|The Cardboard Children - copying a photograph - badly!|
You will not learn to draw or paint by copying photographs. At best, you will gain skill in using your chosen medium and you will become very good at copying photographs. To learn to paint, copy good paintings. Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and Matisse will teach you a great deal about design and colour, and it is easy to find reproductions of their paintings.
Making a painting is not merely recording what is in front of you. An artist selects the most important information about the subject and presents it logically and according to conventions based on the way the eye perceives the world. Certain features will be emphasized; others played down, and anything that will unnecessarily distract the viewer is omitted.
A camera does not edit. It gives equal importance to every object within a certain distance of the centre of the lens, and objects off to the side of the photograph, particularly when the photographer has used a wide-angle lens, are distorted. Anybody who has tried to make a panoramic scene by joining several photographs together will know this.
To understand the difference between a photograph and a painting, find a really good newspaper photograph of your favourite film star or sportsperson. Then find a portrait painted by an Old Master - Rubens, Velasquez, Titian or Raphael, for example. How does your photograph compare? You can play this game with many different subjects, and you will discover the same thing: a camera does not reproduce the way we see the world. We have grown up with photographs and don’t notice the distortions because we are used to them. However, we can see how solid and convincing pictures painted before the mid-nineteenth century look in comparison.
There is no shortage of learned literature on the effect of photography on art and vice versa, but the point is that a painting is not a hand-made photograph. It is a picture invented by the painter. The more realistic it looks the more artifice and skill the artist has had to use to create that effect and the less likely it is to have been copied directly from a photograph.
It is much more difficult to work from a photograph than from nature. This is because the photograph only records a single view of its subject. When we look at the world we see things from many slightly different angles, which gives us a great deal of information which is simply missing from a photograph. This means that before beginning to paint we have to work out what the photograph represents. It's the visual equivalent of translating a French version of a Goethe poem into English.
Subjects which make amazing photographs usually fail as paintings. Particularly disappointing are pictures which rely on unusual lighting or colour effects eg. sunsets or moonlight. Colour is used in a painting for its emotional effect and to locate forms in space. It performs specific functions, none of which is to reproduce colour in nature. Many of the most successful paintings are of very simple subjects with little to offer in the way of colour interest - look at Van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom or of chairs. James Whistler succeeded in painting many night pieces, but by taking what he saw as the starting point for a composition, not by slavishly trying to reproduce every detail.
Using Photographs as Reference