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Interesting question, right? Actually, I thought I'd left that whole "working from photos" controversy behind when I gave up plein air painting (that's the practice of painting outdoors, directly in front of your subject, as opposed to painting in the studio from either a photo or your own field studies or both).
Why is this even a question?
It's a question because people have mixed feelings about this and it keeps coming up. This very question was asked recently in a group I participate in, and it gave me that same sinking feeling that I used to get in the plein air groups I participated in when this discussion would inevitably come up.
So, What's Going On?
This is what I observe. First, there's a group of people who work from photos and really, really want to justify that. They work from photos because it's easier to work from photos, and because it's easier to draw from photos, they're happier with their results. Fair enough, we want making art to make us happy.
I think we all realize that much of the hard work of translating a 3D object into a 2D image is done for you by the camera. So, better results are almost guaranteed, no surprise there.
Photos also hold still, and with a click of the mouse we can zoom in to observe detail to a painstaking degree. Photos can be marked with a grid to help get proportions correct, traced, and any number of other techniques that help you draw.
If your observation and drawing skills are weak then working from a photo will fill in a lot of those gaps.
Yet, I often get the sense that these folks feel guilty, because they realize that if they had better observation and drawing skills they wouldn't need to work from a photo. So they're a little defensive (OK sometimes a lot).
There's another group who are the purists. They will never, ever, ever use a photo and will be pretty vocal about that and condemning of people who do use photos. Do you see why I get a stomach ache whenever this issue comes up?
So how does this fit in with nature journaling?
These are just my opinions so take them with a grain of salt.
Nature journaling is about interacting with and observing the natural world. I think much of the benefit of keeping a nature journal is lost when you work from photos. From a broader art making perspective I think it is always a hundred times better to work from life (no matter what your subject is) than to work from a photo.
Copying from a photo is one of the surest ways to suck the liveliness and truth out of your work leaving you with a dead, dull rendition of your subject. It takes many years of working from life to be able to use a photo reference wisely.
Is it Ever OK to Use Photos?
Of course. The page above is a perfect example. I was absolutely taken by surprise by a fox at a local park. She was literally right there, she didn't seem to mind my presence, and walked right in front of me as she crossed the parking lot to enter the meadow to hunt. I followed her and was able to observe from a fairly close distance. She ignored me and went on with her hunting, (and if you've ever watch a fox hunt you know how absolutely adorable they are when they pounce!).
Needless to say I was pretty excited, and began literally scribbling down her movements. I mean look at the sketches on the left hand page. They are nothing more than ridiculously bad gesture sketches done in seconds flat. But... they are very authentic. They recall for me my excitement, her quickness, and did I mention my excitement?
I also snapped a few photos with my phone. While the fox was still there in the meadow, and after I had filled the first page with gesture sketches, I did the two more developed sketches on the right, by both directly observing the fox and referring to my phone photos. That, basically, is how I use photos, as supplements to direct observation.
Here's the Rub
Even after thirty years of being an artist, I still struggle with other people judging my work and comparing it to other people's work. I thought when I began to focus solely on nature journaling and sketchbook work that I'd be in an arena where everyone was working pretty much directly from life. I thought that the value of rapid, gestural, lively sketches done on the spot would be appreciated and understood.
That's not the case though, and I find it difficult sometimes to remember that not everyone is going to understand that some of the really amazing "sketches" that they see online were actually done from photos, and that working from life is a very different genre with different qualities that make it amazing.
Stay True to your Call
I don't particularly like to work from photos, unless I'm really focusing on a bird, or animal and I need time to deconstruct its anatomy, markings etc by making drawings from photos, so that when I see it in the field I have a knowledge base to dip into as I'm sketching. I'm not interested in doing scientific, bird or botanical illustrations. I'm all about the gesture!
What I do love is being outside, and the challenge of sketching directly from life, even if the result is only a very quick, scribbly gesture study like the foxes above. I don't particularly like knowing that viewers are comparing sketches I have done in a matter of minutes directly from a moving subject outdoors to someone else's sketch done from a photo that took hours to complete.
To help with that I continually remind myself why I value the approach I've chosen. I really, truly do believe that working from life is the best possible way to approach nature journaling. It certainly brings me the most joy.
At the end of the day I love what I do. I value each and every sketch, the more developed ones, the scribbly ones, the half-finished-because-the-subject-ran-off ones, the really "bad" ones that I try not to think of as "bad". I've made a commitment to myself to value and honor all my sketches for what they are: glorious experiences of the natural world, honestly recorded in the moment.
Own your Process
I think it's important to own your process. If you work from photos, understand your reasons for doing so and say so when you discuss your work publicly. If you work from life, accept that your sketches are going to reflect the rough and tumble excitement, motion and inaccuracies that working in the field produces. Love what you do and how you do it. Don't judge or worry about what others are doing.(easier said than done, I know).
Making art should make you happy. Being in nature should make you happy. I made up my mind long ago to make that a reality in my life. How about you?