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Paintings Made from Photographs
Old 08-01-2016   #1
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Paintings Made from Photographs

This has been an observation of mine for some years now, but I haven't discussed it with other photographers. I was reminded of this again while reading a recent bokeh thread.

I live in New Mexico and on occasion will visit art galleries in the Santa Fe area. With representative art, such as oils and acrylics, I've begun to notice that I can often tell when a painting was made from a photograph, rather than being made in plein air (i.e. painted on location).

One painting in particular struck me. It was of "southwest style" (subject matter being adobe buildings and such) and included a courtyard wall (with the obligatory red chile ristra hanging from a viga), and the wall had an obvious plane of sharpest focus, with its line becoming softer nearer and further from that plane.

Once you see something like that it's hard to unsee it, and from thence forth I've made it a private game, when visiting galleries with representative art, to determine which ones were painted from photos. Some of these attempts at art-making become so obvious that I've amused myself with trying to determine the type of camera lens employed in the original snapshot by the way the bokeh was painted; or at least to figure out the focal length.

I've read a bit of David Hockney and appreciate his views on the differences between the way that camera lenses render scenes and painters render scenes. True painters tend to idealize or represent the essential nature of a setting using an amalgam of various impressions. Cameras don't.

Another way I can tell the difference has less to do with optical effects and more to do with subject matter. I see paintings where human figures are in transition, caught in some temporal pose that becomes obvious it was from a camera snapshot of someone captured mid-movement. You just can't paint such things from memory, or use models in that way.

So how about you? Is it obvious to you when paintings are rendered from photos? And does it even matter?

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Old 08-01-2016   #2
Roger Hicks
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Dear Joe,

Fascinating! I'm sure you're right. But I don't really see enough paintings to start playing this game properly myself: I very seldom go to galleries other than to see photography. Even so, I'm sure I shall join in your "game" as soon as maybe. Thanks for the insights on how to play it: I'm reasonably confident I could have worked them out for myself, but your guidelines will make it quicker and easier.


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Old 08-01-2016   #3
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My students and I have discussed this phenomenon and related techniques over the years. Painters have for a long time used optical tools to inform their work...before photography they were known to use a "camera obscura". Heck, even the "invention" of one-point perspective in the Renaissance was considered cheating by some. You guys know this history already, but it is fun to review it!

Anyway, you are right! Some painters use photos to create their work. Many will use multiple images and sometimes composite, edit, distort, etc. to get the look they want. Others eschew the use of any photos as dishonest Copyright and plagiarism issues is a separate topic, but I encourage my students to use their OWN photos if they go this route. If not, they need to "borrow" the work of others with caution: there are right and wrong ways to go about this (think of the AP Photo and the Obama "Hope" poster as an example).

One of my favorites, Edward Hopper, is a interesting case in point. He use a wide variety of tricks to create a final work of art. Some of his subjects are actual locations-- painted from observations. Even then, his notebooks are full of sketches which often become watercolors and then, sometimes, a finished oil painting. He tried using a camera for a time but was unhappy with the perspective and uncompromising reality of film. I suspect the binocular sensation and perception of our eyes was what he was trying to convey.

There is a book called "Hopper's Places" that shows on-site photos of many of his paintings. Things in these photos have changed over the years, but it is fascinating to compare what Hopper SAW and what the camera recorded
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Old 08-01-2016   #4
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There's a place near me that does a wildlife art exhibition every year, and more and more of them are very clearly done from photographs.

To the point where I don't really see the point a lot of the time, but then again I'm not a painter.
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Old 10-05-2016   #5
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As an interior designer and visualiser , I frequently worked from photographs of interiors.
Mostly there would not be enough shots from different angles to work out the depth and perspective , as details blur into confusion .
Clients and colleagues would be puzzled at this , but they do not have to interpret and add the different design .
I really cannot perceive that it is possible to draw,paint from photos .
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