Fine art from photos, OK. But fine art from snapshots?

June 2nd, 2008

(Already read Part 1? Here’s Part 2)

So you’re going to have your portrait painted. That means you’ll sit in a studio for hours on end while the artist paints you, right?

Well, it used to mean that. But click “Procedure” on almost any portrait artist’s website – including those who get $10,000 and up for a portrait. You’ll find that these days the “portrait sitting” is commonly a photo shoot that happens before the artist’s brush ever strokes canvas. After the shoot, the client and the artist select a photograph on which to base the portrait. Then the client can disappear while the lengthy work of the actual painting is accomplished.

“Assuming that a portrait created from photo reference is intrinsically inferior to one painted from life is putting the responsibility on the process rather than the artist. If only it were that simple. You can paint from life until the next millennium and never do anything worthwhile.

I’ve seen incredible paintings done from life and beautiful paintings done from photos too. However, the vast majority of portraits I’ve seen are poorly thought out and ineptly handled regardless of whether from life or photo reference.

I believe that injecting the quality of life into a painting comes from the artist’s heart, intent, knowledge and talent.”

Marvin Mattelson, Portrait artist, permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery. (

There are still a few portrait artists – such as Mary Minifie in Boston – who insist on the importance of working only from life. Some other portraitists accompany their photo sessions with quick, one-time studies (sketches) from life. Afterwards, they paint the portrait itself without the subject present.

Portrait by Jonathan Linton, full size at: the painter is a terrific artist to begin with, painting from photographs can create exquisite portraits, the kind of art you want to gaze at forever. Look at this beautiful little boy (Full size portrait by Jonathan Linton here).  His eyes speak to you, appealing to you emotionally. Every detail of the background creates a very unusual atmosphere. The boy, chair, hangings, and window all hint at a mysterious story that engages us and makes us wish we could know more.

There are many good reasons why portraitists have shifted to using photos. Clients don’t want to take time or energy to travel repeatedly to the artist’s studio and sit motionless for the endless hours it takes to paint a portrait. A subject who poses usually gets tired and bored as time passes. The head droops, shadows shift, angles change, new wrinkles appear in clothing. All make painting problematic. So artists have always seized on technological tools as fast as they’re invented, to develop new ways of capturing their subjects in paint.

Of course, portraitists who successfully use photographs are able to do so because they have trained endlessly in drawing from life. They have a vast bank of experience observing and painting the myriad elements of color, line, human physique, and so on. When portrait artists paint from photographs, they are drawing on this store of knowledge and practice.

Copying a photo will not make a great painting, but neither will copying from life. It is the understanding that the artist brings to his work that makes it something more. How to strategize the construction of a painting is the commonality I believe that distinguishes the work of all great artists.

I think that if the old masters were alive today they would absolutely take full advantage of today’s technology and couple it with their extraordinary knowledge. Great artists are always looking to utilize whatever will make themselves more effective. Vermeer used optical devices. Bouguereau and Gerome both took full advantage of photography, and look how they raised the bar.

Marvin Mattelson

But how can art grow from snapshots?

Many in the art world insist that portraitists who paint from photographs use only photos the artist takes him or herself. Many portrait competitions stipulate this. The reason is to prove that the artist isn’t using some one else’s vision, some one else’s composition, lighting, color choices, and so on. Rather, the artist must make all these choices, based on their own artistry and technical skill.

It’s easy to understand the perspective that a painting based on a photo taken by some one else – or worse, some magazine photo of a well-known person – isn’t art. Online portrait factories (“send me your family snapshot and I’ll turn it into a portrait and mail it back to you”) have proliferated. You can have a $100 copy painted of your own photo without even meeting the painter. I would not argue that such an approach produces great art.

At the same time, I’d like to bring another perspective to personal snapshots. I believe that, treated properly, they can indeed be central to a work of art. I’ll write more about this out-of-the-box approach next post.

(All done with Part 1? Here’s Part 2)

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