Drawing and Painting From Photos – It Can Be a Trap

In an earlier discussion on drawing the figure, I mentioned the uneasiness that people feel when viewing artwork done by someone who has neglected the study of Anatomical Drawing. People know when a person or animal has been rendered incorrectly, even though they couldn’t say exactly why it looks wrong.

This is why I urge you not to use such aids as projectors until you are thoroughly acquainted with the structure of the body. Without that, you can so easily fall into the trap of copying a misleading photograph. To illustrate that point, look in the sports section of your newspaper any day and you’ll see an image of a truly gifted racehorse passing the post on one or more seemingly broken legs!

We accept that photograph without thinking about it, because we accept that the Camera Does Not Lie. Because, deep down, we understand the horse cannot be running on broken legs. Copy it onto your canvas though and all you’ll hear from viewers is: ‘But it just doesn’t look right, somehow.’ And no matter how you protest that it’s just how the horse appeared in the photograph, you won’t convince them.

The explanation lies in the limitations of the camera lens. Briefly, it can record only the image presented at the instant the shutter closes, with all the distortions of colour and form caused by angle, lighting and so on. Our eye works the same way, but behind it we have the advantage of a brain, which can edit those distortions.

This is also your job as an artist, when working from photographs. And you’ll soon find out that any artist who says s/he can painting from photo children, or animals in action – accurately and in a naturalistic manner – without the help of photographs, is self-deluded or simply a liar. Any projector device can only re-produce the image the camera captured, along with its errors. So, don’t be seduced by those aids until you’ve given yourself a chance to really know how the body works.

Take your own sweet time and don’t be discouraged when it all seems too tedious to be worthwhile. If you want to paint anything beyond landscape, this is an apprenticeship you just have to serve. The alternative, I guess, is to become an Abstract Expressionist.


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