June 26, 2019 2 min read
Artist after artist agrees: Learning to paint from life teaches you more than you can ever get from learning to paint from photos alone.
Artist Shuang Li is both a studio painter and an en plein air painter. She understands that she can do larger and more complex paintings in her studio, but she knows that painting on location is critical for her skill as an artist.
Working from life is important for learning to paint because photographs lie. If you've ever stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and then gone home and looked at your photos, you know what I mean. In person, the Canyon's expansiveness rolls out at such depth you feel like a tiny ant at the edge of the world. In your photo, it just looks like a hole in the ground and not even a very impressive hole.
Photos do a terrible job at giving information about distance. They tend to compress everything and make bigger things feel smaller. Once you've learned how to paint things to match how they feel in life, you can do a better job at translating a photo back into its original sense of grandiosity.
The second reason painting from life makes a difference is color and value. The human eye can see way more subtle shifts in value and hue than even the best iphone can capture today. Photos tend to be duller and show less of a range in values.
If you practice painting from life, you can learn to translate some of the photo blandness back into a real-life sparkle...but it'll be harder to know how and when to do that if you've only ever worked from a photo reference.
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