Working from photographs


161222c Cake with Candles (2016) oil on canvas 16 x 18cm

I hadn’t painted for a few days and chose to paint a birthday cake because it gave me an opportunity to use a variety of brush sizes (wide brush for the side of the cake, narrower brush for the candles). I used the photo as source material, but didn’t trace or project the form directly. I wanted to see if I could work from any photograph, so I chose the first photograph that came up in a Google image search for “birthday cake”. Here’s that photograph.


I’ve been resistant to working from photographs in the past because I got tired of seeing so many painters inspired by Richter/Tuymans/Dumas. Jerry Saltz complained about the ubiquity of this tendency in his article The Richter Resolution (2005), and more recently interest seems to have moved much more toward figuration made using free-hand drawing with (apparently) little or no reference to photographic imagery. That’s what dominates the work selected for Phaidon’s new Vitamin P3 book (2016), and there’s also plenty of it at Saatchi’s Painters’ Painters exhibition (Rafi Kalenderian, Martin Maloney, Ansel Krut, Bjarne Melgaard, Ryan Mosley).

However, there are a lot of painters who I don’t think of as being in dialogue with photography, and yet they use photography extensively as source material. Here are some examples I’ve found quickly on line. These all happen to include “illustrational” depictions of the female figure, I’m not sure if that’s deliberate.


Lisa Yuskavage Half Family (2003) oil on linen 41 x 33cm


Gil Elvgren A Near Miss (1960) oil on canvas 76.2 x 60.9cm

Eric Fischl sometimes makes photo collages to paint from (see The Gang, below). It’s interesting that in this example he makes no attempt to match the direction of the sunlight in his photo collage, yet somehow the image retains a surprising credibility and coherence despite that.

The process of copying an image is radically different to inventing one without a source, but how important is that when we’re looking at the finished painting? I’m not sure.

In practice, I don’t like to spend a lot of time searching for images online. That process is captured brilliantly in Dana Schutz’ painting Google.


Dana Schutz Google (2006) oil on canvas 182.9 x 182.9cm


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