’m definitely striving for a classical painting aesthetic which is spoiled with the overuse of photography. But cameras can be handy when used in small doses for the right things! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  4. Hello. I just wanted to say thank you for this article.

    I recently went back to drawing and painting again. I used to do it everyday and loved it but gave up on it because of lack of time and mostly, frustration.

    The more I got into art and tried to learn, the more backwards it seemed I got. I loved (and still do) watching art videos whether it be instructional or just a time lapse. They had a certain way of doing their artwork that it felt like my way was entirely wrong.
    My favourite subject to draw then was still life and I was good at it in terms of it having a sort of identity? Rather than just a carbon copy of a photo. But I guess you absorb what you see and overtime I started to think my way was wrong and it should be like this instead of that. Id go back into painting/drawing and then quit again in frustration, without a certain progress I had hoped to achieve because of how restricted I felt.

    I thought, surely, art should be making me feel atleast more relaxed and it should be a more enjoyable experience despite the hardships. And then I read this.

    This is everything I thought and Im so happy to have you confirm my thoughts were correct through this article. I feel relieved and its starting to all make sense now.

    I thought for a while that I should be able to copy everything down to the T for it to even be called good or a progress. Now I feel like I can express myself more through painting what I see and translate that into canvas/paper.

    Hope all that babble makes sense. Im just relieved to have found this article.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Thank you Ann and I’m glad you are finding your way with your paintings!

  5. Greg Robson says:

    Excellent post. I like your visual comparison of the lemons in the photo with your life painting. I can usually tell paintings from photos: they have a lot of “pop” and boldness with color, but usually lack subtlety and softness, and of course, include WAY too much detail.
    Copying a photograph is something a machine can do; how can people believe they’re “artists” when they just copy a photograph, even one they took? The “art” is in the photo, not the paint.
    I’ve worked for years with photos and life and imagination. The Old Masters certainly didn’t work from photos, and like the Carracci or Watteau, they drew to capture form immediately and grab the essentials. Today, sadly, almost every traditional artist relies heavily on photographs, and the overrated Art Students League of NY, while working from life, does so in a constipated, niggling manner that takes many hours just to do a figure, using a “box-in” envelope technique no Old Master used.

    Drawing from life is much harder than drawing from a photo, but it’s a completely different process, in that one has a lot more options to choose what passages to emphasize, and one must “translate” the form into graphic reality, instead of having all the passages pre-chosen for you, and doing no translation, but merely copying. Thanks for the post!

  6. Art is art not just representational painting. My photography is part of my art. I spent years learning it. My paintings based on my photography are also part of the process. I’m well equipped to handle the over contrast of cameras with photoshop. Color is unimportant as I always change it and distortions are due to whatever lens you use and hardly a problem.

    Artists are not just recorders of the 3 d to 2 d. They are producers of art. Realism is not all art. It’s only a part of it.

    The point is not to t

    1. John Morfis says:

      This article is titled “Why I Don’t Paint From Photos”. With an emphasis on the “I”. It’s about my experiences and decisions as a representational painter. In fact, it only takes about 60 seconds to realize that this entire blog is devoted to this subject. Start your own blog and you can write about what ever you want.

      1. I understand your point, but arrogance does not sell you or your paintings. Telling your readers to start their own blog rather than challenge your viewpoints is arrogant and shows that you are sensitive to being contradicted. A confident artisan does not bruise so easily.

        1. John Morfis says:

          Once again, I’ll write whatever I please; it’s my blog. Sensitive? Just annoyed that idiots cannot grasp the concept that this article is about my artistic experiences, not theirs. All these fragile snowflakes make everything about themselves, you included. Wow, you’re offended by why I write on my own blog? Too bad. Go elsewhere please. Go back to copying photographs and showcasing them at your local library or whatever small time venue you can convince your friends and family to attend. And last time I checked you weren’t buying paintings from me and I seriously doubt you should be giving advice on what sells paintings.

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