3.3.0 Written piece : Copying Photos

The sophisticated exploitation of photographic images for a specific artistic goal or the use of photography as an additional resource to direct observation are a rather different matter from the practice of copying which has become prevalent among painters both professional and amateur.  But what is the difference between these processes and what is the problem with copying photos? You should consider your own responses as honestly and thoughtfully as you can.

 542156_Churches-Covered-in-Snow-3 (2)Difference between these processes:

a             sophisticated exploitation of photographic images for a specific artistic goal

A photo can capture something not obvious to the human eye or an artist ability to accurately remember ever nuance of the fleeting effect he is seeing such as a water drop a splash or a sunset with its host of subtle colours and tones.  He will use it to show what he is painting and will be accurately guided by its content.  In such circumstances the artist will use the photograph. So rather than interpreting what is there and shown in the photo they will accurately depict the photo.

b            the use of photography as an additional resource to direct observation

Painting on the spot will provide all the information required to complete the painting.  The artist may wish to continue with the unfinished piece or work the image up to a large scale studio painting and will thus need several sources of information including drawing, tonal sketches colour swatches site material samples and photos.  In these cases the photograph will act a memory jogger to trigger their knowledge gleaned during the drawing and sketching process and also when doing earlier paintings.  the photo can also be used as a reminder of the subject colours and for the portrait painting even expressions..  in these instances the photo is not the primary source for the painting but the use of an additional source of information to enable them to complete their painting.  They may in any case choose to ignore the information in the photo; this is not something those using photos for aim ‘a’ above can afford to do!


What is the problem with copying photos?

I have noted below some of the pluses and the minuses of using photos as source or reference material when painting.  I have to say it is not all bad and quite often the photograph can play a very useful function for an artist as well as convenience.

Using photos as the source material for painting:

  • Advantages

An advantage is that you can paint from the comfort of your home or studio. You don’t need to stand out in the cold, or worry about changing light or weather conditions, and you can take as long as you need. Painting from a photo is simply much more convenient than painting from life.

A painting is NOT a split second image but a longer closer look at a subject and the painting is your interpretation of a three dimensional subject in two-dimensions rather an interpretation of a 2-D micro-second OBJECT .  A painting is observation over time (the time taken to render the image in your medium) whilst the photo is a one-thousand of a second snap of it.

Painting from a subject makes the artist engage more with the subject be it a person or a rural scene.  Painting from a photo does not allow the artist to look at the subject from a variety of different viewpoint.  He will not see the freckles or the light down hair on skin nor hear the laugh or the voice.

An advantage is that you can paint an image of some-one or something which is not around anymore.

Capture a fleeting expression or gesture such anger, laughter, surprise etc.  Or the fast moving clouds in the sky or a fleeting effect during a sunset or sunrise.

Using a photo reference is a convenient and rewarding way to make drawings and paintings.

Photographs can never tell you the full story of an object, landscape, or person’s face, but they are convenient references for artists. The reality is that most artists use source photos in some capacity when they work, whether to jog their memory of a particular place and time or to record specific visual details to incorporate in later pieces

You get more visual information from looking directly at ‘reality’ than you do from looking at a photograph.  I read somewhere that if using a photo use one reproduced at a small size and have it held a bit too far away.  Thus it can only be used as a guide and no detail etc. can be seen.

  • Disadvantages

Painting from a photo can instil a flat two-dimensional feel in the finished work

Painting a portrait when you don’t know or have met the person makes it difficult to bring the character of them to the image.

The major disadvantage of using a photo is that a camera is unable to capture all the subtle colours that we can see with our eyes. Even when using the latest and most expensive photographic equipment much of the time the darks will be reproduced too dark and the lights too little.  The colours we see in the shadow areas of a ‘real’ scene are not captured on film thus many photos show these dark toned areas of a blob of very dark or black or in the best case flat and uninteresting.  If using several photos taken at different times you need to remember consistency in your treatment of the light source

Using some photos as the source or reference material for your painting can infringe on the copyright of that image.  There is however, various sources of copyright-free images or take your reference photos.

Limitations of reference photos.  “The camera cannot see”

If you use a photo it should be used as a guide and not copied to the detriment of the painting being produced.  If using a photo it is not necessary and probably not accurate to paint everything as it appears in the photo.  Adjust your composition and the painting to suit your requirements using knowledge of the limitations of photos and your artistic licence to edit as you see fit.  This will include painting the shadow colours which are there but may not be obvious in the photo.  You can also re-arrange the features to suit your composition. And thus produce a more pleasing composition.


With a full time job the only time I would get to paint on location would be at weekends, for many months of the year it is either too wet or too cold to paint or draw outdoors.  Thus painting from photos presents me with opportunities to continue painting throughout the week and all year around.

With a double fusion in my lower back and being on long-term medication for pain painting outdoors is often too uncomfortable to do.  I do as often as I can but this then has knock-on effects which can last for a few weeks.

1410669_0955ef48 adj co

Church with snow covering, and, snow covered village

Two instances where I have used photos as source material to do some practise work on a dark winters evening which was my only time for practise.  Thus the use of photos was required. It may have veen cold but there wasn’t any snow.