click here to return to the home page of the Association of British, Commonwealth and European Erotic Artists

Association Comments Page

WORKING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS

- with examples from photographer Eugene Durieu and painter Eugene Delacroix.

By Association Co-founder Paul Woods.

From the moment that the photographic image became, with the first permanently fixable images in the early 1820s, a viable process painters became fascinated with this great innovation and quickly saw the potential of a photograph; both as a reference source and as a valuable working tool in the creation of their images. Indeed painters had been making use of the 'camera' long before the means to record the image on film was invented. From the start, the naked female became a staple subject for this new and exciting media of photography. New printing techniques, along with cheap methods of large scale reproduction and distribution, saw photographic erotica rapidly become a mass market phenomenon.

Prior to the invention of the photographic image; sexual imagery had been produced using the traditional medium of a painting, created by an artist working from life or the imagination, for a secretive and appreciative clientèle. This combination of working, employing great technical skills and vivid imagination, meant that much of the erotica of the time was both exciting and inventive but also rather expensive.

As co founder of The Association of Erotic Artists and a professional painter myself I am always keen to see new painters applying for membership. I approach new work with an expectant pleasure and a hope of seeing works that may excite me and become worthy new additions to the Association. But sadly I am all too often disappointed when I am yet again confronted with poor drawings and paintings so obviously copied from photographs culled from porn magazines or off the internet and used with no discernible skills or imagination. There seems to be this misconception that if one copies a pornographic image it will somehow transform itself into a quality, imaginative and creative work of art. Don't be deluded, it won’t! Painters must realise that working from a photograph to produce a new original piece of art requires intelligence, creative thinking and skill.

The use and reliance of photography, within other art mediums, has increased enormously over the years. There has also been a wider fundamental change in attitude with the desire in individuals for instant results, instant wealth and instant celebrity. All of these things normally the result of hard work but today we want it now and for no effort on our part. Too many 'artists' today see working from photographs as the easy option - a fast way to create 'art' without the need to employ the skills, intellect or imagination that is actually required.

I appreciate that artists working with the figure and especially those working in the genera of erotic art may not always have access to models prepared to go beyond the standard sensual nude pose. I appreciate too that affording to work with life-models is prohibitive. Also some artists are beginners and may feel that they do not have the necessary skills yet to work from life which is exponentially more difficult. Whatever the reasons for working from a photographic image there are ways to use the photograph as a tool for making interesting art.

Painting differs greatly to photography as a means of expression. Each has their valid qualities. What will make a photograph a good image does not always mean a drawn or painted image will maintain this quality. Slavishly copying a photograph, other than as a formal exercise, is rarely of any value and the question is often put 'Why take hours or days to produce something that a photograph can achieve better in a fraction of a second. Another lazy working practice, employed by talentless artists and photographers, is the misuse of Photo editing software such as Photoshop with the lie “Turn your photographs into works of art”. Such practices can, on occasions, make a photograph look like a more interesting photograph but never makes a photograph look like an interesting painting. There once was a pitifully dull group of artists known as the Photo Realists from the late 60s early seventies. They mechanically and laboriously created paintings from photographs to look exactly like the photograph they copied. A pointless endeavour. They are now a largely forgotten group.

It would be wrong to say 'never' work from photographs, I have done it myself occasionally. But, please understand that working from a photograph should be a starting point in the creative process not a short-cut to having 80% of the work done for you. The original photograph should be a springboard from which your inspiration, imagination and skills can be applied in order to create a worthy original piece of art.

Where possible make the photographs you want to work from yourself. This way you can control aspects of the image. The pose you want, the expressions you desire, the details, the lighting you need, can be achieved from the start. Also, it is always a good idea to have a number of other reference photographs to work from - the more information on your subject you have at hand, the better. Such reference photographs can help to give your artwork more a sense of life by using aspects from a number of images and not restricting yourself to the single image.

When an artist draws from life the figure is changing, moving all the time, small shifts of position from both model and artist, fluctuations in light intensity or direction means a drawing is a single image of a myriad of tiny movements and adjustments creating a quality of 'being alive' that is not possible from a froze moment in time, a snap-shot from a poorly made photograph.

Here is an example of creative working from a photograph. A photographic figure study by Eugene Durieu (c1855) and an oil painting by Eugene Delacroix (c1857).

A photographic figure study by Eugene Durieu (c1855)oil painting by Eugene Delacroix (c1857).

This photograph by Eugene Durieu has the aesthetic qualities of an artwork in its own right. It is beautifully composed and very sensual generating concupiscence for the model. In the early stages of photographing the nude photographers heavily referenced classical art. Louis Daguerre, known for the invention of the Daguerreotype, was himself a painter. The painting on the right is by the great French artist Eugene Delacroix; regarded as the leader of the French Romantic school.

Initially landscape and portrait artists were disturbed by the advances in photography and felt their livelihood threatened by it. Many of the great artists around this time such as Ingres and Puvis de Chavannes fought against this burgeoning modern media. Later artists responded to the challenge creatively, recognising the freedoms this new media offered them. Indeed it has to be said that the photographic image, with its new 'vocabulary', gave inspiration as it introduced new ways of seeing the world.

Delacroix quickly saw the potential of photography recognised and appreciated the difference in vision. The illustrated images, a photograph and the resulting painting are actually collaboration between Delacroix and Durieu. Although it is doubted that Delacroix ever made photographs himself, he often used photographic nude studies to sketch from as technical exercises to train his hand. He would often carry them with him on travels and is said to have work from them even while at mass in church.

Delacroix has not merely copied the photograph but has enlivened the image with his own masterful flowing painterly style infused with rich opulent colours. Many subtle changes to the pose have been made and by re-draping the nude and altering surrounding props re-contextualised the figure creating a wonderful original painting. He has transformed the image and made it his own.

I know the temptations of using photographs for lazy unimaginative artist; so much of the decision making and hard work is done for you. The image is set, resized, flat, details removed, tonal ranges and lighting fixed. The image can easily be mechanically transferred. But what is an easy cop-out way of art creation for some results in tedious lifeless images for me and others to have to look at. It may impress the untutored but in the end it will be only yourself who is being cheated. Don't just copy a photograph, use it as a tool, apply your own vision and create a work of art that is truly a product of your hard earned skills and creativity.

Before I finish I must touch on one other important element of working from a source photograph, that is not of your own making and that is an issue of copyright. Respect the international copyright laws that protect the works of other artists as you would want them to protect your own work. Always seek permission from the original copyright owner or at least have the courtesy of accrediting the original by stating that your work is after the original work or artist.

Back to Articles Section