I WOULD PREFER TO PAINT all my paintings from life or from sketches painted from life. However, this often just isn’t possible. I often need to paint from photographs. This can lead to disastrous results unless you understand the difference between reality and photographic representation.
Photos look extremely real because they contain a profusion of visual cues that signal reality to the brain. However, they fall woefully short in many critical areas. Photographs successfully convey the scintillating vibrations of complementary color but only on a microscopic level. If you try to replicate what appears to be flat patterns of color your color is going to look lifeless. Contrast this to the nearly infinite shards of color in the original scene and you can quickly see that you need to simulate this complementary vibration if you are ever going to capture the vitality of reality.
This flattening of color is most pronounced in shadow. In most photographs shadows look like a single, flat, monochromatic shape. Copying such flatness will lead to a drab, lackluster painting. The key to using a photo in the absence of reality is having painted outside a lot or consciously observing how colors behave in the wild. With enough observation you will be able to imagine what the color should be in the shadow. The first thing you will observe is that real shadows aren’t as dark as recorded in a photo. They are usually cool in nature which gives the illusion of darkness. Most shadows are in the 3 to 4 value range (see this video for more on values), ranges that are much nearer to mid-value than you would think. The lights in a photo appear much lighter. Check the values and you will find them more in the mid-value range (from 5-7). Lights in a photo appear lighter because they are warm. Warm colors appear lighter than their actual values.
Edges are one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of painting. You have to paint for quite a while before you understand how edges are important in a variety of ways. They help lead the eye through a painting, they help create a focal point, and they replicate the way the eye actually sees a scene. The part of the eye that has everything in focus is the fovea and it is quite small. As you scan a scene only the central part of the scene is in focus at one time. If you paint the entire scene in sharp focus you are replicating the reality of the camera which renders every edge with the same monotonous sharpness.
It is tempting to accept a photograph as a superior form of image recording. But the human eye is far superior to either the mechanics of camera or film. This is a good thing and will allow painters to prevail over technology for many years to come. The point is to maximize our native gifts by thinking deeply about color as we observe the natural world and develop our gifts accordingly.
Brad Teare, April 2012
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Updated: 4th December 2020