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Why Painting From Life Matters

by Lori Woodward on 4/20/2011 11:07:22 AM

Today's Post  is by Lori Woodward, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. She also writes "The Artist's Life" blog on American Artists' Forum. Lori is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group that paints under the direction of Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  Find out how you can be a guest author. 


As a stubborn, self-directed artist, I'm not fond of having other artists make rules for me - forcing rules on anyone is not my intent, so if you are painting from photos, that's entirely your prerogative as an artist. There are no rules in art - just recommendations. But, if you do paint recognizable scenes or objects, you can't go wrong by gaining information by painting from life.














Above: Plein air watercolor studies - Acadia National Park by Lori Woodward


Many of us use photographs for references from time to time; some artists use them all the time. I have no bone to pick with you, either way. So now that we've got the "no rules" segment of this blog over, I'll move ahead to explain why, even occasional studies from life help representational artists paint better final paintings in the longrun.


I don't consider myself a plein air painter, but rather - a studio painter. While I enjoy the outdoors in general, painting on site distracts me. Dealing with flying insects, wind, inclement weather, and lugging painting gear around isn't my idea of fun; besides, I'm too social and enjoy talking with friendly passers-by who seem interested in my work. However, I believe that painting from life is necessary to making better works of art.  


Plein air study of trees at Pirate's Cove - watercolor


I prefer that my works of art begin with an intimate cerebral connection with my subject. In order to love what I paint, I must paint what I love, and get to know my subject personally. Direct observation connects me with my subject in a way that no photograph ever did. I get to wrap my head around it - while the visual elements get woven in my memory through use of my hands and eyes. I get clear about my feelings about the subject and then translate those feelings, along with my ideas, into the final artistic statement (later, in the studio).


Plein air study of Bass Harbor Marsh, Acadia - watercolor


OK, so the previous paragraph was a bit lofty; now let me get down to the practicality of working from life. But first, I need to let you know that I do not make finished paintings outdoors. Perhaps it's just my inability to focus outside, or that I don't like the pressure of making a finished painting on the spot.  Almost all of my plein air works are meant to exist purely as studies. My initial goal is to record what's there: accurate color, shapes of the landscape elements, and my view from one stationary position. By the way - working from numerous photos/positions gets confusing because your references end up with multiple perspectives.


Sometimes, I have so little time to record the scenery in paint that I do a quick pencil drawing of the shapes and values and then mix a few colors and make a color chart. I've actually carried color charts with me, held them up to the landscape and marked which little squares matched the hue and value of objects. This works really well when the light is changing quickly.


I rarely carry an easel or oil paints outdoors. I prefer a light burden that I can easily fit into a medium-sized back pack... watercolor paper taped to a light, rigid board, watercolor paints, palette, one brush, a cup and small bottle of water.  Additionally, I carry a sketchbook and pencil. I tend to write my notes right on the study, so there's no need for an extra notebook.


Plein air study at Tucson Mountain Park - watercolor


When I return home, I have a wealth of reference material, studies and drawings from life - which record color, shapes and values, plus I take a series of digital photographs. From these, I later build a series of paintings in the comfort of my studio, until I arrive at something I consider my best effort - or masterpiece. Even if it's not a masterpiece in the true sense of the word, I hope that all my effort and observation will culminate into my best painting to date.


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Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration | Lori Woodward 

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Teresa Tromp
This is a great post, and thank you for excluding the photographs guilt trip.
I alternate from photo and actual scene. If only those shadows would stop moving, I might be able to finish a piece outside! I'm not quick enough with the brushwork. The actual scene shows me where all of the subtleties are, that I can not see in the photo.
I get the overall composition down using the photo, and get the subtleties from real life.
When I do paint from real life, such as flowers in my yard, I find I like the finished product better.
I'm still practicing with the people walking by, as it is the scariest part of plein-air for me.

Karen Winters
My plein air studies are precious resources, too. Combined with sketches and photos they provide richness to draw from in making a major studio painting.

John Smith
Great article Lori. I really enjoyed it.

Thanks for the post Lori!
I love plein air but agree that fleeting light or other distractions get in the way. Sometimes the view is great but there's no safe way to stand and paint it. I like to walk and birdwatch too, so I often have other agendas going on at the same time.
I will often sketch a spot but I always take photos. When the light changes, or the bugs bite I can retreat and still. So often I see something as I'm driving so the little point and shoot is always in my bag. (Makes for unique compositions as well.)

