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Are Painters' 'Reference Photographs' a Form of Cheating?

02/05/2015 07:23 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

"I have no difficulty with other people using photography as the basis of their painting," by which painter Steven Assael implies that he does have some difficulty. "It just has to be understood that there are dramatic differences between how the camera looks at and experiences the world and how we see it." That's his point, and his gripe, about the use of photographs by painters. "A camera records a scene in a split second, whereas we see movement over time. We synthesize our observations, and the resulting painting is the culmination of many moments. We selectively choose details and, in that selection process, meaning and surprises happen, giving the artwork a life of its own." A painting that is a copy of a photograph isn't really a painting or a photograph but something unpleasant in-between: The results, he believes, don't look convincing.

Assael discourages his students at New York's School of Visual Arts from relying on photographs, and he is hardly alone in his thinking. A growing number of figurative and landscape artists have been calling attention to the use of photographs by painters, claiming that they can tell the difference between paintings based on direct observation and those using camera images, denouncing artists of the latter group. Assael's complaint is purely the quality of the work, but some others are calling it cheating.

"Sometimes, it is cheating," said Al Gury, chairman of the painting department of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. "I see a lot of artists using photographs sort of as a cheat sheet. Some use photographs because they're lazy, and others think their work will come out right because the photograph is the real thing."

The anti-photograph school of artists can get strident in their beliefs, sometimes accusing other landscape artists whose work is too hard-edged or too contrasty for their liking of simply painting from photographs. This dust-up may amount to rather little: The rest of the art world -- collectors, critics, curators and dealers -- shows little or no interest in the steps artists took in creating the final artwork, simply judging paintings on how they look. "The art world is a very competitive place," said painter Debra Goertz, who uses still from video images of outdoor scenes that she paints back in her Brooklyn, New York studio. "There is a fundamentalism in everything."
Sometimes, landscape painters - particularly those calling themselves "plein-air" artists - can seem a bit too wedded to history, rejecting any means of artmaking that postdates the 19th century. Nineteenth century artists were influenced by the informal look of photography, most notably Edgar Degas, whose flattened and sometimes awkwardly cropped forms in his paintings give the appearance of a snapshot. It is also true that artists living above a certain latitude resent being told to either just paint still-lifes in their studios all winter long or trudge out into the snow to paint from direct observation in order to be deemed real artists. Photography and painting can coexist, although understanding their similarities and differences will help relieve inherent tensions.

Cameras are often used to take "reference photographs," memory aids that will provide visual information, which an artist can use back in the studio. Being indiscriminate, cameras often record more details (tree stumps or squirrels, for instance) than an artist may choose to include in a painting, and a painter may decide to reposition elements in the landscape for greater effect. However, other details -- such as the intensity of light, images within a shadow or the gradations of color of an object -- are likely to be lost in a photograph, requiring an artist to make up for that in the studio. Additionally, the curve of a camera lens will distort shapes in an image (straight lines will seem to bend, objects closest to the camera will appear too large relative to the background), calling for correction.

At times, painters can be downright hostile toward cameras ("I avoid them like the plague," said Clarksdale, Mississippi painter Gerald Deloach) for interfering with their creativity ("a photograph is organized and sorted-out," he said) and impressions. Artists "get into trouble when they view a photograph as the truth, rather than as a tool," said Brooklyn painter and teacher Dan Thompson, who scoffed at students who think that studio art classes mean "sitting down and opening up their laptops." Photographs have the tendency to flatten forms, he said, which may suit artists whose intention is to show how photographs depict the world, but it is not the world that they see and experience. The larger problem of relying too heavily on photographs is that they "stunt one's sense of confidence. You are depending not on your own perceptions but on a foreign eye to tell you what's out there, what truth is."

This attitude strikes other painters as enforced primitivism, "like we're all supposed to be Amish or something," said Oregon, Wisconsin painter Kathy Esch, who teaches a course in reference photography for the artist at the University of Wisconsin. Similarly, Steve Rogers, a watercolor artist in Ormond Beach, Florida who leads art workshops with his wife, Janet, in Europe, teaches the use of cameras to his students as a better source of information in many ways than sketches and watercolor studies. "I've been in Venice, trying to capture the fleeting light, and the light may chance in five minutes," he said. "There is no way I can set up that quickly and record that light, and I can't repeatedly come back to the same location. The camera is the obvious choice."