Picture Perfect?

Photography is a wonderful and useful creative vehicle. As an art form, it can be emotionally expressive, intellectually provocative, brutal in its realism or as freely abstract as any painting. In its illustrative use in journalism, a good photograph brings a deeper understanding to the story being told. On a personal level, cameras have become a necessity. It’s hard to imagine a time when all of the important (and many of the mundane) events of our lives were not documented by photography.
I have something of a love-hate relationship with my camera. As an oil painter trained to work exclusively from life, I have a hard time with the use of photos as reference material. No, I don’t think it’s cheating to work from a photo- far from it. It is often far more difficult to work from a photo than it is to work directly from life. The reason for this mainly has to do with the “flattened” perspective of photos, distortion from the lens, and from a painters point of view, the lack of a full range of values (light and shadow) and colours.
I didn’t use reference photos until I began painting horses for a living, and then did so out of necessity. You can set up a still life and paint it at your leisure until it collects dust or rots. You can mark the pose of a model with chalk or masking tape so that the pose can be resumed at the next sitting. As for painting a landscape, true the clouds and light do move, but at least the movement of the light is predictable and if the clouds aren’t totally accurate, no one will be the wiser. Horses, indeed all animals, are another matter. I painted one horse portrait from life, early on in my career. Once was enough.
Above is the reference photo for a dog portrait I recently finished. The car, road, disembodied pants, misplaced shadow and slightly washed out colour all have to be dealt with to make a successful painting. Also, going from photo to painting, I have to take extra care to control my edges. By “edges” what I mean is the area of a painting where an object meets another object or where it meets the background. Too much sharp focus and crisp edges will make the dog look superimposed. Not enough crispness and the focal point of the painting won’t look distinct enough. It’s something of a balance.

Portrait of Sam 8×10 oil on panel ©Alyson Champ

I am fortunate to have some friends who are hugely talented photographers. If you want to see some really excellent photos, I encourage you to check out the work of: Phil Norton, Tracy Martin, and Brenda Castonguay .