First off, let’s skip the guilt trip: there is NOTHING WRONG with painting from photographs, especially for beginners. The question of plein air painting vs. a photo reference is overblown, in my opinion. But undeniably, painting from a photo and painting outside are not the same thing. Light, color, and atmosphere all look different outdoors.
I think it’s a question of which skills you choose to develop and why. In terms of development, there are certainly benefits you can only get by painting from life that touch design, drawing, memory, and imagination.
However, the whole debate overlooks the ultimate goals of painting; in the end, it’s not the level of detail or abstraction, nor the fealty to what’s visibly there. It’s the quality of the artist’s interest in the subject and the amount of mind, heart, and soul he or she gets into the painting that matters.
The danger of working from photos is that you can become a slave to what’s there and rob yourself of the opportunity to discover your own feelings and ideas in the paint. You can get lost recording all the details you can, when a painting can be so much more than what a camera can record. Direct observation, as in plein air painting, submerges you in sensory experience. It invites you to become intimate with your subject in a way that your phone’s camera does not. But using your phone as a viewfinder to test potential compositions? Taking reference photos in case you see something you can use in them later? I do it all the time.
When it comes to landscapes, I try to choose subjects and times of day about which I have strong feelings to begin with, and I see my job as trying to express my feelings through the simplest and most direct means possible. Personally I find that fewer of my plein air paintings seem to work out alla prima in the field than those that need remedial attention in the studio. But as I say, to me the question of plein air vs. studio is moot; both are tools, and I’d rather be judged on what’s in the painting for the viewer to find than on anything to do with process.
Painting from Life
Painting from life, whether it’s a portrait or a landscape en plein air, does offer the artist certain qualities of experience and knowledge that painting from photos does not. It encourages an active engagement with your subject, potentially influencing color and temperature decisions and choices about how and where to move the eye, what to leave in, what to leave out, and what to flat out invent in the heat of the moment.
Perhaps it depends on whether the finished product or the learning experience matters to you more. Painting from life is one of the best ways to grow as an artist.
American illustrator Dean Cornwell summed it up well when he said, “Do what the camera can’t do – the camera can’t add the spiritual.” The sooner one gets to that point as an artist the better, by whatever means necessary.