Much has been said pro and con regarding the use of photography in painting. The phrase "copying from photos", more often than not, evokes a negative reaction and, sometimes, deservedly so. If this method is wrongly used, the results can be weak and stilted, at best, and disastrous, at worst. But, when the amateur or professional artist employs photography correctly, it can be a valuable artistic tool in recording subject matter for future reference.
In the past five years, I have traveled over 35,000 miles (by automobile) and 10,000 more by air in my "Search for America". In that time, I have taken over 3,000 single photos and filled several sketch pads with rough thumbnail drawings, notations on colors, time of day, the weather, etc.
I call this my "shorthand", and it will be deciphered when I am back in my studio and ready to actually paint these subjects. Although I would have preferred to do so, it would have been virtually impossible to stay in one place long enough to actually paint all these subjects, since my work is very detailed and it can often take several weeks to complete one painting. Back in the studio, with my photos as a source of facts and my notes and sketches as a record of my feelings, I can recapture the spirit as well as the details of a picture subject.
It is interesting to note that the history of photography as an artist's reference tool can actually be traced back to the very beginnings of photography itself.
In 1839, Louis Jacques Mande' Daguerre, well known in Paris as a painter
and exhibitor of lifelike dioramas, announced to the world that he had
succeeded in freezing on a plate an image obtained through a camera obscura
(so called by Battista della Porta in 1558).
Reflected onto a ground glass, the image could be traced to save the artist many hours of labor in sketching landscapes, buildings and people. In the 15th Century, it was known to Leonardo da Vinci who described it in his notebooks. He once said, as if in reference to the device: "That painting is most praiseworthy which is most like the thing represented." But, until the early Nineteenth Century, it had remained impossible to "fix" the image or make it permanent.
The English Scientist, Sir John Herschel and his countryman, William Henry Fox Talbot, and the American painter and inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse, were all experimenting with the fact that salts of silver will register differences in light and dark.
The first man to achieve any great success was a Frenchman named Nicephore Niepce during the 1820's. Daguerre met Niepce in 1826 and they formed a partnership in 1827. The history gets a little hazy at this point, but it is known that Niepce made crude photographs in the 1820's and, Daguerre, the first good ones in the 1830's. Then, Niepce died in 1833 and Daguerre proceeded on alone until his eventual success in 1839.
"The Mirror with a Memory", Oliver Wendell Holmes called it, and the French artist, Paul Delaroche declared, "From today, painting is dead!" Well known American landscapist, Thomas Cole, as if in reply to Delaroche's statement, said, "If you believe everything the newspapers say ... you would be led to suppose that the poor craft of painting was knocked in the head by this new machinery for making nature take her own likeness and we have nothing to do but give up the ghost... But, the art of painting is creative, as well as imitative art, and is in no danger of being superseded by any mechanical contrivance."
From that time on, despite the controversy, artists were quick to realize how valuable a camera could be in recording a subject for later use. The list of artists who employed this technique would read like a veritable "Who's Who in Art".
Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Delacroix and Gauguin (to name but a few) all took this wonderful invention and each created paintings in his own unique style. Using the photos as inspiration, they created on canvas a history of the era they lived in.
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