Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Using Reference Images, Part 1

This is the first part of a 2-part post exploring the topic of originality in art. Much has already been published about artistic copyright laws and since I'm not an attorney, I will leave that particular can of worms unopened.  The question I want to answer is regarding the use of digital/photographic reference: At what point does the scale tip from original art to enhanced copy?

I would venture to say that the majority of artists working today use digital reference images to some degree. I personally prop my iPad up on my easel next to the canvas, using it as a photo viewer when painting from life isn't possible. Think portraits of busy or remote clients, finishing a plein air piece in the studio, bouquets that die off long before a painting of them is finished. I used printed reference for years (before my iPad). I use my own photos, images supplied by clients in the case of commissions and/or images for which I have purchased or otherwise gained permission to use.  In my opinion, this is "legitimate" use of reference material.

But what about pulling a photo into a drawing or painting program and literally painting over it, then presenting the final digital painting as original? I think that's crossing the line. I'm sure many will disagree with me on that point.

What about printing out reference and tracing it onto a painting surface or projecting it onto one and tracing? The lines blur here.  Having run a couple hundred workshops, I have seen both methods used by instructors; Professional, renowned artists all.  Some took time in the workshop to explain that using these methods were simply expedient in a workshop setting, but detailing how they compiled and used their own reference images (or those to which they had obtained permission to use) in their work.  A few others were more cavalier about it and felt there was no harm/no foul, and the last group of them traced complicated scenes strictly from their own photos.

I asked two prominent artists their opinions on the use of digital reference images:

Jason Seiler (1) is a prolific and internationally renowned artist whose portraits and caricatures have graced major magazines like TIME. (His Person of the Year portrait of Pope Francis for TIME is one of my all time favorites: See it by clicking here). Jason said, "It depends. I guess it's ok if you are trying to do an insane deadline and you need the assistance of references. I've had to do that some before, mostly because of the request of my client...for example using a logo that already exists....for the most part I think it's best to just paint."

James Gurney (2) author and artists creator of all things "Dinotopia" (if you don't know what that is get the books here). Jim is quite possibly the most prolific painter-from-life in this country. He has done incredibly detailed illustrations for Dinotopia, many painted from dioramas he made so he could be sure to get all the forms and lighting correctly represented. He is almost never seen without at least a sketchbook and pencil and posts daily paintings on his blog. His opinion surprised me a quite a bit.  He said, "I'm pretty pragmatic about such questions. Whatever method gets you the best results, use it! Digital tools of all sorts can be a big help, and plenty of people get great work by using various sorts of reference in a variety of ways. I'm sort of old-school, in my art, as you know. Part of it is that I feel I get better results that way. But I wouldn't say my way is the right way or that other people should follow it.  ...I think you have to decide for yourself what way yields the best pictures, and also what way is the most fun for you."

I'd love to know what you think, so feel free to comment!  Part 2 next week explores exhibition/competition rules about originality. Happy Thanksgiving and remember to Live Out Loud!

More info on
(1) Jason Seiler - Links: Website  Facebook  Instagram  Schoolism  Books on Amazon
(2) James Gurney - Links: Website  Blog  Facebook   Instagram  YouTube  Books on Amazon

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