Tell Us What You Think About … Working From Photographs

15 Dec 2008

 As many of you know, there was quite a controversy about the fact that the gold-medal award winner in an international art competition seems to have made unauthorized copies of two photographs when she composed her watermedia painting. The image included exact copies of two photographs that she overlapped when developing her painting. The portrait of a man and the shot of a textured wall were among many images posted by a professional photographer on a stock-photography website. Stock photos are available for use if an advertising agency, magazine publisher, artist, or lecturer signs an agreement and pays a fee for a specified use.

As clear as it might be that the watermedia artist may have violated another artist’s rights and/or disregarded the spirit of the art contest, there is a question about exactly where one should draw a line between creativity and appropriation. Many artists use digital photographs as the primary source of their paintings, and that practice is accepted by most art groups if the painter uses his or her own photographs and brings some new interpretation to the image. But is a painting more original if it is based on the artist’s own photos, a combination of photographs, or a digital image? And is it permissible to include another artist’s image in a painting if one has permission or changes the borrowed image?

You might think it is easy to resolve these issues, but what if a wildlife artist pays a photographer to use his or her photograph of a rare bird as one small part of a landscape painting? Or suppose a painter puts a direct copy of a Corot landscape in the background of a portrait and acknowledges the French artist in the title of the portrait? And what about a photorealist painter who paints a copy of his photograph with such precision that one can hardly tell the difference between the painting and the photograph?

You might say that the best approach is to work from life or from one’s imagination, but there was another recent controversy about a semiabstract painting included in a juried show that incorporated many of the signature elements of George James’ watermedia paintings. Was that flattery or plagiarism? I would be interested in reading your comments about the use of photographs and borrowed images by painters, especially in light of the technology that now allows people to make direct copies of their own snapshots and images downloaded from the internet.


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inkartist1 wrote
on 15 Dec 2008 7:05 PM

I believe that it can be very original to work from photographs. I work in pen and ink and work from photos because I want the strong sunlight and shadows that don't stand still for such a "slow" medium in order to work from life.

I crop and compose as I take photographs with my zoom lens. But I don't slavishly copy the photos exactly. I leave things out, put things in, and change a vertical shot to a horizontal one if it works better that way.

If you get permission or pay for a stock photo to use because you don't have access to the subject matter, that is fine. When you use someone else's art to create your art, I don't think that that is original though. As an artist, I want to do my own "legwork" because that makes my finished drawing mine from beginning to end--my thoughts and viewpoint are in it, not someone elses.

I think that it is flattering to like the way another artist paints or draws. To remain flattering though, if you want to use those elements in your own art, you have to make them your own. Tweak them to where they work in the art you create. If you use them exactly the way the original artist did, that's just copying. Nothing original there.

Chuck Roach wrote
on 16 Dec 2008 8:01 AM

I work a lot from my digital photos and imagination.  My photos are never slavishly copied because the composition, color, etc. are never good enough for a painting.  I have to move elements around to get a pleasing composition, at the same time making decisions to eleminate most of the details in order to strenghten the artistic statement.  

I have determined that plein air painting must be done in a quick, impressionistic style on a small canvas in about one hour.  My personal style is more realistic with a lot of time consuming effort.  I wish that I could paint in an impressionistic style, but that is just not the drummer that I march to.  Plein air painting will just not work for me, so I must be content with studio works.

I have seen many paintings that are too much like the original photograph.  This is simply a rendering and shows that the artist did not give very much thought about making the painting "artistic."  At the same time, my paintings and others that I have seen have been changed so much in the process of becoming an art work that they bear little resemblence to the original photograph.  As I heard a professional painter recently comment, "If your painting is not a whole lot better than the photograph, you have failed!"

Rebecca25 wrote
on 16 Dec 2008 5:28 PM

I paint horse portraits, and believe me, those horses don't stand around.  Just getting the right light and a relaxed pose is half the battle, without a nose in my camera...or a butt.  However, it is very important to me that I take the photos.  I try not to work from photos that have been sent or given to me, because I never get a sense of the horse, its personality, or the little nuances taht make them all different  These are such important factors in getting the painting right.  I spend lots and lots of time around horses, so I  understand how the light illuminates an eye or the shadow that falls inside a nostril, however, it is a huge bonus to take a digital shot into the studio, as opposed to the horse.  What I don't do is paint from calenders, or catalogues, or even horse books.  Even a study is best done from life or a picture that you yourself have taken, because it is your eye that set up the composition.

phillip2 wrote
on 17 Dec 2008 5:53 AM

I'm sure the lawyers have the answer!  

