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Photography as a Basis for Painting

This photography/painting debate is an argument that is worldwide. Many artists deny ever using photographs. I agree, it’s nice if you can paint from life, but I’d like to try to prove that those of us who use photographs as reference are NOT breaking any rules. Even before photography, artists used the camera obscure.

Here, as a result of much research over the last day or so, are some photos that will nip in the bud any claims that famous artists don’t use photos. I always remember reading once that there are two kinds of artist … “those who sometimes use photos and admit it and those who sometimes use photos but don’t admit it”.

Please note that I am quoting (as close as I can remember) and the above quote is intended by me to be tongue-in-cheek. I am quite aware that many artists NEVER use photos … and that is cool.

Let me name just a few who have used photography. You may recognize some of the names:


Painter Norman Rockwell‘s illustrations graced the covers of countless magazines over the course of the 20th century, becoming a much-loved piece of American culture for their simple snapshots of life. You might recognize many of the works, and even the name behind the paintings, but did you know that virtually all of the images started out as photographs.

After coming up with a concept for a painting (he was almost always commissioned by magazines and ad agencies), Rockwell would enlist the help of a photographer (he rotated between a group of them) to turn that idea into a photo. The subjects in the photos were his friends and neighbors.

Once the photograph was made, Rockwell then used his artistic talents combined with simple tracing to translate that photograph into the painting he had in mind. Rockwell never painted freehand

.Michael Zhang

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Painting from Photographs

I’ve spent way too much time in murky classrooms looking at slides, slides, and more slides. I’m convinced that the entire academic field of art history would grind to a halt without projectors, carousels, and slides. But what is weird about looking at so many images is that I find myself thinking that I know exactly what a sculpture or a painting really looks like because I’ve seen a photograph of it. Photographs can never tell you the full story of an object, landscape, or person’s face, but they are convenient references for artists. The reality is that most artists use source photos in some capacity when they work, whether to jog their memory of a particular place and time or to record specific visual details to incorporate in later pieces.

But to produce a successful piece of art, an artist has to be wary and attentive to what he or she is seeing—and not seeing—in a photograph. That starts with understanding the limitations of reference photos. Artist Mark Haworth puts it this way: “The camera cannot see like the eye can when it comes to color accuracy, depth of field, and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows. There’s a lot of distortion that comes along with photographs.”

Pastel artist and instructor Denise LaRue Mahlke agrees. “Following a photo to a ‘T’ is a big mistake, because the camera lies,” she says. “Photos can be indispensable as a jumping off point, but even if the photo is an excellent one, you want to reinvent the scene for a painting to work.”

Courtney Jordan

I personally agree with what has be stated above by these three contributors.  However, you be the judge. I have added the links to direct you to the source material showing additional photography to prove the point.

This also brings up the question whether the use of a photograph as reference, or in any other way, reduces the value of the painting. From the artists names listed above I would think not.