On a side note - I love the paintings on Mt Desert! One of my favorite places to paint - having gone to many workshops at Acadia Workshop Center. That spot at Bass Harbor Marsh is stunning (and a little scary if you're on the side of the road!).
Thanks! Makes me want to GET PAINTING!!!

JoAnne Perez Robinsin
I paint from photos a lot, always my own photos, but I do sketches from life all the time too. I have sketch books and pencil boxes everywhere..bedside, car, purse. Some of my best work is in my sketches so I think you're right, it helps you to become a better artist sketching/painting from life, but also painting in a nice warm studio without bugs and wind helps too! Great article in that you don't put down artists who paint from photos too.

George De Chiara
Great post Lori. I too enjoy painting from life, either in my studio working on a still life or plein air. I used photos for a long time, but for the last year or so I've painted almost everything from life. It's made a real difference in the color I see and I think my painting is better off for it. I still on rare occasion use a photograph and the lessons I learned from painting from life really help.

Bonnie Samuel
This post really resonates with me, Lori. Lofty or not, my favorite quote is "...I get clear about my feelings about the subject and then translate those feelings, along with my ideas, into the final artistic statement." If you are in touch with what it is you want to say in your art, then the 'how do I say that' is a whole lot easier--at least for me.


Brian Scanlon
Great article, Lori.

Long ago I read a comment by Hans Hofmann. It stuck in my mind because it was such a surprise to me. After all, he was an abstract expressionist painter, and so were most of his students. A lot of years have gone by so this is no longer an exact quote, but what he said was, roughly: (") you must go out and paint directly from nature from time to time, because that is what nourishes your art (").

Painting outdoors can be such a pain. For me, the worst enemy is the wind. However, I have found using just a sketchbook and taking the time to make a careful drawing is a good partial substitute.

I believe that one of the things that happens is that, in doing this work directly from nature, you are building a subconscious link to whatever it is that attracts you to that scene. There is more going on than just gathering data. And a lot of it you are not aware of. That's a good thing.

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
Boy, I'm with you about the bugs, the wind and the rain.
However, I have found that painting live can really produce some fun stuff. I always take a camera along so I can still preserve the idea of what I see.
nice article thanks

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Hello Lori...

Thank you for writing this article. It is helpful in so many way.

It is a wonderful post for many reasons.
But, the most important reason is that you are not bias in your thinking as far as painting from life or from using photographs.

I dislike the snobbery at times and the suggested undertones from some who believe that because they paint plein air all the time, somehow their paintings are more validated. They are not. But yet they stand in judgment of those who may use photographs.
The end result (however it is achieved) is what validates a painting ... whether it speaks to the viewer or not...or actually says what the artist wants it to say. Especially when a painting (no matter where or how it is painted) wins an award.

I think most artists know that a good basic foundation for a landscape painting is observation first hand outdoors of the scene; seeing and learning the way the atmosphere effects the hues or moods of the day.
Color does not look the same on a photograph as most all artists realize. An artist can still paint in the studio and have an award winning painting.

No artist should have to tend with guilt feelings, or feel they must rush right outside and paint a painting because, oh my gosh, if they don't, they will not be accepted in the world of art. Some even paint outside because they want to feel "Accepted" in the art community.
What about those artists who simply cannot get outside to paint?Those who are housebound or cannot travel all over?

I love being outdoors and getting my reference direct from nature.
When I paint outside, it is for reference material. At times, I will do a quick pencil sketch also.
I do need to be at the place, to "Feel" the place, to know the soul of the place..... and believe me, I also take well as relying on observation and memory. Thank goodness for good eyesight and memories.

Also, there are some places, an artist cannot possibly get to, and a photo must be taken. Some places can be pretty dangerous. (Been there, done that.)
A well developed photo helps while taking me back to the scene.......but, always remembering the rules also of working from photographs.

There is a time and a place for working both ways. Plein Air or Studio. It is o.k. either way.

Thank you again Lori.

Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Oh Lori...

I also wanted to say thank you for being who you are and for your honesty and integrity.

Your writings help artists in many way.

Aline Lotter
Photographs, thank God, are not true records of what lies in the shadows or the color of the sky, or of so many other details important to a painter. I paint outside a lot, and many of them are finished when I go home. But I also paint from photographs. I believe that my plein air experience keeps me from rendering flat photographic scenes in the studio, and my photographic experience helps me frame my outdoor scene. It's all good.