I would suspect all of us have painted from photographs, paintings, etc initially produced by others.  One cannot go through American Artist Magazine and not want to recreate or add into one's style, the style and vision of others.  

Copyright laws are very specific, yet ethical standards are something else.  I don't think there is a concrete answer.

What about the person who goes back fifty years or so and paints a picture of his high school sweetheart using his passion and a picture from an old Year Book, or of a photo he had made by a professional photographer and purchased himself.  Who owns the right to reproduce?  Is the art in the photo or the passion?

I almost exclusively paint from photos I have made.  There is no time in my life to take the luxury to wait for the proper lighting and atmosphere, to go back to a place day after day, to get the correct plein air perspective.  I carry the camera with me, everywhere.

The painting I posted in the gallery of the young beagle puppy barking at his first rabbit was taken from a clip I made off  a thirty minute video a friend sent me of his dogs on chase.  The dog picture was his and the colorful background was mine.  The video was made during the winter, not the summer.  He made the video and I caught the moment.  Who is the artist?  I would never sell this picture, ethically without his permission.  I made it a surprise gift to my friend, who made the video.  It sits above his sofa.

What happens to all of the copies of the master's paintings made in art gallerys by art students?  I saw several such painters in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC not too long ago.

Stephen, you titillate one's neurons.

Phillip

Randy E wrote
on 17 Dec 2008 8:18 AM

I paint from my own photographs. Do my paintings look like those photographs? Not at all. No one would mistake my work for a photograph.

I don't use other photographer's photos because they shot them in the spirit of being a piece of art too. At that point it seems like I would be using art to make art. And although some artists do that, Warhol was one that comes to mind, I can't imagine doing that unless there were agreements and special circumstances (like hourse portraits or smoething).

Should an artist setup in front of a Henry Moore sculpture and paint it as his own? I think there is a big difference between reference photos and reproducing another artist's work.

Chuck Roach wrote
on 17 Dec 2008 4:29 PM

To weigh in here again, in my former working life, I was a corporate attorney and dealt occasionally with copyrights and patents.  From a legal perspective, no one can reproduce and use for profit the copyrighted art of another, unless permission is given.  That still leaves the question unanswered about using part of another's photo, for example a marine photo with a whale.  If I am doing a marine painting and need a whale, I see no problem with finding a photo online or elsewhere and using it solely as a reference.  The Art Guild to which I belong also allows this type of use.  After all, a painting is a different art form than a photograph, and, no matter how detailed I may get with the whale, every bit of it will differ from the whale in the photograph.

I would not extend this logic to the wholesale copying of an entire photograph belonging to another person.  This could constitute something referred to as a "derivative" artwork.  On the other hand, there should be no problem with using your own photo or another's photo if, by the time you are done with the painting, so much has been changed that the painting is more your artistic insight than anyone elses.  This type of change should happen anyway in the production of a good piece of artwork.

I am doing some Zion N.P. paintings at present.  My wife and I have been out there twice in the past 3 years to camp and hike.  I have taken many photos on our hikes, and when I look on Flikr of photos others have taken on the same hike, it is no longer surprising to find that other experienced photographers select to photograph the same scene that I did.  I might like their lighting a little better than my photo and use that lighting in a painting instead of mine.  I see no problem with that use.  I feel that the same goes for photos taken in any park or place open to the public.  If a scene is good, it is likely that thousands or millions of photos have been taken of that scene.  Can anyone claim exclusive rights to paint that scene because of one photo?  I am sure not.  Where an artist could get into trouble is painting the photo of another where the photo was of something extremely unique and not open to the general public.  The more unique, the more that copyright protections should attach.  An example would be a photo taken of matter on the atomic level using a special high-speed camera.  If the photo turns out to be exceptionally beautiful, you could not paint it without violating the rights of the owner of the photo, assuming that it was copyrighted.  The bottom line of this paragraph is that if a scene is in the public view, and probably photographed countless times by people, I see no problem with borrowing elements of the photo.

