Working from Photographs

Eye Study

Clara Lieu, Reference photograph for “Falling”

While I work on finishing up the final 13 sculptures in my current series of 50 sculptures, I’m also simultaneously preparing myself to work on the upcoming 50 figure drawings.  My preliminary process for all of my projects is extremely involved, and I generally spend much more time getting ready than I do on the actual pieces themselves. I prepare myself so heavily that by the time I’m ready to tackle the final works, everything feels very straightforward and smooth.

One of the most critical parts of the preparatory stages for me is creating my reference photographs. We were just dealing with this issue in my freshman drawing class at RISD last week.  For the first half of the semester I insist on all of their homework assignments being drawn strictly from direct observation. That experience of intensively working from life provides a crucial foundation which eventually allows them to work more fluidly with a range of different references. After midterm, I allow students to use any reference that they want. Last week was the first week of using open references, and it was apparent that many of the student drawings suffered tremendously because the initial reference photographs were so poor. Common problems I saw were:  using very low resolution photographs off the internet, using a phone to take a low quality snap shot, and using old family photographs that were collaged together.  Many artists mistakenly assume that working from photographs will be “easy”.  Actually, if your reference photographs are lousy, working from a photograph becomes a handicap rather than an advantage.

From what I’ve seen, the majority of artists do not take the time to shoot their own photographs. I’ve seen people do things as nonsensical as go onto the internet to find a picture of a tree, when there are trees right outside their window.  Making the choice to shoot your own photographs should be a no-brainer, especially with the range of technology that is now so readily available to us. I have a personal rule that if I work from photographs, the photographs must be my own. (And yes, that means if I want to draw a picture of an ostrich, trekking myself out to the zoo) I’m not saying that everyone should necessarily adopt that policy, but make every effort you can to make the photographs your own. The photographs have to be of very high quality, so that they are packed with as much visual information as possible. It’s easy to pick and choose what details you want to use from a high resolution photograph, while it is impossible to to compensate for a photograph’s lack of information and detail on your own. Lighting is also a critical component to a good reference photograph, and is one major detail that many people don’t take the time to set up or address.

Once you have strong reference photographs, that is just the beginning of the hard work. The challenge of working from a photograph is to be selective and take only what you need, and then to interpret, process, and manipulate that information visually.  I see this all the time: artists turn themselves into xerox machines and copy the photograph “verbatim”, resulting in a watered down version of the reference photograph. You know it’s a bad sign when your reference photograph looks better than your artwork. You have to ask yourself, what qualities can you create in the artwork that the photograph will never possess?  Think about the reference photograph as a departure point, from which you want to travel as far away as possible.

For “Falling”, I already have an enormous archive of multiple photography sessions with professional actress Marianna Bassham that I shot back in 2010. The first session I did with her was a session where I asked her to act out a physical interpretation of my description of depression and anxiety to her. I shot still photographs and also recorded a video at the same time. I have some incredible, intense photographs from that session. (because of Marianna’s acting, not because I’m a great photographer) The problem is that the lighting is inconsistent in the photographs, and there are many areas like the hands and feet that lack the detail that I need to be able to make these large scale drawings.  I know that I’m due for another photography session very soon.  I pretty much never get everything that I need in a single photography session, so multiple reshoots are always necessary.

Do you work from photographs?  What suggestions would you make about working from photographs?

Film Shoot

Clara Lieu, Reference photograph for “Falling”

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One thought on “Working from Photographs

  1. I so agree with this. If I have to work from photos, I have to connect to the photo and relive the experience I felt when photographing my subject. I simply cannot paint a live painting from someone else’s dead photo. An instructor once told me, “If the photograph is absolutely wonderful, cherish the photo and forget painting unless you can make it even more wonderful.”

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