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Oil Painting Art Course – Is Using Photographs OK? Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell Thought So

Oil Painting Art Course – Is Using Photographs OK? Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell Thought So

Edgar Degas painted from photos: Degas became a painter just at the beginning of photography. He first had others shoot photos for him for his use in his paintings. Later, he became an expert photographer. Degas’ paintings show the influence of photography in the cutting off of figures. Before Degas, the whole person was inside the painting. In many of Degas’ work, the figures are cut off mid leg or their figures are cut off on the left, right and top by the edge of the painting. This cropping came from his reference photos.

Photos were a tool in his paintings, drawings and sculpture. Degas’ photographs had the look of his paintings. His paintings were based on his photographs.

Students ask me if it is proper to use photos: I have a classmate from the art school from which I graduated. He has had a very distinguished career painting all his life. He said that anything you do to help you develop a painting is a correct method.

Seven Ways to Project or Transfer Photos or Drawings onto Your Canvas: 

1. Tack them up on your easel as reference: There is a famous Norman Rockwell self-portrait (Google it). The painting shows Rockwell painting himself at an easel covered with photos of portraits by Rembrandt and Van Gogh and a drawing of himself. Rockwell is also looking in a mirror as he paints.

2. Opaque Projectors: The opaque projector is a machine that projects photos, book pages or drawings by shining a bright light onto the photo from above. A series of mirrors, prisms and lenses project the image onto a canvas. The artist then draws the outlines of the photo on the canvas using the projected image as a guide. Opaque projectors are available from Dick Blick, Jerry’s Artorama or Mister Art online or at some art stores.

3. Camera Lucida: A camera lucida is a lens on a metal arm that clamps onto the artist’s drawing board. The camera lucida superimposes an image on the artist’s drawing surface. One sees a scene or the reference photo on the drawing surface. You can then trace the outlines of objects.

4. Mirrors: David Hockney, a well-known contemporary artist, was interviewed on “60 Minutes” on CBS-TV. Hockney had Lesley Stahl stand outside his studio window, in full sunlight, facing a mirror set up inside the window. Her image was reflected in the mirror and it was projected inside Hockney’s dark studio onto Hockney’s canvas. That projected image can then be copied. Hockney had written a book called “Secret Knowledge” about which Stahl did the interview. In the book Hockney theorizes that artists in the 1400’s learned how to use lenses and mirrors to project images onto their canvases.

5. Print the photo or drawing on your canvas: You can print your photograph directly onto your canvas and then paint over them in oil paints. Ink jet printer paper suppliers offer ink jet printable canvas. You need to ask your ink jet/canvas supplier how long their inks last according to scientific testing.

There are printing services that offer Giclee fine art reproductions for painters, photographers, galleries and museums on fine art canvas. Some artists use these services to make reproductions of their paintings for sale in addition to selling the original oil painting. Giclee (French for “a spurt”) is an inkjet process for making super high quality and long lasting prints. A good supplier uses fade-resistant inks or dyes that some claim last as long as 100 years.

Other artists print photos on canvas at Giclee printers and then paint over them in oil paints. Giclee prints are not only long lasting but also have no visible dots as do most ink jet printers. Google “giclee printers” to find giclee printing suppliers on the web.

6. Camera Obscura: In his book “Vermeer’s Camera” Philip Steadman poses the theory that VerMeer used the early version of the photographic camera: the camera obscura. Camera obscura are the Latin words for dark room.

How the camera obscura works:

  • A box (or room) with a pinhole in the front end is placed in a well-lit room.
  • The room in front of the hole will then be projected onto the inside back end of the box.
  • Later, the camera obscura evolved into what we now call a camera. In a photographic camera, film is placed on the inside back end of the box where the image is projected from the lens in the front end of the box.
  • Using the camera obscura principle with additional lenses and mirror, one can project an accurate image onto a painting surface and trace over the projected lines. Some suggest one can paint onto the canvas directly guided by the projected image. People still make camera obscuras … Google “camera obscura” on the web.

7. Tracing: Some artists trace and transfer the outlines of photos onto their canvas or other drawing surface. They staple together a “sandwich” of the traced photo, a transfer sheet and the canvas. Drawing over the traced photo drawing on the top of the sandwich with a ballpoint pen causes the transfer sheet color to be transferred to the canvas. They then paint using the transferred line drawing as a guide on their canvas with the original photo(s) tacked alongside their canvas as reference.

Is Using Photographs OK? Like Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell and countless other great painters and illustrators, I think so.