Old Paint made the point that no one should be able to reproduce the art product of another.  This is true, especially when the work product is unique, such as a Henry Moore sculpture.  However, this should not apply to taking your own photo of someone else's manmade structure, or should it?  For example, the Golden Gate Bridge, or even someone else's house.  It could easily be said that any an all things that another has made involve artistic effort and must never be photographed.  Would that be reasonable?

The real bottom line is, personal ethics aside, that any scene in the public view can be photographed since no one can copyright a public scene.  Second, there should be no problem with using another's photo only as a reference, especially if the photo is of a scene that anyone could photograph.  There must be something unique about a photograph before it could not be used in any manner without violating copyright laws.

Just my opinion.

Kells L. wrote
on 18 Dec 2008 5:38 AM

How ironic that this is questioned here when I open my Feb. issue of your magazine and see an article on an Atlanta artist who has painted form photographs. The irony is that she has used famous paintings within her paintings.

Well, maybe it wasn't irony but,more  like preparation for the next magazine.

I find nothing wrong with using photographs.I think one might be shocked if all the paintings that were made from photos were removed from the public view!

My question is: what's the point?

DKS2 wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 5:44 AM

To add another dimension (sorry),  I work primarily in wildlife bronze.  I use video and phootgraphs (my own and others) extensively to get action, details and muscle movement.  It is often a photograph which sparks the idea for a particular sculpture.  I do not feel that it is copyright infringement to use the gesture/moment from a photograph or video to create a 3-dimensional piece.

James Currin wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 5:49 AM

We paint what we see.  We photograph what we see.  We paint what we photograph.  We can't paint what someone else sees and we shouldn't paint what someone else photographs. I was a photographer before I became a painter; so, it is natural that I paint from photographs.  My problem is that I have relied too much on my photographer's eye and have not developed the skill of painting from life as much as I should have.  Those who have a strong plein aire background have something that I don't have, and the only way I can get it is to rely less on photographs when I paint.  This is my personal, working view as a painter.

johanne7 wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 7:40 AM

I do portraits,often of children.  One cannot get a two year old to sit still.  While I like to spend time with the subject to get an idea of their temperment I could not do justice to a portrait without photos & tend to take many.  There are times when photos have to be used as when you have a comission to do a portrait of a deceased person.  Sometimes I've had to use photos to do portraits in color from B&W.  That provides it's own problems to overcome.  So while I like to use all my own photos some comissions come down to several photos of a subject that have been taken years previously.  What else can you do?  Should you tell a client that because you didn't take the photos that you cannot use them for reference?  Or in the case of taking your own photos, if you happen to catch the best shot of someone in the presence of a work of art should you not be able to use a representation of that work in your photo but substitute a copy of one or your own wotks instead?  I think, just as the example Kells used that if a work is a small but intigral part of your painting you can use it.  Making so many rules could come to the point that you hamper doing anything on canvas because of the convoluted conversation in your head.

on 22 Dec 2008 8:04 AM

Painting from life gives life to a painting.  Photography is at the least, once removed.  I'm not saying there are not appropriate times to use photography in aiding a painting.  Such as painting an animal or a baby.  But as artists we must be original in everything we do and we also must be professionals with professional ethics and may I add integrity.  Photographs that we take ourselves is very helpful in certain instances and I am all for that.  Painting someone elses photos for a competition I fear is not professional or original or even very creative.  For a competition, lets have ethics and be original as stated in the requirements.  If an artist is painting a commission or painting for themselves and choses to paint someone else's photo, that's their business.  But when entering a competition I feel painting someone else's photo is in very bad taste and not even playing fair. What we are talking about here is using someone else's photo in a competition - not ethical or admirable in my opinion.

Mary Serfass wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 8:06 AM

What wonderful timing!  Last month, we opened "Double Vision" at our gallery.  It's a two person show, featuring my pen and ink/ mixed media drawings, and the work of Charles Nelson, an award winning oil painter.  We worked from the same photographs (taken by either one of us.)  The catch was that neither of us saw the other's work until the show opened last month.  Our photographs were displayed with the works.

