Working from photographs

There are artists who deplore the very thought of working from photographic references, believing that to do so is to turn over the creative process to a mechanical device. On the other end are artists who not only use photographic references, but project the image onto the surface and paint it exactly as projected. To me both of these approaches seem a bit extreme. The former smacks of elitism, a form of artistic self-righteousness, and the latter an avoidance of the rigors of drawing, (and the freedom that results from the practice)

I personally believe that the camera is a great tool for the artist. There are things it can capture, like the flight of a bird, or children at play that simply cannot be set up for study in the studio. However, I do believe that painting and drawing en plein air, out there with the sunlight and the insects and the wind and the smells gives one the knowledge that can make a studio painting authentic. The camera has its limitations. It cannot see the subtle nuances of color and value that the human eye can see.  It cannot feel anything about the scene before it. It cannot connect that scene to previous images and experiences. We experience, the camera records, and that is the biggest difference.

When I draw and paint outdoors I bring everything I have ever done to the process. My camera severs this single view from everything else. My brain doesn’t.

I see the subject differently than my camera does. I edit out everything that does not enhance the idea I have about the subject, and in my mind (such that it is) I exaggerate the characteristics that made me stop and look in the first place. That is why so often my photographs are disappointing. They didn’t grasp what I was feeling.  My drawings however, do. My paintings, even though not as perfect as my studio paintings have spirit and are records not only of what I saw, but of how I felt, and of what I considered important.

To illustrate this I am including a drawing I did on site in Polperro, Cornwall, England. I am also including a photograph taken

Drawing done with 6B pencil in my sketch book.

from about the same position, and the painting that was done from my drawing. I used the photo for support since it recorded some little details that I didn’t include in my drawing. The drawing re-connected me with the scene, the smell of the sea, the sound of the seagulls, the retreating trickles of water as the tide went out, and the overall texture of the place. My photo didn’t, but it supplied some precious little tidbits.

Hanging dry dock - Polperro

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