top of page

The Problem with Photography and Painting

"Still - in a way - nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time." - Georgia O'Keefe

For this blog post, I wanted to discuss an issue I have thought about for a while. I wanted to discuss the problem of photography as it relates to painting. I want to be clear that this is not a critique of photography as an art form. Rather, it is a discourse on the usefulness and limitations of photography to the painter. I will also discuss how those limitations also affect the viewing of paintings.

"Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one's sensations." - Pauk Cezanne

Now, I have often been told to avoid using photographs as references and subject matter for painting. I have heard that it can become a trap. That work produced thus will always be inferior to work from life and will lack the qualities of the spirit that manifest the individual character of the artist. That the work will necessarily be derivative. In a way though, all artwork is derivative. Artists like Mucha worked from photographs as reference but created work that bears no resemblance to photography. Before the photograph, artists worked from drawings and memory and rarely exclusively from life.

On the other hand , painting from photographs does create a certain compulsion to mimic the image as the source. Seeing something that is already complete as an image seems to magnify the risks associated with creative experimentation. You are on the bandwagon with the photograph. Its colors and forms pressure you to conform. This is where the trap lies. How can one possibly create original and earnest work with the pressure to get something "right;" when the questions goes from "is this color correct?" to "is this the correct color?" Certainly it is a subtle difference but its effect resonates throughout the work. The choices become in relation to the standard of the photograph rather then the light of the soul. The relation is to the external rather then the internal.

"By means of the iconic, artists express their view of reality and show their understanding of the structure of reality. They see what they know and bring this into their paintings. … They always give us more than the facts, more than the eye can see. " -Hans Rookmaaker

I believe that there is a technical explanation behind this phenomenon. Even the most naturalistic and trompe l'oeil (fooling the eye) images by old masters such as Rembrandt and Frans Hals (Both Dutch realists who painted compositions photographic in their spontaneity and candid nature) were filtered by imagination. They were not simply recording reality. They were interpreting it.

Let us think about it physiologically. There are blind spots in the eye where the brain fills in the image by extrapolating from the stimuli collected around it. Each of us have two eyes. Both lenses take in visual stimuli from two separate (yet similar) vantage points. All of this visual information creates two separate images that the brain must combine (cognitively) into a single image. So first, the mind revives two separate sets of data from each eye. Each dataset is an incomplete image so then, it must cut and paste, omit and recombine to make a single whole "perspective" which the consciousness understands as reality.

This process leaves much of the construction of visual imagery to the cognitive functions of the brain and no two brains will filter visual information in the same way. It is completely individual and unique among every person what information is being omitted, created and combined from the same visual stimuli. Not to mention the process of labeling and connecting the parts of the whole image that was constructed. (Is this red like an apple or a cherry?) The linguistic and symbolic connotations of parts of the image add immeasurable layers of intricacy to a foundation that is already uniquely constructed. Thus, just the fundamental action of seeing itself is an assertion of an individual's distinct biological and mental makeup.

Now, the problem with photography as it pertains to painting is that it interrupts this process of cognitive sifting and reorganization of visual stimuli. The camera itself has a single lens which "identifies" the colors at a specific digital frequency and labels them accordingly. What it creates is a static representation. As the eye moves across the picture plane of the photograph, data which would have been constructed becomes corrected. The reality of the digital display will assert itself over the mental construction because the presented image does not change as the eye move across it. The eye will have the opportunity to see all its parts and be able to evaluate the information that would otherwise have been cognitively constructed. This differs from natural observation in that the conditions of light, atmosphere and thereby, color, are always in a state of flux. Even under extended observation, the brain must still compromise and consolidate the visual information it is currently receiving with its interpretation of information from the immediate past.

This limitation of photography also extends to the experience of viewing a painting. Integral to the experience of viewing oil paintings is the translucent nature of the medium itself. Layers of oil suspend different pigments throughout the surface of the painting. The light around it interacts with the painting in seemingly infinite variations according to strength and chroma of the light itself. Thus, the painting will appear different under different lights and circumstances. Even under the same light, reflections and colors adjacent to a painting affect the eyes ability to interpret the image. The brain must reconcile new information revealed by subtly shifting light. The brain must reference any emotional reaction to the image or its colors it may have from the past. Social influences may influence the strengths of colors and forms as well as their psychological interpretation.

When viewing a picture of a painting, one is limited to interpretation of form and idea only. There is a distinct drought of spiritual gravity due to the limitation of dynamic sensory information. Again, the visual information is static and thus, the reaction to it will be static as well.

"It would be a peculiarly perverted way of looking at a statue or a painting to ignore the sensual aspect thus completely rescinding its beauty. In sculpture, architecture, painting, the idea is bound up with the medium; but this fact that the idea neither reduces the medium to the level of mere instrument, nor constantly negates it..." - Aesthete from Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard

The mystery in art is that it is dynamic. It continues to live beyond its "completion." Photographs of art are a useful tool to study them. One is able to dissect them and study their parts in relation to one another. The painting in a photograph will sit still for the student. A photograph of a painting, however, lacks the capacity to make a spiritual movement in the viewer. The static nature of the photograph negates the power of a painting that can only be dimly grasped as a whole among its shifting parts.

*Cover Photo - "View from the Window at Le Gras" by Nicephore Niepce Approximately 1826 or 1827

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page