We were both amazed by the similarities and dissimilarities of our interpretations, and the show has been getting rave reviews.

I invite you to view the show on the gallery's website: www.thesnowgoosegallery.com and we'd love to know what you think!

I almost always work from photographs that iItake myself, as anyone who does pen and ink knows what a slow, painstaking medium it is.  I can tell you that I am by no means a good photographer- but it gives me a reference!

TobyJake wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 8:45 AM

I think working from photos is perfectly fine.  If they are not your photos then get permission of course and give credit to the photographer.  I'm a new artist and photos assist me greatly.  I keep my small digital with me as often as I remember in order to build up my library.  I was recently in Cancun and thought the iguanas were wonderful.  There is no way iIcould have painted one without my photos because of all of their incredible detail.  My husband thought it was my best work and immediately hung it in his office!

mbaileyart wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 8:49 AM

Gauging by the amount of replies to this forum I see that there is definitely a lot of interest in working with photographs and justifiably so. Photography can be a very valuable tool for any working artist to be able to capture a moment, or aid in remembering some detail he or she wishes to incorporate into their work and I use photos for reference all the time with my own work but the line that I draw is that I do not slavishly copy a photo, that is merely copying, not creating a new piece. Using photos to help with compostional arrangement or maybe black and white photos to help with values is a great resource but should not be the end of the means. I don't believe in using anyone else's images for my own art and don't think it should be a practice for any artist. Those of use who may not have access to drawing from a live model for instance may rely on photos of models but only if the practice is used as a discovery process, learning how to draw/paint the figure as best you can using photos. Art is above all else a very personal and creative experience and if photos can teach or inspire then great, but use them just as that and let your experiences and imagination do the creating.

n.b. wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 12:01 PM

Sounds like the real question is not is it okay to paint from photographs, but is it okay to paint from OTHER PEOPLE'S photographs. And what an ethics minefield this is! I have enjoyed reading the fascinating posts on the subject.

I am a photographer as well as a painter, and several times I have been contacted by painters asking if they may have my permission to paint from one of my photos. While I appreciate and applaud people asking, I usually try to gauge their expertise level and what the painting will be used for before granting permission. A novice batik artist wants to use one of my animal shots for reference? No problem! A highly experienced oil painter wants to use one of my still life shots for a photo-realistically rendered painting he will then enter in exhibits? No, sorry. I created that shot out of my own brain and spirit and laboriously collected still life objects. Feel free to create something of your own inspired by my shot, but please don't copy it and sign your name to it. It's already somebody else's art, in its own right.

But then, I have been handed old studio photos of long dead grandparents and been asked to create posthumous oil portraits from them. What do the lawyers/ethicists say about that situation? So far, I have declined such commissions, but talk about gray areas within gray areas!  ;-)

Anna KH wrote
on 22 Dec 2008 7:20 PM

The photography is no replacement for the eye in color and value perception, so when the artist uses the photograph for the reference, he does cheat himself. The precise copying of the photographs is only the art of copying the photographs, and on my view is not a true creativity, so this is another cheating. The artist can use his/her own photos as a reference if there is no possibility to paint from life, and that would be the last choice for me. The other people’ photographs can be used for learning, studying something, getting ideas, but never for copying entirely or partially without permission of the photographer. If the permission been received the artist should have mentioned the name of the true author of the image, and then it is up to the viewer and/or collector on how high to praise this artwork.

The custom portraiture is a different question: the customer usually finds the artist whose style he likes and agreement can be reached without violation of copyright law, what I mean is the buyer knows what he buys.

danburke wrote
on 23 Dec 2008 3:43 AM

Great discussion, congratulations Steve!

Many people will run down use of photos but consider this: for many decades I have had a camera within reach, and have often used it solely because I did not have enough time to sit down and sketch something - many times I have only had time to scribble a thumbnail on a scrap of paper. I can even remember waiting in a city park one day with a pair of socks in my hand that were a present for my father, when I noticed the odd way several people were walking along a path...

