Self Analysis and Reflection – The Limitation of Reference Photographs

I’ve spent way too much time in murky classrooms looking at slides, slides, and more slides. I’m convinced that the entire academic field of art history would grind to a halt without projectors, carousels, and slides. But what is weird about looking at so many images is that I find myself thinking that I know exactly what a sculpture or a painting really looks like because I’ve seen a photograph of it. 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.

sca snow cw2
Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Windermere photographs

But to produce a successful piece of art, an artist has to be wary and attentive to what he or she is seeing—and not seeing—in a photograph. That starts with understanding the limitations of reference photos.

The camera cannot see like the eye can when it comes to colour accuracy, depth of field, and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows. There’s a lot of distortion that comes along with photographs.”

I believe that following a photo to a ‘T’ is a big mistake, because the camera lies.

I, for one, put decidedly less emphasis on reference photos than on preliminary sketches made on-site or notes written in the field.

When I’m traveling through an area, I write what I am seeing.

My notes often give me what I can’t get in a picture. Photos don’t give the subtleties I look for to capture the look and feel of a place.”

When  on-site and one doesn’t always have time to paint (namely due to British weather).

I often sketch and take notes.

I acknowledge that sometimes I take as many photos as I can.

Having that multitude of photos can give you a lot to work with.

When I’m ready to start a piece, I’ll pull from many different photos for inspiration and do thumbnail sketches to familiarize myself with the subject and composition I’m working toward.

I think constantly referring back to photos can lead to overworking or to a painting filled with a bunch of little details instead of a cohesive composition.

It can go from painting to documenting and all the details and go crazy.


Another point I stress is the importance of working from photos I’ve taken myself.

When using someone else’s photos, you aren’t painting your own concepts, just copying.

What’s more, a reference photo, no matter who clicked the shutter, shouldn’t lead to a sense of obligation to show exactly what is depicted in the shot. Instead, an artist should feel free and inspired to manipulate or leave behind a reference any way he or she chooses. That assures there’s vitality in a piece of art and means you won’t miss seeing—and hopefully recapturing—the moments that will make a painting great


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