Donald Fox
Certainly there can be challenges to painting on site, but aren't there challenges painting anywhere? The distractions, impositions, disruptions, or whatever we call them need to be minimized (eliminated, blocked out, ignored) in order to paint effectively. I'd like to see more conversation about painting from observation. The effects of light on surfaces can be just as intricate indoors as outdoors, and yes I understand there are significant differences with outside ambient light and controlled studio lighting. It is the direct observation of those effects that train the painter to understand color relationships and use them effectively. Even the most astute observer, however, is going to edit the observed information according to personal sensibility, understanding, and experience. The end result is the stylistic representation (interpretation, if you will) of that individual.

Sue Betanzos
Hi Lori, your article really resonated with be on several levels. I agree with the comments and feel one needs both -studio/photographs and on site sketches.
I have experienced a bit of the bias towards plein air and have tried it several times. Like you I found it all too distracting to complete anything.
Yet it is extremely valuable to incorporate all the sensed to feel and understand the subject of your painting.
Kind of like traveling via an armchair with a DVD vs actually being at that destination.
Nothing can take the place of sights, sounds, smells etc. and it is our experiences and feelings we are translating into our work.
Great article and everyone had meaningful points to make :~)

I completely agree with everything you said in this article. I usually have to paint in my studio, but I love doing small studies on location.

I really enjoyed seeing your studies in this article. They are beautiful! They make me want to get out and paint!

Lori Woodward
I want to thank everyone who commented here. I've just returned from a Daniel Keys workshop. He paints entirely from life... except in the case of a landscape where he'll start from life and finish from a photo. Richard Schmid often does the same - starts from life, often finishes from a photo. He knows so much though - he could probably paint the rest from his knowledge.

BTW: this post is an introduction to a series I intend to write for FAVS. I will get into many related topics - light and shadow temperature, values, edges etc.

I've studied with many wonderful mentors during the last 20 years, and with Richard Schmid for the last 8 years. He taught me concepts that others never mentioned. I intend to begin sharing what I've learned here on Fine Art Views, as well as my blog.

Thanks all for your encouraging comments.

Roseann Munger
Abolutely agree with you!! I paint outside from time to time just because it is "good for me", but I am much more productive and creative in the studio, because I am not adjusting umbrellas, scratching mosquito bites, etc.

Besides, since I mostly paint figures, often in motion or in a crazy pose, I need to use the photos that I take myself to do a really good job.

Nice article, Lori.

Joanne Benson
Hi Lori,
Great post. I agree with all you have said. I love to plein air but I also love to paint in my studio. Painting outside helped me to improve a great deal because it forced me to limit what I was painting. (You can't paint every leaf, twig, stone, etc....)It also taught me a great deal about atmospheric perspective and light and shadow. I think each individual has to do what is right for them but there is a great deal to be learned from painting en plein air. I also loved your studies! They look to be finished works to me!

Jo Allebach
I am so glad we all agree that there REALLY isn't a right or wrong way to paint a scene. Outside or inside. I love being out and about in the real world of nature and the air and colors and all but there are disadvantages as everyone has mentioned such as bugs and in AZ way too much heat. So I get out when I can and take lots of photos. The camera is kind of like a "view finder" that I use outside or when painting a still life to set up the composition. I need to get out there before too much summer is upon us. Thanks for the article and comments.

Roseann Munger
Photos...our "guilty secret." Viewing good digital images on a large computer screen can't be beat. Of course, one has to know the distortion rules of photography and take them into account.

Lori Woodward
Roseann, I rarely print out my photos anymore (ink is way too expensive), and I use my computer monitor.

At a recent panel discussion with many famous artists - about painting tools and approaches, Rose Franzen, and other said they make extensive use of photoshop to lighten, darken - cut and paste and essentially design their paintings.

I make a lighter and darker version of my photos using Photoshop LE - so I can see in the shadows and also details in the light areas.

Plus I can zoom in on my computer monitor, but I need to be careful when I zoom because it changes the perspective slightly and can sometimes have the negative effect of making distant parts of the landscape - detailed... I need to be careful to add atmospheric perspective (haze) and downplay distant mountains, water and other landscape parts to imply space in my compositions.

It's difficult to learn to paint from photos - they introduce all kinds of problems, but if an artist spends ample time painting from life, he or she intrinsically understands where the photos fall short of reality - and makes the necessary adjustments.

Lori Woodward
Oh, one other problem with photos: the camera tends to make the lights too light and darks too dark. It also treats all edges with nearly the same amount of "hardness".