You guessed it, out came the socks and the packaging became an impromptu sketchbook page - what am I getting at? It is the original, often fleeting, idea that is far more important than any photograph I could have taken, and in this case I don't think a photo would have caught the full range of movement that my scribble did.

In centuries gone by the reason an artist worked their way into a painting via sketching and/or detailed drawing was because of the lack of any other tool (a camera?).

Many subjects are now within reach to far greater numbers of artists than ever before because of the photographic record available to them, subjects such as sport, wildlife, and dare I say it, the deceased.

As a Design & Art teacher and practitioner I can tell you that Chuck's legal "opinion" is right on the money so copy and paste it into your legal reference file in case you need to refer to it.

Derivative works are worth exploring if you are using other people's photographs, and remember also that all that stuff just sitting around in photo libraries or on websites the world over were originally taken by someone - so if you didn't pay for it or didn't seek written permission (verbal permission will not stand in a courtroom) don't use it.

The original sketch an artist makes of an idea, a composition etc., usually holds both the germ of that idea AND a close approximation of the composition. In my experience it is extremely hard to do that with a photo.

Then came Photoshop! Software makes pilfering of images incredibly easy so be vigilant if what you are manipulating is not yours.

I struggled with the purist arguments versus the 'do what you like' camp when I was very young and then moved away from painting for a long time due to work pressures. Now that I am painting again and have a little more experience I have no qualms about using photographs either as a reference or as part of my art. BUT, I use my own.

Since switching to digital cameras about six years ago my photographic output has increased tenfold and more, and I religiously take photos of textures, materials (such as stone surfaces, brickwork, metals) and other subjects under useful or interesting lighting conditions. Often these are not used as is but the process of taking photos forces me to observe with more purpose and clarity.

The resulting 'experience' then becomes a part of my artists memory, that repository of knowledge we use to interpret and understand. Even if I never use the exact photo, I understand what that subject or surface should look like, so I know if my painting is correct. I have often worked from photos of surfaces to teach myself how to paint that surface believably.

If you develop working methods and creative paths that you are comfortable with and you are truly interested in 'creating' rather than just rendering, you won't need to worry about this discussion.

daham06 wrote
on 23 Dec 2008 7:10 AM

I know that this is a subject that is very controversal now.

For me, I am disabled and unable to get out and take my own pictures, so I rely on those who take pictures to aid me in my composition.  

There is no way I could even come close to duplicating what I see in the pictures, so I view my paintings as unique as the picture I use for reference.

sdoherty wrote
on 30 Dec 2008 2:42 AM

Thanks to all of you for these comments. I think there is a clear agreement on the issue of making unauthorized use of someone else's photographs; the value of working from one's own photographs;and the importance of being able to recognize how photographs distort values, colors, and space.

Steve

on 30 Dec 2008 11:58 AM

Steven Doherty has broght several interesting points to light. He asks: is a painting more original if it is based on the artist’s own photos, a combination of photographs, or a digital image? And is it permissible to include another artist’s image in a painting if one has permission or changes the borrowed image?

Let me begin by saying As a professional artist and photographic practioner I have spent many years combing my interests in both mediums to create my new paintings. Photography & computer specifically( Photoshop ) design are important aspects of my creative process.

But the most important element of this conversation is that I use my own photographic images! I travel all over the country with my camera and then return home to be creative with the photo images that I have shot.

what we have pertinent to this blog is a controversy on both the use of anothers copywrited materials and the rules of national exhibitions.

In April of 2008 I had the pleasure of being at the AWS exhibit at the Salmagundi art club and saw the painting in question. No doubt about it - the work in question  is an incredible example of photo realism. At the time I saw this work,I understood immediately why this painting was awarded top prize.

Now I understand that the artist , in the creation of this work,has used the photos of another - a "stock photo company"  I have heard so much controversy about this work  & issue I had to make a comment.

In all of this controversy I have not heard yet whether the artist purchased the usage rights of the stock photos or just downloaded them off a computer with out paying or giving credit to the original photographer.Here in lies my confusion.

I may be wrong, but as I understand it,the first option, which I here define as purchasing the usage rights from the stock photo company allows the artist the rights to create a derivative work because the photographic images and or the copyright to them have been paid for. This does not mean it is legal to enter a derivative artwork in a national exhibit...just that using another's photos are legal under these limited circumstances.

I have to ask the artist the question Have you or Have you not created a painting based upon using photos that are yours legally to use . If yes, then there can be no controversy as the artist then has purchased the right to create a derivative artwork utilizing someone elses photography skills. On the other hand , If you (the artist) tried to pull a creative fast one and have not paid for the priveledge of being inspired by someone elses talent,have now tried to market ( meaning placing it in the public domain and listed the work for sale)  and this artwork which is  identical and or recognizably based upon someone elses work with out purchasing  the rights of use : well naughty, naughty  artist you have created a problem for yourself and have caused a controversy!

I must reiterate creating a new work of art that is derivative does not mean it is either  legal  or not to enter in a national exhibit. The specific rules depend upon each  organization's prospectuses . READ THESE RULES CAREFULLY!If a prospectus specifically writes that all  inspiration must be based upon the artists own photography well then the artist's artwork has broken the organization's rules - Some national organizations have a specific clause addressing this issue others do not specify about the use or source of  a photographic image . How can the use of photography be an issue if it is  not addressed in the prospectus?

I would hate to see the national exhibitions dis -allow the use of photographic inspiration. Perhaps the only compromise for the national art organizations to deal with this controversy is to put it in writing that any accepted artwork, that is inspired by photography, will  have to be based upon the artists own photography   or show proof that the apporpriate stock photos have been purchased to be used as a derivative artwork.

Like Mr. Doherty says there is no easy way to resolve this issue, but the topic sure has made for some interesting and thought provoking debate!

richiey2k wrote
on 30 Dec 2008 2:06 PM

Good discussion.

Historically, unauthorized copies of masterworks has created no end of trouble for curators and in the marketplace.  The legal issues of "appropriating" imagery are becoming increasingly clear, it is done at considerable risk.  Ethically . . . now . . . I think complete honesty regarding source material is the only way to proceed.

From a painter's viewpoint, photos are a useful reference, but one's work is vastly more informed by experience painting from life.  A camera is a cyclops, most people have two lenses.  We can see around corners!  Always have beginners work from life.

Chuck Roach wrote
on 31 Dec 2008 3:26 PM

After reading all of the comments to this blog, and rereading the introduction by M. Stephen Doherty several times, I think that I have a more thorough understanding of the real issues involved in the use of photographs.  There are two, one of a legal nature involving copyright, and the second of expectations of creativity or originality by art guilds and art competition organizers.  They are somewhat mutually exclusive.  I took my old law book on Patents and Copyrights, but decided to do some internet research on the issue to get the latest data.  You can also do this, but unless you are accustomed to reading some very dry explanations, I have summerized it for you here.

First, it is important to understand what a copyright protects.  A copyright is an intellectual property right, which is an intangible, and can be described as an original artistic expression.  An easy example is a book.  Every book has a copyright notice in the front.  This copyright notice does not cover the material that the book is made of, the page size, particular type font, or individual words.  It only covers the peculiar artistic expression of the author in conveying his/her thoughts within the book.  In a photograph that has been copyrighted, the person who took the photo has a right to profit from his/her use of that photo.  No one else can reproduce that photo for profit, or reproduce in a painting the photographer’s artistic expression as contained in the photo, which could rise to the level of being a “derivative work.”

The issue of copyright infringement through the use of another’s photo is realistically of little practical significance to painters.  Many artists will use an isolated element or two from another’s photograph.  To constitute a derivative work, the painting must take and use a substantial amount of protected expression from the photo. The derivative painting must take enough protected expression for the painting to be "substantially similar" to the earlier work.    The words “protected expression” mean only the artistic expression contained within the photograph as expressed by the sum of the parts.  A single element of a photo is not an artistic expression any more than a single word out of a famous quote is not an artistic expression.  In both cases, it is only the interplay of all elements that create an artistic expression.  Therefore, it is perfectly legal to use single elements from any copyrighted photograph, just as it is to use individual words found in any copyrighted book.  What one must never do is attempt to copy someone else’s photo, no matter how well composed the photo may be.  From an artistic standpoint, I have found that photos are never very good and use them only as a general starting point in composing a painting.  Most of the time, my finished painting is so different from the photo that there is little resemblance.  This is as it should be.

I believe that the real crux of this whole issue is the second one of expectations of creativity or originality by art guilds and art competitions.  Painters and their related organizations are steeped in rules and expectations arising from historical traditions.  Faced with the high technology revolution, the issue of what constitutes original artwork has risen to the top.  Computers, the internet, photo editors, and other software yet to be designed have allowed and will continue to allow artists access to nearly unlimited sources of inspiration for their paintings.  I perceive some friction, anger, frustration and violation of fair play rules on the part of some art guild directors and art competition organizers when confronted with the explosion and easy availability of digital images.  I may be wrong, but my guess is that these individuals have gained their artistic statures in a time prior to digital photographs, resent and feel a little threatened by the digital revolution, and feel that young artists with such easy access to images should walk the same historical path that they did to gain artistic recognition.  

It is not really an issue of anyone claiming copyright infringement from the unauthorized use of a photo, because that will rarely occur in this context.  It is more how we define originality in the midst of this high technology revolution, and then how we impose that definition on artists.  Are we going to change with the times, allowing all use of photos provided that they are not outright copies, or adhere to the traditional definition of originality and only allow paintings made from life as a means to ensure the sanctity of originality?  Of course, is one really any more original than the other?  A really good painting is just that, regardless of the source or inspiration.

Sorry to be so long-winded, but there is usually quite a bit of muddled thinking about complex issues like this, and I wanted to define the issues as best I could while still being brief.  

Happy New Year Everyone!

Kim Carlton wrote
on 4 Jan 2009 7:46 PM

It may be interesting to see how many of our respected forefathers worked from photographs.  At the very least, there was Gauguin, Cezanne, Lautrec, Van Gogh and Degas: fogonazos.blogspot.com/.../famous-painters-copied-photopraphs_06.html  

Krystyna2 wrote
on 6 Jan 2009 6:49 PM

Thank you all for your thoughts. Very intrigued by the idea that people might feel the photography any less of an inspiration than direct observation. Who is to decree what is art, when it all depends on our personal observation and very subjective influence? Everyone sees and interprets in different, unique way. The problem lies in our personal honesty, sometimes in narrow mindedness of those who try to usurp right to judge, lack of foresight, understanding.... whatever. After all, we are here on the Web, using this technology in such a fantastic way. How else could we learn and enjoy it if not for the photography?

Thank you again. I have a very special feeling about my photographs - I always thought that I saw more and interpreted everything  in different way than people around me. And, I bet you all feel like that!

Cariad2 wrote
on 14 Jan 2009 9:01 AM

I paint and I do photography. I sometimes use my photos as a topic for my paintings. There are several websites that have my photos, including stock photo sites. I would not put a photo on a stock photo site that I wanted to use either as fine art on its own, or as a spring board for a painting of mine. However, when I sell a stock photo, if it is royalty-free, my understanding is that the buyer can use the photo for a one time use (perhaps in a magazine as an ad) in any way they want. Now the ad, being so wonderful, will naturally make the buyer money. And I made money on the sale of the use. If the photographer does not want his photo used in this manner, then it must be sold with a different royalty arrangement. I often do mixed media.....I've used postage stamps in them. Is that someone else's work? ...at one point an artist designed the stamp. My understanding of copyright is that if a normal person can tell that you have lifted a source for a large percentage of the painting, then it is infringement. The percentage of the other person's work seems to be a big factor. Interesting pondering. Will we find the right answer for everyone?

steen3 wrote
on 26 Jan 2009 11:26 AM

A related issue involves working in traditional media on top of a print - for example, creating a portrait by painting in oil on top of a canvas print.

on 31 Jan 2009 8:56 AM

I work from my own photographs. I have been taking reference pics for years and when I see something through my camera lens I am visually composing how I will use that photograph in a painting or drawing. I also do alot of animals and it is very difficult to work with them without photos. Even when I am doing plein air painting I will bring along my small digital to capture the image in case the lighting changes on my next visit. I rarely use only one photo to compose a painting - I use several plus spend numerous hours researching and first-hand observing my subjects. I have admired Robert Bateman for years and I wrote Mr. Bateman and mentioned that I had quite a stockpile of photo references that I was using, and he replied, “I’m glad to hear that you are using reference materials as it is hard to cobble together anything. However, unless one uses one’s own reference shots as a basis for a painting, one can run into copyright problems.” I consider Mr. Bateman one of the greatest artists of our time and that is great advice from him. Thought I would share it considering this topic.

JoylovesArt wrote
on 26 Jul 2013 12:41 AM

I think that part of your interpretation of how much use of another person's photograph is ethical depends on your opinion of whether or not photography is a form of art. As someone with a degree in photography, I believe that it is an art form.

There are several mentions of using someone else's photo as reference. I think that's okay to a degree. For example, if I were painting, say, a treasure chest and found myself a little confused as to what the details of the lock or latches should look like, I might search for images of locks and latches for a better understanding.

Still, there are other times I believe that using even a small portion of someone else's photograph (without their permission) for even a small portion of your painting is stealing. For example, perhaps I was working on a painting of a playground scene. If I were to search for photos of children and find a beautiful capture of a child just as they jumped from a swing set and incorporated that into a large scene, I think it's wrong. That photographer captured a particular moment in time, an emotional scene of inspiration. It doesn't matter if you put the child in different clothing, with different hair color, with six other children, painted in a different style - you're using the most artistic part of their photo. You're stealing the art that they created.

The same goes for familiar scenes or buildings. There may be thousands of straight on "snapshots" of the scene. However, if you're working from someone's photograph that they put a lot of effort into taking from a unique perspective or in an emotional manner - worm's eye view of a skyscraper, for example - you're stealing their artistic expression.

What if the question were reversed? Is it okay to photograph someone's painting and treat the work as your own? What if you only photograph part of the painting? For example, is it okay to take a macro shot of one texture from someone else's abstract painting and represent that as your own artistic work, without permission of the painter? I think not.

As many photographs are offered for free use by photographers who just want their work seen, it is just lazy to infringe on copyright protected photos, anyway.

As far as how you use your own photos in your work - the photograph is your art and the painting is your art. I don't see the issue with this, though I think working from life renders more satisfying results for me when possible. It's rarely possible, though, as I work full time and most of my painting is done between midnight and 4 a.m.

aannafred wrote
on 26 Jul 2013 1:38 AM

I look at as many as 100 photos (sometimes more!) - my own and other's when I begin to do a painting - to get immersed into the subject.  Then I create my own image!

AndyMay wrote
on 26 Jul 2013 7:45 AM

I was influenced by my teachers not to paint from photos.  However, when I saw artists selling their paintings based on photographs selling for 5 figures,  I wondered why I was so ingrained in that belief.   Having now painted many portraits of children and/or deceased individuals I know there is a place to use photos.  However, I paint from live models at workshops and paint plein air  so I can bring that experience to my work.   You gain so much working directly whether it's a still life, portrait, or landscape.

dawnmcl wrote
on 26 Jul 2013 8:14 AM

Is this about using photographs (artist's own or appropriated) as sources for drawings or paintings, or using actual copies or transfers of photos in one's work as is often done in collage? Working from one's own photo references to create images is done all the time and is often practical and necessary; I don't see that as the least bit controversial. I also don't have a problem with using actual  copies or transfers of one's own photos or even public domain images in one's work. Unless an artist uses another artist's work and appropriates it as his or her own, thereby violating copyright laws and ethical behavior, creative use of photos incorporated into work seems like fair game to me.

jrademan wrote
on 26 Jul 2013 11:18 AM

I, too, paint from my own photos. They document the visual but my mind and my heart remember the emotion of the scene. I recall the feel of the sun on my skin... The sound of the wind... The songs of the birds and noises of the insects. Using a photo brings all of that back to me. My paintings from them combine the memories of all of the senses. I do paint plein air, as well. That compresses all the experiences into a short time frame. Photo reference lets one explore, expand and tell a story of all that an artist feels. It's the goal of every painting I create. Website: http://www.joerademan.com