June 19, 2020

Do fine art painters paint from photographs?

The short answer is yes, fine art painters have and do paint from photographs. Whether it is an aid to composition or used for colour reference, artists have used photography really from its invention.

Painters throughout history have used a variety of aids to help with the content, composition and colour of their paintings. It has been argued that Vermeer used a camera obscurer to create many of his famous works.

This early device was commonly used to aid reproduction and to help with scaling up paintings. An object, scene or person can be projected onto a surface and then traced.

One group of artists ‘the impressionists’, saw the beginning of photography as we know it.  Although it initially forced them to adopt a new approach to painting, seeing them adopt a style that was something other than a pure form of representation, they went on to embrace and become influenced by many aspects of the photographic image. Using these image to help with perspective and composition framing an image in a way not seen before.

In this blog I will concentrate on the Impressionist painters that used photography. I will look at more contemporary artists and the further development of the use of photography within their practice at a later date.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas became interested in photography as a tool in 1895, it enabled him to capture many of the dancers in poses that he later became so famous for.  As a tool photography can help an artist to not only capture moments in time but also manipulate and compose them. In this photograph the lighting has been manipulated to create the effect on the ballerinas skirt which Degas went on to use in several of his paintings. 

Paul Cezanne

Cezanne was another of the impressionists painter that used photography.

Here we see an image found amongst his belonging after his death.

Neige fondante à Fontainebleau (Melting Snow at Fontainebleau), 1879–80

Although the photograph is black and white and the painting in colour it is obvious that the painting was influenced by the photograph. We could conclude that during the cold winter months painting en plein air would have proved challenging and working in the studio aided by photographs provided a much needed alternative.

The photographer is not know, but is thought to be Eugène Cuvelier, an amateur painter himself who would take his camera into the woods instead of his easel and paints. Known to create some of the most sensitive and lyrical depictions of  ancient woodland, he was greatly admired and seen as influential too many of the impressionist artists of the time.

Gustave Caillebotte

Caillebotte, was seen as both part of the impressionist movement but also apart from them because of his much more figurative approach to painting. He embraced photography and this can be seen in his large painting”Floor-Scrapers”, 1875. This shows a very different angle and perspective and the cropping of the image can also be attributed to the medium of photography. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist used a photograph to work from but combined several different images.

(Featured image..“Le Jour ni l’Heure 5759 : Gustave Caillebotte, 1848-1894, Les Raboteurs de parquet, 1875, Paris, musée d’Orsay, jeudi 14 mai 2015, 20:57:26” by Renaud Camus is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So in conclusion the use of photography by fine art painters seems to have been widespread but rarely acknowledged. If this is a subject that interested you David Hockney has been researching the use of optical devised throughout art history and below is a link to his book about the subject.

The Hockney-falco thesis

I look forward to exploring the use of photography in the work and practice of more contemporary painters in my next blog.