I figured I'd write some thoughts on how I've used (and not used) the aid of photography in my work. There tends to be this deep divide in painting about how artists use photography as an aid in painting, and it's probably been around since the advent of the medium. The Impressionists, probably just after photography became available to the general public, grappled with how this new way of picturing the world was going to effect painting. Compositional devices such as the cropping of figures along the edges of paintings (I'm thinking of Degas in particular) seemed to generally mimic what was happening with early photography. It seems like now, we live in a culture that is saturated with photographic images (and more recently, computer generated imagery (CGI). From billboards to online ads, subway posters to Facebook profile pictures, we live in a never ending stream of the photographic image. I think that photography and it's related media are a beautiful and wonderful thing (as I write this, my kids are watching Pixar's "A Bug's Life", an amazing work of Art), but painting is quite a different beast. Besides being made by hand, a painting is an image created out of nothing. You start with a canvas, and through the accumulation of ground minerals and various plant materials, you arrive at a representation of reality. It is filtering the 3 dimensional world (along with the passage of time) through a consciousness, into a 2 dimensional, flat representation. The magic of painting for me is about condensing my vision of the world into the parameters of the canvas; it is a much slower experience than photography.
I find working from a photograph very limiting, both in finding the space of a painting and in observing the nuances of color and light. The photographic image is static, and sometimes the best surprises in painting can come when, after looking at an object for a long time, you tilt your head a little to the left or to the right and see something new. You lose that 'air' between objects, since you've compressed the image already. By slavishly copying a photograph, one is just making a facsimile of an already existing image. Your color sense becomes limited by the colors of the printing ink, which is very different from the color of Life. What I'm after in painting is the experience of seeing and looking deeply at something. It has it's advantages of course, like if I'm trying to paint a very transient thing like a cloud or a crashing wave. The photograph has to supplement my experience of looking at something, not replace it.
One painting that I did last year with the aid of a photograph is a winter scene of some rooftops in Gowanus. I had met someone who had this great view outside his woodworking studio on 6th Street, a few blocks away from mine. The view was looking southwest, with the sun causing the elevated train line to be in silhouette as it went down. I started a medium sized painting (18 x 24ish) in early November (gotta love that November light!) at dusk, wanting to capture that orange glow of the sun as it went down. I worked on the painting over 3 sessions (about 2 hours each) and was happy with the progress of the painting. Unfortunately, it was getting cold fast and I had started a job in which I couldn't come back and paint on site. So in mid-December, I arranged to come back and take some photos in order to finish up the painting in my studio. However, when I got to the roof, the entire scene had changed. Not only was the light completely different, but the rooftops were coated with a layer of recent snow. The snow made the rooftops pop out from the deep shadows, and really put the whole topography into relief. There were these beautiful blue-violet shadows falling in the foreground, and this new sight completely changed the entire painting for me. Excited with what I had found, I went to the studio in the subsequent weeks and reworked the painting. I added the snow on the roofs and changed the light from a fiery orange sunset to a more mellow, diffused sky. In this instance, there's no way I could have done that painting without a photograph. It definitely helped me that the painting's space was already established, and I had put in a number of hours looking at the scene. In the end, it's the painting that dictates what it needs.