The Tyranny of Photo Reference in Landscape Painting

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Question: Gerald Greenblatt of Seattle wrote me about the hazards of working from photographic reference. “I don’t see anything 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.

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.

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 common with 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 good, then you’ll just be translating the same 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, happens when is hyper-realism, as can be found in a photo, becomes the goal. I don’t believe it should be; 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 worthwhile goal and an necessary skill to cultivate. But that’s only a means to an end. Only when 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.

Only when we can paint and draw what we see can we can be liberated from painting and drawing what we see. 

Painting is about working through formal issues like form, design, color, line, pattern, and movement.  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.


Additional Resources

from Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 10: Working with Photographs

Using Photographs Like an Artist

Evaluating Photo Reference for a Series

Book Review: What Photographers Can Learn from Landscape Painters

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 37,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Mitch ~ Great job on your new blog! I especially appreciate your response to the question about using photos–a timely one for sure, as I venture back outdoors for plein air painting and later compare results with site photos taken at the same time. Definitely not the same thing.

    Bravo on your Portland show too!