In this post, I'm going to explain why I think it's okay to paint and draw from photographs.
I made a post defending the concept of copying in general. This one is going to be a bit different from that one, though. Whereas in that post I was defending drawing from something artist's imagination, in this post I'm going to be defending working from photographs instead of or, better yet, in addition to, working from life.
In no way am I saying you should only ever work from photos and forget about ever working from life. Absolutely not. I think being able to draw from life is a wonderful skill and I love getting an opportunity to practice it. This post is not criticizing drawing from life. What this post is criticizing is the insistence on drawing from life exclusively, or really, the insistence that other people draw from life exclusively. If you're reading this and you love drawing from life and you hate working from photos, you don't want to use them, I have no problem with that.
I really wonder if the people who insist that artists work from life have even thought about how unrealistic that sounds. There are people that charge money to sit for artists who want to paint from life, because asking someone to remain motionless for a half an hour at a time so you can paint is a lot to ask of anyone. Yes, I can always look in the mirror and paint myself, but maybe I don't want to paint myself all the time.
When it comes to animals, forget about it. I can barely manage to catch my dog being still for a few seconds, let alone a half hour.
The above drawing was done from a photo I took when my dog just happened to stand still for a few seconds during a running around frenzy.
The only time I could catch my dog being still long enough to maybe draw her from life is if she was sleeping and even then, she's probably wake up and start running around before I could finish.
Some people think artists should always draw from life because that's how real artists did it, that's how the Old Masters did it. First of all, the Old Masters didn't even have cameras so working from life was pretty much their only option. Something the Old Masters did do, though, was if they were working on a large project, such as when Leonardo Da Vinci was working on "The Last Supper", they would go out onto the streets with their sketchbooks, sketch people that went by as quickly as possible as they went by, and then bring these sketches back to the studio to use as reference. If they'd had cameras would they have snapped photos of people to use? Who's to say?
Sometimes it's not even about drawing a subject, for me at least. It's about capturing a scene, something that will only be there for a fleeting amount of time. Just go to my gallery and look at my wildlife section. Pretty much none of those pieces could have been done if I wasn't open to working from photos.
Some words of caution, though, for artists who like to work from photos. Learn how to take a good reference photo and learn what makes a good reference photo.
Also, and this is very important, only work from photos that you take yourself or have permission to use, even if that permission is granted through a creative commons or royalty-free license, particularly if you want to be able to sell your piece. Copyright infringement can get you in a lot of trouble. Don't think that changing the photo gets you off the hook either.
Even if you work from photos, the more yoh know about anatomy and perspective, the better off you'll be.
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Painter of portraits and wildlife