Like many botanical and scientific artists, I prefer to paint directly from life rather than photographs. Wherever possible, I try to have real physical subjects and specimens when in the studio with me when I am painting. Many people have asked me why I prefer not to paint from photographs. In this post I will discuss the reasons for my preference, the advantages of painting from life, and some strategies for working with photos when I cannot paint only from life.
We often think of photographs as a perfect copy of real life. However, in reality, photographs are an interpretation of reality, just like paintings and drawings. Each photograph has unique lighting conditions (based on ambient light, flash, exposure, etc) as well as a colour balance introduced by the camera and/or photographer. Each photo also has a unique focal point and focus type (for example, flowers are often photographed with a macro setting, with a very small sharply focused area and blurred out surroundings to introduce a sense of depth in a small subject).
Photographs are rigid – with an established angle and composition. With live subjects you can spin your subjects around to find the best angles to show what you wish, or arrange several subjects together to get your desired composition. My preference, whenever possible, is to collect live subjects and bring them to the studio, completing the whole painting process directly from life.
This way, I can choose throughout the painting process how to represent areas in shadow, which areas to focus on and draw attention to, and how to tweak colours to convey the look and information I intend to. I can use my sense of touch or a magnifying glass to learn more about the texture of the subject and then try to convey that, as I did with the degraded rabbit skull to the left.
For very long-lasting subjects such as minerals, skulls, fossils, tree bark, or dried pods, I don’t bother with photography at all, painting my entire painting directly from life.
In many cases, for delicate or rare subjects, it is not possible to paint entirely from life, even if I have a live reference to work with. For example, some delicate fruits and flowers won’t last more than a couple hours before wilting dramatically, or in some cases my reference is a rare plant which I found in the field.
If I can bring my subject into the studio, I try to get photos of the exact composition and lighting I intend to draw, as well as get as many sketches and colour studies in as I can. When I cannot bring a subject into the studio, I try to gather as much information as I possibly can from my reference in the time I have. I sketch on the spot, do small colour studies, take multiple photos from different angles.
For the white baneberry illustration on the right, I found my reference in a sensitive environmental area and did not want to pick any plants. I took about 50 reference photos from different angles as well as completing a few sketches and colour studies in the field (a strong constitution and tolerance of bug bites helps) before taking it all back to the studio to assemble into a painting.
When painting from a photo reference, you are painting an interpretation of another interpretation of your subject. If you photograph your own subjects and then paint from your own photographs, you can make many of your choices at the photography stage. In the spring and summer, I carry around a good camera to take reference pictures for illustration, which I can use throughout the winter or when a chance to paint a specific subject comes.
Sometimes when I see a very promising composition out in nature, I will photograph it with the intention of painting it later. The dutch iris to the left was painted entirely from a single photo reference which I took with the intention of painting.
The photos I take for painting are different from what I would take for independent enjoyment, as I focus on areas of the plant which are botanically interesting and would make an interesting painting composition. Nonetheless, there are drawbacks to painting from a reference photo. Notably, in the dutch iris above, I found it difficult to convey the translucency of the white petals, as the original photograph had a background of the green grass in the garden these irises were originally planted in. In transposing just the floral stem to a white paper, I lost the context of the green. I tried to adjust the colour of the back petals but they still came out looking darker and less translucent that the front petals.
My least favourite way of painting is using photo references from other photographers. Not only does this limit your creative expression as a painter, but if you use photo references from other photographers, you must be very careful to transform them (by changing the composition, colour, setting, etc) dramatically, or else risk running into legal trouble with copyright and intellectual property.
However, frequently I receive an assignment to paint a specific kind of plant which is not in season/locally available, and which I do not have appropriate photos of my own for. In these cases I do use reference photos by other photographers. I try to montage several photos together, rotating and adjusting colours to achieve a pleasing composition with consistent lighting and colours.
Photographers put a lot of thought, effort and creativity into their work. As a botanical and scientific illustrator, I do feel comfortable using reference photos to better understand the structure of a plant and how it interacts with light, but I try to be careful to not accidentally steal the composition and creative choices of the photographer. My aim when using reference photos is to transform them to the degree where the original photographer(s) would not immediately recognize their own work when looking at my painting.
In the heirloom tomato painting shown above, 5 of the tomatoes were painted from photo references by other photographers. However, each of the 5 references tomatoes was from a different photo. I started this painting by painting thumbnails without direct reference, creating a composition entirely my own. I then sought out images contain the specific shape and colour of tomatoes I had already decided on, rotating, resizing, changing stems, and adjusting the colours to fit into my work. Most of these images were of a cluster of different tomatoes, or of a tomato plant, where I only used a single fruit, and then transformed that image to fit into the composition I had decided on.
This process is my least favourite for three reasons. First, as a realist painter I am always hyper-aware that my paintings can be too close to their reference images for comfort and I am always concerned with whether I have transformed my references enough. Secondly, it can be very difficult to merge multiple references together such that the lighting still makes sense. It is much easier to paint with live references directly in front of me. Finally, the light and shadow and angles of a photograph can obscure details which might be interesting to convey in a botanical or scientific painting – in the case of somebody else’s photo, I have not handled or sketched or even walked around the subject to notice these things.
However, all of these methods are useful to learn, and necessary to use. While I find painting from photos a more stressful process, it is an interesting challenge, and I have produced some of my favourite work by pushing through the challenge.