Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why You Should Paint from Your OWN Photos

"Winter Study - Telluride"
Oil on Panel
9x12"
2014

The reason I’m a landscape painter is mainly this – I feel most at home when I am outside.

I thrive on finding new views, new places. I hike and mountain bike hundreds of miles a month looking for inspiration, and there’s nothing better than finding myself in the right spot at the right time to get a new idea for a painting.

Getting out there is a big part of my job. It’s a big part of the job for any landscape painter. To do good landscape paintings, I spend a ridiculous amount of time on the trail looking for just the right thing to get me excited to paint, painting on location, or simply sitting still and watching the way the light hits at certain times of day. Putting in a lot of mileage is quite literally part of my job description. And spending hours just taking it all in helps me understand what’s going on out there, so that I can bring it into the studio with me when I paint.


I post a lot of pictures on Facebook, because I like to see other people’s photos from their adventures, and I like to share when I see something awesome. I get countless requests from strangers to paint from my photos when I post them, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I tell most people I don’t really mind, but would prefer that they not sell or post publicly anything they paint from one of my photos. It’s not a huge deal to me personally, but I don’t like the implications. I’m not a professional photographer, but a lot of people are, and I think people need to understand that working from other people’s photos sets a bit of a dangerous precedent where we assume that it’s okay to use the hard work of others to profit from our art.

But the biggest reason I would prefer people not paint from my photos is because in doing so, they are stunting their own growth as an artist.

I firmly believe that the best paintings are those that are informed by our own personal experiences. Matt Smith paints the desert like a master because he lives and breathes it. David Kassan is one of my favorite figurative painters, and his paintings are absolutely transcendent when he paints his family members. Edward Theodore Compton and his son, Edward Harrison Compton, were masters at painting mountains, after spending much of their lives climbing the peaks they painted. To be our best as artists, we can’t forget the emotional component of our art. In realist painting, connection with our subject can be just as important as technique.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, puts it this way:

“When you love something like reading – or drawing or music or nature – it surrounds with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is. It’s an alchemical blend of affinity and focus that takes place within that feels as close as we ever get to “home.” It’s like pulling into our own train station after a long trip – joy, relief, a pleasant exhaustion” 
“If a writer or artist created from a place of truth and spirit and generosity, then I may be able to enter and ride this person’s train back to my own station. It’s the same with beautiful music and art. Beauty is meaning.” 
Anne Lamott, “Stitches”

So, do I think you can have a meaningful connection to one of my photos? Maybe. Perhaps it’s just pretty, or the colors get you in the gut, and you see that it would make a nice painting. But you weren’t there. You didn’t watch the clouds roll in and realize you’d better get yourself back down the mountain quickly. You didn’t watch the red light march its way down that peak across the valley as the sun went down. And you didn’t stand there in the cold, leaves swirling around your ankles, and experience that awesome evening at the end of fall. So when you paint from that photo, you’re already starting at a disadvantage.

When I started out painting landscapes, I was terrible at gathering reference. I didn’t know how to take good photos of different lighting conditions. I didn’t know the best time of day to look at different scenes. I wasn’t great at composition. I didn’t know how to use photoshop and plein air studies to get the information I needed to paint in the studio. I didn’t know how to edit the scene I saw in front of me to make a good painting. I spent YEARS figuring this stuff out… And I’m still figuring it out!

Gathering and using reference material is an important skill in my toolbag as an artist, and it’s one that everyone needs to develop on their own. If you are mostly working from other people’s awesome photos that you find on the internet, chances are you aren’t developing this skill. You’re shortchanging yourself by not having to work on composition, or lighting, or concept. When I teach workshops, 80% of what I teach is concept. If you’re simply copying someone’s photo, you just missed out of 80% of what I consider important in a painting.

You need to get outside. You need to learn how to really SEE. And you need to learn how to edit when you paint. Ultimately, you do this by gathering your own reference materials.


So here’s the deal… If you have to paint from that photo on the internet, for starters, PLEASE do it legally! Ask permission first. Just because something is posted on the internet does NOT mean that it is public property. That photographer still owns the copyright to that image, even if it’s on Facebook (yes, the terms of Facebook make you sign your life away and give FB the right to use your images as they please, but this DOES NOT mean that your friends have the same right to use your images – you still own the copyright!!). And be aware that many people who are actual photographers will not take your request lightly. This is their job, their lifeblood, and that photo they posted is the culmination of years of working at their art form. They woke up in the dark and headed out in the cold to get that one shot of an awesome sunrise. They hiked around for hours trying to find the right vantage point for that shot of some horses. That photo took more work than you think.

Some of them might very well be insulted at your request. This doesn’t mean that they are not generous or caring people. Those images are their artistic property – they are their business and their income. They are well within their rights to ask you for a fee to use their images.

Most importantly, I encourage you to work from your own reference materials. Learn how to take great photos yourself. Get out there and paint on location. And more than anything, get yourself OUTSIDE!! 

It doesn’t matter where you live – beauty is everywhere, and part of being a landscape painter is training yourself to find it, see it, and communicate it to others. If you train yourself to see that beauty on your own, your art will grow in leaps and bounds. You will be a better painter.

So, get yourself outside, breathe it all in, then go forth with that connection and be awesome!

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