Research for my latest coloured pencil drawing.

Recently I asked, “How would cp (coloured pencil) artists (and most other artists for that matter) cope if there weren’t photos to use a s reference material?”

The responses I received were both interesting and varied. Not everyone understood the question. Some saw it as a ‘fait accompli’, a negative statement about how some artists work. Then the topic of ‘imagination’ was raised, fortunately more in the positive than the negative.

I surveyed a number of groups that I belong to. Not all responded, but the majority of those who did were well aware of the (potential) shortfalls of relying on photos for one’s art. The value of drawing plein air was raised as was drawing from life. It was refreshing to see that so many recognized the need for basic drawing skills.

We have been bombarded with media of all kinds (with some yet to be invented), its seductive brilliance has made producing art faster and easier than ever before. Most artists use photos at some stage in the production of their work. Commission artists need them constantly to satisfy the needs of their clients, while others prefer to stay ‘indoors’ and use images either their own or from the Internet in the production of their art. Each to their own!

More often than not, I use photos in my work. I take my own, spending time at a particular place to get the ‘feel’ for my subject. I often research the physical and social history of the area to reinforce (and appreciate) what I’m trying to ‘say’ with my work. I also work from maps and occasionally I’ll use photos from other sources if I need them. I rarely use a single photo because there’s a danger that I’ll simply copy the photo. Is such imitation really art?

Working from ‘live objects’ is quite challenging. Drawing outdoors is certainly a test of one’s skills and patience, especially if you use coloured pencils. On one hand you have the moving sun, moving shadows, wind, maybe even a shower, noise, smells and let’s not forget the flies! Setting up a group of objects is a great way to come to terms with 3D objects, especially when it comes to light and shadow. I often set up a still-life outside and photograph it on-the-hour for say, 6 – 8 hours to see how the light and shadows change. Time-lapse photography is an excellent accompaniment to one’s observation drawing. The more grist for the mill, the better!

Photos are a wonderful resource and they are certainly here to stay, but are they draining artists of their imagination?


About artkleko

artist, art curator, art teacher, art judge, art critic
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  1. Such good points Richard. Personally, I use photos in a similar way to you, as inspiration, a starting point. There are many good artists who work very closely from photos yet still mange to infuse the work with their own aesthetic, that is an intangible skill, and I suspect the most successful of these have come from a more traditional base, working from life, observing for themselves, learning all the most basic skills. However, finding a photo that one has not taken, tracing it and reproducing it exactly is not the work of an artist, but a technician.

  2. Noelene Johnston says:

    Hi Richard,

    This old argument surfaces regularly.
    Our own photographs are a reference. There are two options if we wish to paint/draw a particular scene. 1) We go to the area and paint or draw right there on the spot and hope, as I do, that I can concentrate, block out all disruptions and produce a painting. As I am easily disrupted and self concious, this could mean a one hour conversation, the odd passerby, a battle with flies etc. OR 2) We photograph the area then go back to our studio and use it purely as reference and
    recall the vibe and essence of the area. That’s me! I could easily just use the photograph as some are stunning. But the challenge (that’s the key word!) is to put out own creative touch to the view we have captured on camera! An artist’s interpretation is their personal view. Exactly like a verbal discussion. A debate. Everyone has their own opinion and a different way of expressing it.

    Art is no different. It is a visual opinion and each artist will view a subject differently. To view art in a group who have painted the same subject is exciting because they have
    all seen the subject through different eyes.
    That is what makes it so individual and to see such diversity in art is fantastic.

    • artkleko says:

      Thank you, Noelene. Yes, the ‘challenge’ is to be different and be yourself. When it is employed it’s great to see, when it’s not, it’s often a poor imitation.

  3. Lynda Peters says:

    As you know Richard, I use photos for my animal portraits, usually because they won’t sit still. I still completely sketch everything. I’m so sad when some artists show the half and half photo of their finished work and the reference photo. The only way everything matches soooo perfectly is that they trace. I don’t call that real art – really just good colouring in. 😡

    • artkleko says:

      I fully understand your need to work from photos, Lynda and I applaud your work standards. Tracing certainly undermines the value of the process of creativity.

      • Lynda Peters says:

        Good teachers 😉

      • artkleko says:

        Very good students! 😀

      • The tracing thing is interesting. I was dead set against tracing for all the known reasons but when studying art, one exercise was to trace from a projected image and then render the work in charcoal. Two of us were doing an image of an old person’s hand. Pointless exercise,e I thought…… they will end up the same…. not even colour variations. But how wrong I was! The types of marks, angles, variations in pressure, blending, lost and found edges produced two totally different results. Such a valuable exercise. In much the same way as individuals have different handwriting styles we bring our own individuality into drawing and painting. No I am not in favour of merely producing copies of a photos (though many of us compose with our camera with the final work in mind), or of tracing but this experience was so interesting. Another thing to ponder…. is drawing to a grid to get proportions right acceptable. I have done this for a portrait commission that had to be “right” but have not done so for years.

      • artkleko says:

        Thanks Evelyn for your thoughts. Where does the technician stop and the artist begin?

  4. tmmellway says:

    I use photos all the time and I don’t apologize in any way for it. If you go outside and paint from nature for example that is your photograph. There is the added challenge of moving light etc. of course but I think that working from a photograph is, in a lot of ways more difficult that working from a live still life for example because photographs don’t always capture that 3D look but as artists that is what we have to do when creating that image on a 2D support, canvas or paper or whatever. The ability to do that alone is part of the skill set and the photo is merely another tool to help one achieve the end result. I have also found that using a photo enhances one’s ability to see things as and transfer that to our work. For portraiture, photos eliminate those long sessions of posing. I think having photographs to work from is wonderful!

  5. Over the past few years, ever since my art work has turned toward abstraction, one of my aims has by to consciously work without referencing photographs.My art research has been focused on personal memory; of what I actually remember of past events. My interest lies in how I remember and what I remember. To me, memory seems to be triggered on some emotional level and is not seen through my minds eye as a visual image. A photo is an object created, composed and edited by an observer. to quote Susan Sontag, “A photograph is not just the result between an event and a photographer, picture taking is an event in itself.” My aim in is to respond to memory itself rather than to what may be obseved in a photograph. It is not easy!

  6. Paula Woodward says:

    When I was making art in the 1970s and 1980s using photographs was frowned upon. Generally, I either worked outdoors or set up a still life on the table in front of me. I’m glad I had that experience and I still occasionally draw from actual objects. I have also done a fair amount of life drawing over the years. Now I use photos a lot. I regard photography as an art in itself, so if I use my own photographs, I don’t feel guilty about “copying”. I like to take photos when I’m travelling because it’s quicker than sitting down and doing a sketch. I like drawing more “abstract” subjects which allow me to stray away from a rigid representation of the photo. I think that I would not have taken up coloured pencil drawing again after a break of nearly 30 years if I hadn’t realised that I could use some of the thousands of photos I have taken since I started using a digital camera. I’m having such fun. I’m also exploring abstraction in painting without a reference or straying from the reference early on in the process.

  7. I use photo reference and mostly because I did equestrian art in the past. They aren’t very good at holding that pose! lol! I’m not a slave to photos though… Changing positions, backgrounds, colours, eliminate this, add that, etc… Since starting to do still life however, I cannot believe how much detail our wonder cameras miss! I take an initial photo of the set up because I want to capture the light as it is at that moment and love being able to pick up and take a closer look at the objects to see all the lovely colours and details my camera missed!

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