Painting from Real Life vs. Painting from a Photograph

Which is better: painting from real life, or painting from a photograph?

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Before the invention of photography, artists had to work from real life. How did that affect artists’ working habits?

The necessity of working from life meant that in order to paint a portrait, the sitter had to pose for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months before the artist was finished. To paint a still life, the artist would have to make sure the set-up stayed the same day after day, and could only paint when the lighting conditions were the same as the previous day. For landscape painting, artists would have to finish as much as possible on-site and often complete the final painting in their studio, often surrounded by smaller studies that contained notes on which hues and values to place where.

The invention of photography – especially digital photography – has changed the way artists work. Thanks to the convenience of affordable digital cameras, artists can easily take a variety of high-quality pictures of whatever they want to paint, and then instead of working from real life, they can work from their photographs.

In many ways, this has made representational painting easier for artists. They no longer have to wait until weather and lighting conditions are just right for outdoor painting, and sitters no longer need to spend precious hours posing for a portrait. While many artists now embrace the use of reference photos as aids to creating paintings, others still prefer to work in the style of the old masters. Which way is better?

One drawback to painting from photographs is that the resulting artwork may appear “flat”, because the objects, scene, or person depicted in the painting was first translated into 2-D form via the camera. When an artist works from real life, she has to use her artistic skills to transform the 3-D view before her into 2-D form on her canvas. When working from a photograph, an artist may become too reliant on depicting the actual 2-D photo, as opposed to depicting the 3-D scene that the photograph itself depicts.

Even so, the use of reference photos has largely aided artists in their working process, although each artist has his or her own preference between working from photos or working from real life.

So artists, when it comes to working from real life vs. working from a photograph, which do you prefer, and why?

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