Photographs vs. Reality

As I am unable to bring the bird specimens home with me (smell + two cats = recipe for disaster) I had to come up with an alternative plan for working on my bird portraits from home today. Unfortunately, the solution was photographs.

I have worked from photos for a large part of my academic career; however,  having abandoned this practice in favor of working from life, photos just don’t do it for me any longer.

Several professors over the years have said how superior working from life is to working from photos but, as most students do, I let this go in one ear and out the other because, lets face it – photos are convenient and often provide that which is logistically difficult otherwise.

But, as usual, my professors were right. I do think there is a lot of value in having photo references, and as students become more skilled and develop personal styles and ways of handling media the use of photos becomes less and less problematic. Despite this, working from life provides a view point that simply cannot be obtained from a photograph.

As a photographer I understand that internal light meters, exposure, shutter speed, and aperture all dictate how the camera captures the light of any giving subject and that the product only presents one very specific version of reality. This is great for achieving a document of positioning, shadow, and mood so that we can come back to our compositions over an extended period of time.

Our eyes do all of the things a camera does (and more) all at once so there are no limitations in our perception of color or light or detail. This is remarkably more efficient than photography.

Today I worked from a photograph to finish my eighth bird in the series. Because the bird in the photograph is no longer in my possession, using a photo makes sense but the difference was astounding to me.

The photo was very clear, making it easy to reference detailed feathers, but the experience was completely different and the product does not have the depth and “life” of the others. When I draw I build up the form from the skin up, increasing the softness of the graphite as I go (generally 4-5 layers). During this process, the birds sort of come alive again (god, how sappy is that!?).

Cedar Waxwing (drawn from photo reference)

Each layer of graphite that goes down brings me closer to an understanding and connection with the specimen that I’m working with. When I’m working from life I feel as though I’m channeling some historic explorer, sketching an unknown discovery with as much adoration and attention to detail as possible.

Carolina Wren (drawn from life)

I’m looking forward to clearer roads and the ability to work in the studio again… working from home just isn’t the same, and neither is working from photos.


    1. It’s funny – I always thought that when someone said they could tell the difference they were full of shit. After 9 years of art school I finally get it. I guess that so long as the revelation comes, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: