painting from photographs


Painters painting from photographs have challenges to overcome. Cameras produce two-dimensional images with flat-looking shapes. Paintings on the other hand, have a mysterious ability to appear as if in a third dimension. The difference is mainly due to cameras not producing color and value ranges we see with the naked eye. Artists rely on vast degrees of color and luminosity to portray a sense of volume and depth. Additionally, a convex lens of a camera often distorts the natural perspective of objects. And last but not least, painters who solely rely on photographs fall into the trap of reproducing the camera’s shortcomings on canvas.

Camera Distortions

Cameras can not capture colors and values seen by the naked eye. Humans see subtle shifts of colors and luminosity a camera can not possibly capture. For an artist, colors and values are primary elements used to portray a sense of volume and depth in paintings. Before taking the shot, cameras limit colors and luminosity. They do this through their exposure and white balancing process. If the photographer needs more color and detail in a light sky, shadow areas automatically become darker in the process. When one wants more color and luminosity in the shadow shapes, the sky loses detail and color. Either way, there is always a loss of these elements when using cameras.

The convex lens of a camera often distorts shapes. If the photograph is taken too close to a subject without an adapting lens, outside edges enlarge and distort. Lens distortions are common in portrait work when painters transpose camera images onto the canvas.

Know the Limitations of a Camera

Understanding the boundaries of painting from photographs helps artists overcome these common mistakes. Like anything else, acquired knowledge, practice, and painting from life help keep artists from making unwanted errors. It is much easier to rely on and copy two-dimensional images than mentally processing and organizing what one sees with the naked eye. Photographs make excellent references, but once this two-dimensional image becomes a crutch rather than a tool, the artist becomes trapped. Read more on this topic here.

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