When painting from life, it is best to squint at the subject and paint what you see when squinting. There is one "lightest light", one "darkest dark", and one "hardest edge". Everything else in the composition falls in between those accents.

Richard and Nancy have shown me how important it is to make decisions about where my hard edges should reside while keeping most of my edges soft - either through softening the paint with a brush, or making the adjacent values close.

Since we are the artists and in control, we are not like the camera. We makes aesthetic decisions based upon what the most important elements in the composition are... the most important to us personally. The camera has no emotion or intellect - these are the things that make us human and creative.

OK... getting "lofty" again, but wanted to share my thoughts on using the camera and adding our sensibilities to it.

RE: "Oh, one other problem with photos: the camera tends to make the lights too light and darks too dark. It also treats all edges with nearly the same amount of "hardness."

That is true Lori and when we take a picture of a landscape, we are often striving for that crispness and depth of field. We sort of don't like it when the mountains in the back are fuzzy. We want to capture it more like we think our eyes see it.
As painters we like to change that "focus" to bring specifics into detail and soften periferals.
Point and shoots don't give us much choice, but the more complicated cameras can help w/that "adjustment" by changing the fstop and shutterspeed.

BTW - to those of us who paint from the computer screen (and I do it too) remember that the computer is back-lit and does really change how you see things. Printing something out will be "front" lit - more like real life.

Also, more often than not our screens (RGB) and our printers (CMYK) are not completely and professionally calibrated. Different brands, the age of your machines, and even the type of paper you print on play a part in the colors you see. In that way, painting from life - or at least keen observing and note-taking - are key factors in the dynamics of our paintings.

(We just did a little experiment for argument's sake on this very subject at work. We mixed specific colors according to our CMYK charts and looked at them on everyone's machines - 4 different Macs and 2 PCs. We then printed them on the 3 color machines. Nothing matched anything else. Confusing and annoying right? But it illustrates the need to trust what you see in real life.)

Carol Schmauder
Thank for the article, Lori. I has made me rethink painting on site. I have never enjoyed painting out of doors, but then I always thought that I needed to do a finished painting. I like the idea of painting as reference material and doing the finished painting in the studio.

Esther J. Williams
Lori, I love your watercolor studies! You can sell them, they are quality works of art on their own. They are beautiful and truly give a sense of place.
Being a member of several plein air painters associations, I have grown to love plein air painting. I also prefer studio painting, I am split in the middle sometimes. When the weather in Calif. is great, I have to be outdoors painting. A person can paint outdoors and not be a plein air painter. I do believe plein air is a certain style of painting though that needs to be nearly or completely finished on location. I know plenty of artists here on the West Coast who are accomplished plein air painters. Because it is a style, it requires the artist to lay in the shadow patterns quickly to mark down the sun direction, then fill in the light patterns, finally the midtones. The composition is divided into 5-7 shapes to make it simple, but believable. Many painters can do a small scene in one and a half hours and win the best in show. Sounds nice and I have certainly tried it. The reality with me is, I get very frustrated being rushed, I want to take my time and enjoy the experience. Do a sketch, explore the areas, take images and then come back to what speaks to me to paint it. If I am working on a schedule, by the time I start painting, I have to leave in half an hour. So, I will paint an oil sketch and go home on those occasions. I have been doing the plein air painting for ten years now and have had a lot of fun, completed numerous paintings, with some wining awards. To try to reach that comfort level where I can consistently complete something outdoors is still a desire. I admire the signature plein air painters and hope to be up there with them someday. It does take practice and a lot of it. Right now I am doing some studio painting for a commission and thankfully the weather is pretty miserable so I am not beckoned to paint outdoors. The commission is being done from several work studies and digital images. I have no problems with studio painting, although I would not have done this without the outdoor painting experience in the location of the subject matter. Looking at the previous paintings is guiding me to paint loosely or painterly, not to overwork. Back to painting now!

Marian Fortunati
Lori... There is nothing as useful and joyful as painting outdoors and discovering special things you love about different places.

I'm not sure which is better... painting outdoors or BEING outdoors... but certainly one enhances the other!!!

Sharon Weaver
Painting from life will always improve your painting. It forces an artist to be hyper observant, edit out the unnecessary and evaluate values. Love it.

Barb Stachow
As always I enjoy your comments. I too like to take watercolors when traveling. Thanks for the ramble!

Donna Robillard
This is an encouragement for me to get outdoors more. I know I've been needing to do that; and after reading this I will have to do it. Just the experience of being outdoors painting makes me a better artist. You do see colors differently than just from the photo.


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