Now that is controversial: Using reference photos

Planning my portrait of Chewie

Planning my portrait of Chewie

I was at a workshop called “Composition in Photography”. During the introductions, I mentioned that I was a painter. The purpose of me taking the workshop was to understand composition in general and also to get a different perspective. I mentioned that I like to use photos that I take myself as references for my art. The response that I got from the instructor was, “Now that is controversial”.

That set me thinking. I understand the uses of other people’s photos due to copyright issues. In this case I use what I have taken myself, so there is no issue there.

I’ve heard some artists say that the use of reference photos was “cheating”. Cheating at what per se? According to some research that I did and of course personal experience, using reference photos has a bad rap. It implies that the artist is simply copying and limiting the creative process. I’ve even heard it referred to as lazy. According to a dissenter of the practice interviewed by the Huffington Post’s Daniel Grant for the article “Are Painters’ ‘Reference Photographs’ a Form of Cheating?”:

“Photographs have the tendency to flatten forms, he said, which may suit artists whose intention is to show how photographs depict the world, but it is not the world that they see and experience. The larger problem of relying too heavily on photographs is that they “stunt one’s sense of confidence. You are depending not on your own perceptions but on a foreign eye to tell you what’s out there, what truth is.”

But here is my argument promoting the practice. A camera shows an image from its own perspective. It captures things that the human eye can’t. It also works the same way for the human eye. The camera lacks emotion while the person viewing what is shot is creating a memory. To be honest, I’ve never been one to completely rely on my own memory regarding proportions and various other details. I’ve stuck to what I knew would be the most efficient which was recording and cataloguing. I still go back to old photographs taken God knows when and I see the potential in them. I don’t aim to copy the photo exactly. I interpret what was captured and in turn I convey how I feel onto a canvas.

After choosing a photo as a reference, I proceed to edit and manipulate the photo through Adobe Photoshop Elements. The use of these tools allows me to add different levels of light and dark, saturation and temperature. I can also crop the sections desired. Once satisfied, I print out the photo for a hardcopy reference. I use the hardcopy and also view the details on my computer screen while planning and creating my current project. I know that achieving the same details and colors from the reference photo are impossible. Which gives me more creative room to play. I then see colors and shades that weren’t there before. I invent a personality for the piece which reflects my own. At the completion of a painting, as long as the piece conveys emotions, a story and most of all interest, I believe that the piece was worth all the effort.

In response to the “controversial” comment, I said yes it may be, but I like to do it this way. I think art is an ever evolving beast. As subjective as art is, so are the tools used to create it. The process in itself allows me to think and explore using various different perspectives, my own or of others. I believe the journey itself is Art and the tangible painting left after the journey ends is something to be appreciated. 

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays!