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Photo Reference • Print vs Monitor

Painting from a reference in your art studio.

Photos vs Monitor - Doug Swinton

I love painting from life. The challenge of rendering what I see in front of me into a painting is one of the greatest joys in my life.  

Mechanical means of “observation” such as photography, remove most of the personal experience one has when painting from life.  Though a camera is technically brilliant, it feels nothing toward the subject. It has no understanding of what is being recorded. It simply records a flat representation and leaves out the countless stimuli an artist can experience when creating a painting.


Printed photographs depict a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional representation. When working from photos we need to take this 2d image and work it back to the 3d realm. It’s a giant leap that painting from life doesn’t require. But let’s face it - we can’t always work from life.

In this country, where it’s winter 9.5 months of the year, photo reference becomes a way of life. Sometimes it’s the only way to paint a subject. Some subjects just move too much - such as horses, which don’t sit still very long (though Bill AntonNed Jacob and our own Michelle Grant would tell you otherwise). There are also times when you can’t finish a painting in one sitting. In general, photos are great for resurrecting the vision you had of the real thing.

So if we must use photos, then let’s use them to the best of our ability. The next leap from a printed photo is using a tablet or a monitor.

Some monitors have very high resolution and can render a subject almost clearer than life.  Monitors cost more than a TV but the colour retention is stunning. If your monitor is hooked up to your computer, you can calibrate your photo using Photoshop (in LAB mode) and with this tool you can adjust almost anything. Photoshop is a great tool to get you on the right track. Often, manipulating photos is an important part of the process of getting you to produce a great painting.

Personally, I don’t use a monitor, I use a TV. TVs are cheaper than monitors and you can get them as big as a house. I have a 32” Sony smart TV. Smart meaning it has WiFi capabilities. I use it with my computer but I don’t need to use any wires or because it streams the image wirelessly. This means my computer doesn’t even have to be in my studio. I can’t adjust the colours as much as I could if I had a monitor but then I can’t adjust the colours on a regular photo once it’s printed anyway.

Below are a few pros and cons for you to consider when deciding whether to paint from a printed photo or a monitor...

Monitor Pros

  • Once you have a monitor you don’t need to make prints of your photos any more and this can save you money in the long run.
  • The image is much bigger for you to paint from. You can make your reference picture almost as big as you want.
  • You can zoom in to get close ups and details if you need.
  • The colour is cleaner, brighter and stronger.
  • You can claim to be in the studio working and just watch hockey.

Monitor Cons

  • Monitors are hard to take to art class.
  • They cost a bit of money up front.
  • They take up space if you have a small studio.
  • You cannot test paint colour on a monitor the way you can on a photo. If you put a paint daub on the screen it just turns black.
  • If you need to put a grid on the picture the size you want is hard. On a monitor unless you know a thing or two about Photoshop, gridding is a pain.
  • Sometimes there is almost too much information. If you find it hard to divorce your self from the photo you’ll have a harder time with a monitor as there is even more information saturating your eyes.

Photo Pros

  • There is a tactile nature to photos that I love.
  • Being able to put the photo right next to your painting makes it easy to compare values.
  • Holding the photo and being able to get a close-up look is also wonderful. Monitors are always a bit too far away from your painting.
  • You can draw grids and paint right on the photo to make changes. Putting a small stroke of colour on a photo is a quick way to tell if your close to what you’re looking for in value or colour.
  • You can take photos to paint classes or workshops.

Photo Cons

  • Printing photos can be expensive. Unless you wait for Costco’s 10 cent sale the money you spend on prints tends to rack up.
  • Unless you’re ready to spend even more money, size is an issue.  I try to print my photos 5x7 rather than 4x6. I like the bit bigger format, as it’s easier to read. For really good photos (the money shots) I use 8x10 or 11x14 sizes.
  • Photos have a bit duller colours.

Notes on iPhones, iPads and other tablets.

Nothing is more annoying than trying to paint from an iPhone. The screen is just too small, it shuts off all the time and you can’t get it anywhere near your painting for a reference check. If you have to spend time fiddling with your phone to see your reference, you are taking away from the creative process and your painting will suffer.

Tablets can have the same problem. Unless you adjust the settings, they shut off every few minutes and if you have to put in your password to find your photo, well, forget it. It's too distracting, not to mention the temptation to respond to an email that just popped up. Tablets are hard to place next to your canvas. I haven’t found a device to prop up your iPad next to your canvas but if you can figure out a way than tablets are actually not too bad. Just remember to put it in airplane mode.

I use both printed photos and a monitor. I have thousands of printed reference photos and love going through the pile to see what the day will bring. I also have thousands of photos on my computer that I can use on my monitor. The larger format is very appealing to my older eyes. 

All that said, if I had my way I’d rather be outside swatting flies while painting from life.

Hope this helps. Leave me a comment below.

Your friend in art, 

Doug.

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