Thursday, 19 August 2010

Is using a photo 'cheating'?

As part of my art world domination plan (!) I've been joining art websites such as The Artists Web (who are hosting my own website) and Total Art Soul. All these sites have forums for members to post questions, get and give advice and just get to know other like-minded people. Yesterday I joined a debate on Total Art Soul with regard to the moral and legal implications of using someone else's photo as inspiration for a painting/drawing.

There are a whole host of things to consider when using a photograph as the basis of a picture, not least is the argument from some art purists who look down their noses at those of us who work from photos and are of the opinion that it makes us somehow less of an artist because we don't actually draw from life.

I don't know about any other artists out there but I don't have the a) confidence to paint or draw in public or b) the time to actually do a portrait of a life model - bearing in mind I still have to work for a living and that the last commissioned portrait I did took me over 18 hours to complete - it just isn't a realistic proposition for me. Also, given the less than clement year round weather in Northern Ireland, for me to try and paint en plein air (as they say in France) my paints would be washed away by rain before they even got a chance to dry on the paper! So no, I don't subscribe to the school of thought that you must actually be there to paint the scene - that's what digital photography was invented for!

Which leads me on to the next dilemma - what if, like me, you are photographically challenged (I don't mean unphotogenic although I am guilty of that too!) I am just not very good at taking photos but, luckily for me, S is. From a holiday snapshot point of view, I never really saw the point of a photograph without someone in it. Now however, I am eternally grateful that S has taken so many of these photographic scenes as it means I have a huge source of reference material and I don't need to worry about copyright!

This is a photo he took of the walled garden at Bangor Castle and my sketch of it which I've used for the front cover of my Arthouse Co-op Sketchbook 2011 project.

Is the painting less mine just because I didn't actually take the photo - no I don't think so. A good photographer can capture a great scene and that in itself is a work of art. Likewise, a good artist can paint a scene, whether from life or from a photo and put their own stamp on it - as Simon Cowell would say they take the scene and they make it their own (a phrase I hate but that actually sums up what I mean in this case!)

Now, as to the issue of whether it is ever okay to use someone else's photograph to paint from, there are different views on this, aside from the whole copyright issue. Personally, I would always ask someone's permission if I wanted to use an image of theirs as inspiration for artwork of mine.

Because I worry about everything I then worried about drawing famous faces - is their image copyrighted? Yes, pretty much.  I found out that, even though Marilyn Monroe has long since shuffled off this mortal coil, the rights to her name and image belong to CMG. This concerned me, as I have her on my blog and website banner and not wanting to be on the receiving end of a multi-million dollar lawsuit, I emailed CMG and asked was it okay to keep the illustration on as a sample of my work and they said yes! Phew.

During my research I also found a wonderful website called Paint My Photo where photographers post photos that they allow artists to paint from. This is a great website and one I will be frequenting when I need inspiration without the worry of legalities! I have already found a few cityscapes on there of places I haven't been to which will be great as inspiration for the sketchbook project. There is even a challenge where artists are invited to paint a chosen photo each month. This month it's this photo by Rodney Campbell, a member of Paint My Photo (who did give kindly me permission to put this photo on my blog!)

The upshot is, as far as using someone else's photographs are concerned - yes I will no doubt still do so in the future as professional photographers will probably travel to amazing places I may never be lucky enough to get to and they are always going to take a better photograph than I could, but I will always ask their permission first. I would just always prefer to stay on the right side of the law and not step on anyone's toes into the bargain. And, I don't think I am not a 'real' artist because I work from photos (but then I am going to say that anyway!)

It would be interesting to hear other opinion's on this as it seems to be a real bone of contention amonst other artists on various websites I looked at. Any thoughts?


  1. well using photos was fine with my tutors when I studied art at college...and they should know shouldn't they? I like to paint and draw and it will often be from a photo.

    it is the same with jewellery, you get the silversmiths and such like looking down at people who do beadwork (not all - but quite alot) and say it is not handmade.

