Friday, June 24, 2016

Plein Air vs Photo Reference

Earlier this week I wrote a really eloquent post about painting in natural light vs. painting inside from a photograph but some technical issue deleted 3/4 of what I wrote. Really, it was something else. In all seriousness I did write it and it did get deleted so I'll try to re-do it Reader's Digest style.
I went to a workshop at David Garrison's studio.  There were about 10 students, the weather was nice, the people were nice and the paintings were great. David mentioned to the students that I paint outside just about every day, which is true I try to get out every day that I can even if it's just to sketch. One of the students asked me if I ever worked from a photograph. At first I thought it was a silly question, doesn't everyone work from a photo reference? At least at some point we all do, right? With the ease of taking pictures and having an instant reference why wouldn't you? A camera is a very useful tool to have in your toolbox. As long as you think of it as a tool.
The one thing David was trying to emphasize at his workshop was to do quick 30 minute sketches to capture the different light and then use your sketches for reference when you go to paint indoors. One of the students did this and it was amazing to see her results. She painted the same thing throughout the day and at the end she went inside and had 3 references that showed exactly what the lighting outdoors does. This is the difference between plein air and photo reference. Sure you can go snap a picture at different times of the day to get different lighting but a camera has less ability for seeing colours than our eyes do. Photos wash things out and often blacks out shadows. A camera is a very useful tool but it's like a nail.  You need a hammer to make a nail effective, it's only part of the solution. There are a lot of landscape painters who wouldn't consider themselves plein air painters. They simply go out and do value studies and either take reference photos or work from memory and sketches. If you're not an outdoorsy person but want to paint things that are outside, a value study and a photo can get you pretty far in the studio. Having the right tools in your toolbox can make your life easier and makes a difference in your finished work.


  1. Still pretty eloquent. The nail and hammer analogy, I won't say it...but it does. David has good ideas there. Nowadays getting someone to look at something for 30 minutes (that isn't a video) is a real trick.

    1. The more I think about it the more I think he's on to something. You really only need to look at something for 30 minutes to get the information you need. We're trying to paint, not create an exact replica. This reminded me of another great example that I'll have to put in another post. :-)