Always Looking for the "Tell"

I’m from a card-playing family, so when it comes to discussions about artists using reference photographs, I always think in terms of watching for a “tell.” Like in poker—where players’ subtle mannerisms can reveal whether they are bluffing—portrait paintings created by closely referencing photographs have certain giveaways. The work can seem overwhelmed with minute details or look stiff and belabored, as if the artist went back and forth, back and forth, foregoing vision for exactitude.

All portraits by Joel Kelly. Courtesy Coup d’Oeil Art Consortium.

Artists avoid this by maintaining a strong awareness and control over what they incorporate from photos and how they convey certain effects, and that leads to less-visible tells in their artwork. A study or source photo might be used to reproduce certain details—the moue of a mouth or a strong brow line—that indicate the personality and presence of the sitter, but there’s enough left unsaid, artistically speaking, so that the viewer’s own ideas and perception come into play.

A recent series by Louisiana-based artist Joel Kelly speaks to some of the challenges of using photography as an aid to creating artwork. Kelly is neither a portraitist nor a realist. His oil paintings often include depictions of the human figure but on the whole tend toward abstraction. Therefore, his charcoal portraits in a show at the Coup d’Oeil Art Consortium, in New Orleans, were a departure on many levels. The group show, Obituaries 1913, was conceived around 22 fictitious characters, and their lives—and demises—were manifested through music, written obituaries, and portraiture. Kelly’s part in the endeavor was the portraits—drawn on watercolor paper in a narrow format to resemble the thin columns of a newspaper, where obituaries are ever-present—and he walked the line between grounding them in a specific time and place and rendering them organically.

Portrait by Joel Kelly.
Joel Kelly’s charcoal portraits are rendered to give each subject a distinct presence and demeanor, but are not overburdened with distracting details.

“There needed to be a certain level of detail to suggest the time period, but I didn’t get too heavy-handed,” Kelly says. “A moustache, the neckline of a dress—hinting at these was enough. I wanted to let the person looking at the drawing interact with it. An artist profits from that—leaving space for the imagination of the viewer. The human mind craves those areas where we can go in and let our imagination work.”

Kelly consulted a variety of sources for the drawings, including era-appropriate photographs found in antique stores, old postcards, and family photographs. He sought out images of figures that were not necessarily crisp and clear or front and center in the composition. “I was drawn to people on the periphery,” he says. “There might be eight people in a family photo, and I was interested in the one figure blurred on the edge. Or in a photo of children running around in front of school I focused in on the teacher, caught unaware as the photo was taken.” Seeking out figures that appeared murky or inchoate allowed Kelly necessary artistic leeway and also reflects how our mind’s eye often sees. “Some of the portraits have one area of the face defined,” says Kelly. “I approached it akin to how memory might work. You remember certain details, but not necessarily everything.”

Portrait by Joel Kelly
Portrait by Joel Kelly

Judging the success of the invented characters’ portraits was a matter of stepping away from a piece and, when necessary, unflinchingly redrafting. “I’d work on a drawing one night and then the next night I’d think that it was boring or too literal,” the artist says. “I’d go back in on it, sometimes turning it over, scuffing it up, and recreating it without going as far back into the details as I did before.”

The portraits Kelly created are true figments of the imagination, but the mix of amorphousness and strong, defining features or expressions makes each figure appear quite real. Learning how to draw people and how to create portraiture that isn’t too referential but still captures a likeness is a matter of understanding what to incorporate and what to leave behind. For a full-fledged immersion into the skill set of a portrait painter and draftsman, consider the Master Portrait Painting & Drawing Collection. You’ll find step-by-step portraiture instructions focusing on facial features and successful depictions of hair, as well as discussions on how to work, whether from photos or life, to get the results you are after.


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

10 thoughts on “Always Looking for the "Tell"

  1. Photographs must be used carefully. Too many times I have looked at a student’s painting and asked “what is that?” only to receive the answer, “I don’t know, but it was in the photo, so I painted it.”

  2. I’d have to say I strongly disagree that photographic work is any more overly burdened with unnecessary details than a lot of the heavily finished and oppressively detailed representational work being done from life. A lot of that work could be easily confused with photography or airbrushed art. But I do agree that there are things to watch out for in working from photo references, just as there are excesses that afflict work done from life…except everyone blindly and unquestioningly accepts those flaws present in life work, whereas there is a lot of discussion of photos.

  3. John, I’d say that is equally true of a lot of plein air work–plein air artists are slap dashing objects on to their canvasses and who knows if they know what they’re painting, much less the viewer.

  4. John, I would like to say that I do think that learning from life as a student is critical, and working from life situations at times is important even for more mature artists. I’m going out ‘in the field’ for some plein air drawing and painting next week and I look forward to it very much. I guess my real concern is that a lot of work done from life that I can plainly see is seriously flawed in a variety of ways is too often getting a blind pass just because it was done from life, whereas work involving photo references is becoming increasingly piled on. I’d just like to see work from life gone over with the same fine tooth comb used on work done involving photo references, but I don’t know if there is anyone in a position to do that since there appears to be no real critical analysis of contemporary representational art being done as far as I can tell.

  5. Sorry, but I’m a bit confused here…is it wrong to draw all of the details in a photo? I guess I’m a bit sensitve in this area. My hight school art teacher, Mr wright (yes, his real name) accused me of drawing pictures that “any photograph could give him”. Isn’t this the whole point?

  6. I think what it boils down to is that there are people out there who think they are artists, and others who genuinely are, and whether they use photographs or plein air, really isnt the issue. (this isnt to knock those new artists who are still learning)

    What matters is what you are trying to convey and communicate as an artist. Merely copying from a photograph, or merely drawing the model in front of you is not art unless you are trying to capture the essence of what is in front of you. If you are using a photo, it is reference, and one has to be aware of its pitfalls. The photo is not the be all and end all, one has to incorporate feeling and emotion, otherwise yes, you may as well just take a photo and hand it over.

    The same goes for plein air. Merely represting what is in front of you is not enough.

    In this day and age where digital technology is so advanced, we as artists need to offer something more personal, more human and beyond what a lense could offer.

    And that is not to say that all work must be abstract either, somewhere along the way real quality art seems to be lacking, and pantings seem to be slapped together. This has contributed to the ‘lack’ of interest from the general audience. People dont respect art as they used to, and I really feel that an artists forum such as this can start changing perceptions, and start building some incredible art!

    Thanks for listening

  7. Blush, your confusion is absolutely understandable, since the double message seems to be that it is undesirable to draw or paint in too much too detail if you are employing photo references, but working from life is superior because then one can see all the real details and nuances that photography just can’t capture! I agree with Dominique that what one is really after, regardless of means, is to get to the essentials of the subject. I always strive to convey what it feels like more than what it looks like.

  8. The objective has nothing to do with detail or lack of detail, photographic aid or plein air painting.
    It has to do with the artist’s composition and conscious decisions about what will work and what will convey the intended message of the painting. It is a difficult process of selecting the components of the painting and rendering them in such a way that a statement is conveyed.
    That said, I think that all artists should spend some time drawing realistically because it trains the eye, the hand, and the mind. Even if the artist’s preferred work is non-representational, practice in drawing and seeing has an effect on one’s ability to use the visual language of art.

  9. Personally, I think it’s all worthwhile. I don’t care if you use a photo, a live model, plein air and copy every detail or use your imagination, it’s still creative. Just the process of creating something is very rewarding, at least to me.