  2. Great post Nicola, my 2 cents worth (biased in favour of photos as the founder of PMP!) As soon as photography was invented, Artists were using the images. Manet was one of the early ones, his paintings with people cropped at the edge of a painting, such as you see in photographs was directly inspired by photography. Also there is the whole camera lucida and camera obscura debate. Checkout David Hockneys book secret knowlege, which proposes that projections and lenses were used by Artists much earlier than previously thought. His book inspired me to invent the SimmTrace device (free to make and use the software if anyone interested)
    As regards the legalities, well as you have said, thats why I started PMP earlier this year we are over 6000 photos now.

  3. In my opinion the short answers is no, it's not cheating.

    Similar topics come up regarding crafting all the time and this may come as a massive shock but I don't weave my own fabric, I buy it! I don't think there's any difference between me using bought materials and you using a photo taken by your other half. I avoid the copyrighted fabrics as well though, best to keep on the right side of things.

  4. I think it's just fine to use photos. I think what makes an artist is how they interpret what they see in front of them regardless of whether it's a 'live' person/object/etc or a photo of one. I agree that as long as you have permission or use royalty free photos I don't see the problem.

  5. as long as the photo is yours, it's fine (otherwise you should get permission). However, it is often really easy to tell if something was painted from a photo rather than life. The latter will almost always be the better painting.

  6. Forgot to say - if you draw from life, you actually "SEE" a lot more. These days you don't have to sit out there like the Impressionists did, now you can use photos as a tool. Try and sketch what you see, and make some notes. Use this as your main reference when back in your studio and photos of the subject as other references. Really, your painting will be better for it.

  7. I have a BA degree in Fine Art and have done paintings based on photos so have no objection to it! I believe anything can be used as an inspiration for more creative work and this includes 2 dimensional images. Painting outdoors is just one, rather traditional way of making art, but it is quite a narrow perspective.

  8. Not sure if painting plein air is really "traditional" Annabel. It was only the invention of ready mixed oil paints in tubes that made this even possible. It was the Impressionists who started painting outdoors, so we are only actually going back just over 100 years, and what they did was considered avant garde after all.
    Constable painted The Haywain in his studio, from sketches he made outdoors. ie - the camera of yesteryear:-)

  9. Painting outdoors only started in the 19th century, from the Reinassance onward they used copy books, where the ideal horse shape, mans body etc were all listed and the lesser artists in the masters workshop would block out all the background and lesser figures. The Master like Michael Angelo would only paint the faces and other important details you just copied the picture. Using a photograph allows you to spend time with the image and make a more considered piece, you can do several versions and make corrections to composistions over a few days. I like to make a quick sketch at the scene and then take photos to look at at home. but I have 2 small children, so now I just take photos, no time for leisurely sketching stuff!

  10. Like amyoj I find that a quick sketch is the most i can usually manage "in the field", what i would say is to take your own photos & don't fret if they don't stand as works of art in their own right just think of them as your own private records & a way for you to capture the nuances and details of your subject that someone composing a photographic shot might miss.

  11. I do not know what the big fuss is about. Whether you take the photo yourself or get someone elses permission, as long as you put paint to paper you are creating art.

    I myself have always wanted to be an artist but talked myself that I was rubbish at it. I began not too long ago to give it ago. I painted two paintings from a vision I had that morning. My scenes do not even exist doest that mean what I painted isn't art. I think not.

    If someone can chuck rubbish in a middle of the room and explain it and call it art then any thing goes.

    Did pass artist see cherubs, angels or Jesus when they painted them and him no.
    Your picture s stunning by the way.

  12. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far.

    Gelert - I think I know what you mean about being able to tell is a painting is taken from a photo at least as far as landscapes go. I did one last night from just 1 photo I had taken myself and it is difficult to make out every aspect but then again I like to employ artistic licence anyway and leave out or add in things as I choose! As far as portraits go, I would still always prefer to use photos (especially for animals as my two pups will hardly stay still long enough to get a photo never mind trying to paint them from life!)

    Nithria - thank you so much for the lovely comment! I agree with you about making things up completely from fantasy and you made me laugh with your comment about chucking rubbish in the middle of the room and calling it art - that is so true these days (I call it emperor's new clothes syndrome!)

