It was about 4 years ago that I committed myself to working entirely from life for my personal drawings and paintings. Since then, I've become a devout believer in the importance of working from life. The work that you see in my drawings, watercolors and oil paintings pages is entirely from life. I used to use photo references, but references have become very difficult to work from because I feel like I'm copying instead of creating.
So, what's the difference for me as an artist? Copying itself is a skill that is very impressive. That's why many people are enamored with photorealistic paintings. And the skill level required for such work is definitely high, I'm not arguing that. But when someone shows me a photorealistic or hyperrealistic painting, I'm impressed, but not entranced. It's like this: If someone came to me and told me that he memorized the dictionary and if he could prove this skill then I would be very impressed. I'd say "wow" and ask him how long it took to memorize every word. But my next question would be, "why did you bother doing that?". It's impressive, but shallow and entirely derivative. When I'm painting a subject, I want to be learning something about the subject. For me, creation is all about learning.
When I say "creating" I don't mean inventing or adding anything unseen by working from life. I guess I'm still technically "copying" by referring to some source material even if it's nature. However, working from life yields better results because it requires a distillation of the facts presented in the scene in front of me. For instance: when I'm painting a portrait from life, I am aiming for a factual likeness, but I also have the opportunity to speak with the sitter and to learn about them; these discoveries make for a better portrait at the end of the day.
Sometimes other factors come into play for commissioned work and I have no option but to use a photo reference. One day, I want to work entirely from life for all of my portrait commissions. Not sure how that'll work for the dog sitters haha.
I want to also say a word about mastercopies. Mastercopies have been a part of my education from my teenage years, through the Pennsylvania Academy and even up to my current studies at the Florence Academy. But I have similar difficulties when I work from mastercopy photos. I personally believe that a photo of a painting is a disservice to the original painting. The ideal is to see the painting in person and to see the true color, value, layers, scale and paint surface.
When I was in my early 20s I worked a lot from photo references as a part of my practice; now I regret many of those paintings because I created them by staring at a photo instead of having a real interaction with nature. I'm very glad that I made a choice to work from life because the downsides of photos are numerous and I wanted to avoid the greater cultural shift to digital photos as an all-consuming artistic paradigm.
I'm no fool when it comes to the seeming advantages of photos. Copying a photo is so much easier and more expedient. The photo doesn't move and it's so accessible especially when you can zoom in on a screen. I also don't have to leave the studio and trek out into the countryside, deal with the elements and battle the ever-changing sunlight. I ask: whether working from life or a photo, is the goal of art to simply mimic?
I'm at a stage now where my desire is to create something beyond a direct copy. I want my paintings to give a feeling that is beyond representation. I'm also thinking more about exploring narratives in my paintings. Not in a blatant storybook fashion, but I want subtle narratives that add a poetic touch. I think artists like Sargent and Sorolla created these subtle narratives beautifully.
It's not easy to put into words, but I like exploring and sharing my thoughts on this blog. During the winter, I was more reserved with my blog posts, but I'm making a conscious effort to share more of my work and ideas as the springtime takes effect.