Painting from Photographs

My current set-up in the studio.

My current set-up in the studio.

As a landscape painter, I really dislike painting from photographs. The obvious reason is that one of the top attractions to painting landscapes is being outside, but I also really find it difficult to be inspired by a photo in the same way as I do standing in front of the scene. Winters however, I do have to spend a lot of time inside and over the years I’ve tried to figure out how to work successfully from photos.

Last year I bough a DLP projector from Dell and experimented with using it in the studio with much better results than any attempt in the past. First, the large size of the image helps greatly when you’ve been trained to work from life like I have. More importantly however, I think that the poor image quality of the projector works as a constant reminder for me not to trust the image. The real problem with painting from photographs, in my opinion, is that they should only be used as memory aids, or for a detail here or there.

When using modern color photography in painting you can’t trust the values (especially with a light-based projection), you can’t trust the colors, and you really can’t even trust the shapes (which are often distorted). I think when painters have used photography successfully in the past (Zorn and Sorolla come to mind), it was because their approach was to create a painting using years of experience from life, and not just to slavishly copy the image.

The photo above is my set-up at the moment. I’m reworking the sky and foreground from a large landscape I finished from life earlier this summer.