  13. I don´t know if its cheating or not.I think it is important to create your own image, for that it would be better to take your own pictures. But artists as Degas used photography for their paintings and drawings. I think its fine.

  14. I've actually just started doing of painting from a photo, having been a long time kind of against the idea of doing this, but I think as long as you get that good feeling from your work, there are no set rules :)

  15. its not cheating as such because you dont get the same result as not using a photo,you are simply choosing to limit your creative growth,choosing to keep the stablisers on instead of risking more to gain more freedom of expression, its a safety net especially for those who have drawing talent,friends and family who are not really knowledgable about creativity will always gravitate towards something that looks like a photo as its exhibition of skill but something that is skillful only blossoms into art with creativity,intelligence,daring and self belief,its like saying you want to be an explorer then never traveling far enough away to lose sight of home,it is ofcourse fine to use a photo if your mind is unchained and you take it as purely the starting point the image you create afterall in order to fly a bird has to take off from land but to adhere strictly to the photographic image is greatly underestimating your own potential to express and create your own individual vision and perspective on life and the world you live in,thats my opinion anyway and i guess you could argue what do i know because if success is measured by your ability to sell your work then i am a complete failure having never sold an artwork x graime morris

  16. The slavish reproduction of photographs is not a fit task for an artist. I can't believe you even ask such a question and call yourself an artist. Cezanne called it delusional madness. Who are you trying to impress? When an artist observes the world around him, he attempts to reproduce all things as seen to perfection, according to his abilities. But more, he introduces a sense of feeling. The observed subject is given a sense of humanity, love, truth and beauty. More again, the observable content is studied. Van Gogh said: "I study nature carefully so that I do not make foolish mistakes". The subject must be absolutely understood by the artist describing it. Photographs? Are you mad? Do you not have hands on the end of your arms? Has your tongue been cut out? Are you blind?

  17. Photography is a nonsense, hardly worth the breath of air it takes to mention its name.

  18. Who do you want to be? Do want to be an artist? Do you want to fool your friends? Do you want to paint photographs and show them to your friends so that they'll all think you're great? How about this: try painting a picture using only your imagination. Is that such a hard thing to do? What did you dream last night? What's inside your head? Why do you insist on pouring over photographs so obsessively? Remember that you love yourself and want to be loved. Inside your heart is a beautiful world well worth depicting. Throw out the photos. Burn them. Shun them. Make them a thing of horror to you. Then reach inside the cavern of your mind and find the true artist waiting there. It's stupid to do anything else. Don't waste your life or your gift. "Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."

  19. Nothing is more important than art. When the evil, warlike beasts attempt to overthrow the goodness of the world, the artists of the world cry: No More! They stand for reason, for beauty, for truth. They give their very lives for what they believe in. They hope greatly. They cling to justice. And when love abandons them, they describe it in their poems. An artist needs no reference, asks no beggining, or seeks an end. Visions are the commonplace material of the true artist. Dreams, the playground. Beauty, the very face of creativity itself. God looks upon the machinations of the artist and sighs.

  20. Wow, obviously something you feel strongly about Artist/Anonymous (who I am guessing is the same person). I think that a) you didn't read my post in the context in which it was written which was nothing to do with 'slavishly copying a photograph' and more to do with the ethics of using someone else's photo and the logistical problems associated with painting from life and b) it is pretentious people like you who prevent art from being enjoyed by the layperson as you spout forth on what it should mean when ultimately what art means is personal both to the artist and the viewer and, very often, there is no deeper meaning to a painting than that the artist loved the subject matter and wanted to recreate and/or interpret it on paper/canvas.

    As for painting from my imagination, again you clearly didn't venture further than this one post or you would have seen that in fact my most recent post published yesterday is about just such an imaginary landscape which I recently made up!

    As this is still a free country and we are all entitled to our opinions I am happy to leave your comments for other people to read and form their own opinions on however I do think it is amusing that those who tend to post the most vitriolic of comments are usually those who refer to themselves as 'Anonymous.


Your comments always colour me happy! Thank you for popping by.


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