In my role as a teacher of art techniques to adults, my beginner students often ask me why I object to their working from photographs, and my more advanced students ask me why I don’t let them begin a work from a photograph. My reasons are these:
If students are beginners, they do themselves terrible harm by learning from other people’s photographs. A photograph only appears to capture reality. In fact, it is the result of the photographer’s choices and not at all objective. The view of the subject will be one-directional from the photographer’s placement in space, not the artist’s, it will have a relationship to the ground and the horizon from the photographer’s height, not the artist’s, and it will capture the atmosphere from the photographer’s emotional response, not the artist’s. It will also be a record of the photographer’s technique, experience and knowledge of the subject, not the artist’s.
Given the photographer’s choices, many details can be lost in shadows, absent because of the perspective, unseen due to overlapping and hidden or distorted for a number of other reasons. Therefore, if students rely on photographs to ‘see’, they will be misinformed. Any expressiveness they render in their own version of the photograph’s image will be based on pre-determined choices, and any interpretation they attempt will be compromised. If, for instance, the student is painting a portrait and the face is in ¾ view in the photograph, the student who does not already know facial anatomy will flatten it, guaranteed.
If students are beginners, they do themselves equal harm by learning from photographs of other people’s works. Photographs of paintings rarely can show the exact hues in the original, they flatten its brushwork and they reduce its scale. Photographs of sculptures render a three-dimensional object flat, even if the object is well lit, defeating the purpose of the work At any rate, there is little benefit for a beginner to copy in this way because as well, the photograph is a photographer’s reaction to an artist’s work, what the students see is a translation of a translation which they then attempt to translate a third time. There is an object; an artist creates a painting of it; a photographer photographs the painting; the student paints from the photograph. Again, the learning will be compromised.
Of course artists must at times rely on photographs, and may choose to do so for stylistic reasons. A sculptor might use a series of them to hold on to a model’s pose beyond the model’s endurance, a landscape artist may use them to capture the exact moment of the day being depicted. As much as possible, in these instances, I urge students to take their own photographs. Even if the photographs are not ‘expert’ and especially if the student is not also a photographer, the photographs will record the student’s actual experience and act as a reminder of the subject not as the subject itself. The photograph is then only a memory aid while the student learns all the skills needed to transform what is depicted into a work of art.
Sometimes it is impossible to take one’s own photograph. For instance, a realist working in Montreal might refer to stock photographs of an African lion found online to complete a painting. Or, an abstract painter might refer to stock images of a storm at sea to interpret nature’s fury. In these cases, I encourage the students to use multiple photographs by a variety of photographers so that they might choose the details or elements that best express their own intent in composing their images. Importantly, this will also help students avoid accusations of plagiarism or appropriation of photographs not in the public domain.
In any case, I never teach beginners from photographs. Whether I teach them to draw, sculpt or paint, we always begin by working ‘from life’, be it a still life, a model, in situ for a landscape or any number of other subjects. In this way, I not only teach them the rendering techniques and about the materials, but also help them develop their visual memory and their understanding of three-dimensional space. I reserve the use of photographs for my more advanced students, to be used as reference and reminder once the work is underway.
My students pay me not only to teach then art techniques but also to develop their visual literacy, their creativity and as importantly, sustainable working habits. Problem solving from direct experience is the best way to achieve this, no matter what the level.