Working from Photographs?

There is great controversy as to whether an artist should work from photographs. I often get questions on this topic so I decided to write this post. 

First let’s discuss copyright. It is unethical to copy another persons photograph or art work and call it your own. You should never do this without permission from the photographer or artist.

So what about copying paintings of the great masters? This is often an assignment given to students. It is a means of learning techniques.  It gains insight into how the artist thought and applied the technique to paper or canvas. This can be a very valuable lesson. Since these works are so “famous” it would be very hard to submit your rendition of the “Mona Lisa” to an art collector or submit it into a juried exhibition as an original. This painting often is used in college and other art forms. If it is used commercially, my feeling is it has been licensed and the proper channels have been made to make it legitimate. At least this is they way it is supposed to go!

What about using photos from National Geographic or other well known publications? Again, without specific permission from the photographer this is considered illegal. There are stock photography websites where a person can pay a fee and download images. Once the fee is paid, the website often stipulates how the image can be used. There are also royalty free websites where you can download images and use them without fear of being “unethical”.

What about using your own photographs? The photographer then becomes the artist and both works are copyrighted by the same person. This is completely within the legal and ethical realms of the law.

So now that we understand copyright laws what about tracing over photographs? First and foremost I think the style of the work needs to be addressed. If you are a “photorealist” than your expertise lies with being able to exactly recreate the photograph in whatever medium you are working in. Often times photography can cause some issues with depth of field. This is the area in which the image or scene is in focus. The camera, depending on the settings can cause blur, lost edges and inaccurate color information. If you are a photorealist you copy exactly what you see with all the imperfections that were captured by the camera. The results can be astonishing and there is a lot of skill required in doing this. 

What if you are not a photorealist? Often the flaws from the camera make it difficult for an artist to render proportions, details and scale. The finished work can be lacking in many ways, especially if it requires some form of anatomy.

I offer a bit of advise to artists that are interested in drawing realistic images from nature. LEARN TO DRAW AND LEARN BASIC ANATOMY! Photography is an essential tool to capture many aspects of nature especially when traveling. Even if you are out for a walk in your own backyard, capturing a fleeting moment with the camera can add to your art. The key is to understand your subject and this means understanding anatomy. I never claim to be a fantastic photographer. I use it all the time for inspiration, details etc…. Many times my photographs are even out of focus!  Here is an example of a photograph I took while I was in Costa Rica. It is a really bad photo.

Most photographers would toss the image out. I really liked how the macaw was peaking out from behind it’s wing. I decided to use this photo to create a colored pencil painting. I added more to the wing and got the direction of the primary, secondary and covert feathers properly placed on the bird. How did I do this? I have taken classes in bird anatomy and know that even though my photo is out of focus, I could reconstruct the proper placement of the feathers on the wing. I even decided to alter the markings on the bird. The photo shows the macaw with a red cheek patch. I  decided to eliminate the cheek patch and I actually used Pinterest to search for other photographs of great green macaws for photo reference to get the detail I was looking for. Before Pinterest came along I used photos from magazines like National Geographic, Ranger Rick and Wild Bird Magazine. This was done to see some details I could not get from my sketches or my photos. I often use photos to help me create my own drawing. I never copy a single photograph. I work from a series of photos and I like working form my own photos…even if they are bad. The camera has captured a moment that I experienced and this connection adds to my work and helps to make it mine. I am not interested in copying a photo or someone else’s style. I am interested in bringing my vision and passion for nature alive in my work.

On my tours to Costa Rica I teach artists to sketch on sight, make accurate field and color notes and take research/reference photographs. I believe that photography can add to your knowledge of your subject. I also believe that your finished work will only be as good as the foundation drawing underneath. Color and details can not make up for improper proportion or anatomical errors. All of this goes hand in hand. Drawing is key! 

What are your thoughts about using photos in your work?