Question: Gerald Greenblatt of Seattle wrote me about the hazards of working from photographic reference. “I don’t see anything at all wrong with using photographs, but it feels like an important part of the creative process is being left out. Especially when what I am doing, basically, is copying the photo as it is. What is there already is speaking too loudly for me to hear anything else. But I’m missing out … resolving the issues from the very beginning. The matters of composition, shading, color, perspective are (somewhat) resolved already by the photo.“
Answer: You stated the problem quite eloquently and seem to be well aware of the pitfalls in working from photos. You may find some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. In my studio landscape classes and advanced critique groups, in which we work primarily from photos, we spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the problems that are so endemic to photos — unimaginative color, overly-dark values, flat compositions, or insufficient detail with which to analyze the forms. A photo is an already resolved visual problem, and if its resolution isn’t a good one, then you’ll just be translating the visual problems into paint. And the results will look a lot worse that the photo because a photo is a photo, and it always seems to look right on its own terms. But that’s not so with painting.
You write, “What is there already is speaking too loudly for me to hear anything else.” That’s exactly right. If you have a photo in front of your face, it will be hard to escape the compulsion to copy it. Part of the problem, I suspect, is a strong belief that hyper-realism, as can be found in a photo, is the goal. I don’t believe it is; it is just the false assumption that many make at the beginning of their study of art. Early in our study, getting things to look “right” or realistic is a very worthy goal and an necessary skill to cultivate. But that’s only a means to an end. Only once we can paint and draw what we see can we can be liberated from painting and drawing what we see. That’s when our real study and exploration begins.
Painting is about working through formal issues like form, design, color, line, pattern, movement and the paint itself. It is only when you find the beauty and joy of a painted stroke — independent of the subject to which it is attached — that you will start to experience painting as painting, and not be striving for some realist ideal.
My advice to you or anyone overly attached to the photograph is to start working from life. Drop the photos for now. Lock them in the basement. (Do keep in mind that if you are new to working from life, landscape can be an extremely challenging place to start, as it is more complex and less stable than other subjects like still life or even the figure.) As a starting place, I would suggest still life, at least for while, because it offers the most controlled environment.
Painting is a reality different from photographs, and while we may need to rely on the photograph at at times, we must be as mindful not to allow ourselves to be seduced by photographic reality.
Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 10: Working with Photographs