Thursday, September 27, 2012

Drawing from photos

I've noticed something interesting, and I thought I would run it past the Picnickers who are into photography. I've found that there is a distinct difference in appearance, in "tone," between the drawings I've made from photos of ordinary people, and great master painters, and the ones made from photos from modern magazines.

In learning to draw formally in a studio, a great deal of time is spent copying "from the flats," as it is called by instructors. That is, from 2D depictions of objects, usually casts of famous Classical and Renaissance statues.

Outside the studio, I have amassed a collection of art books with good black and white and colour photographs of those statues, both by the Ancients and the great Italian masters. Drawing practice from these is a great pleasure and always presents some new thing to learn and perfect. Somewhat less frequently, I also use photographic reproductions of master paintings, and making "master copies" is a big part of classical instruction.

In drawing the figure, I'm currently doing a little practice project in my book recommended by one of the online drawing people. Drawing 100 noses, 100 eyes (or pairs of eyes), 100 hands, 100 legs etc. The idea is to become so familiar with the structure of these that they become almost automatic, so when drawing from a live model I can cut down on the time it takes to produce a likeness. It's quite fun actually, and I might put a few up and make a contest out of it: "Name that nose".

I've always known that a lot of drawing practice involves copying from flats. Everyone used to start off with the Bargues, a set of lithographs, and so we still do. And I am given to understand that in some places (that should know better) all the drawing instruction that is offered is the kind that involves taking a page out of a magazine, drawing a grid on it and copying from the grid. But this latter always seems to produce a much inferior quality of work.

As well, for some years I thought a convenient way to learn figure drawing, at least to learn the basic human proportions, would be to practice using photos from fashion magazines. They may not help you produce great art, but at least you could become adept at rendering the human form, correct proportions, etc. But now, having tried it a few times, I find that there is something about most fashion photography that produces a strange quality to the drawings. I suppose it is true that you could use fashion photos effectively, if you had no other source (living on, say, Mars) and wanted to learn to render the figure. But they have such an air of unreality about them that the drawings have an oddly unnatural feel. I don't know how to describe it better than that.

What I was wondering about, and would like to hear from our photography readers, is what about that kind of photography produces this strangely flattened effect.



a Christopher said...

Hmmm... there is the ... technological factor. How long this has been going on I can't be sure, but even film/emulsion photographers had similar tricks, whose names have descended into their digital analogues.

There's a disparity of final end as well: the end of a fashion magazine is, ultimately, to inspire enough readers to buy more things. They are not about portraying the real, but a fantasy; but even leaving that aside, they are not about the figure as much as about the wares.

And I expect there's some import from the magazine medium itself: fashion magazine photos are captured with magazine printing in mind. To take a contrasting example, National Geographic is a magazine whose printing is engineered to deliver photographs well, and the reader pays for it. Any copy of National Geographic is archival quality, much to the chagrin of anyone who has a heap they're never going to read again. A fashion photo has to print well in a much-less-careful shop, on flimsier paper, in higher volume. I think.

I don't think I've held an actual fashion magazine since art classes in high school, so maybe things are changed on the material side of things.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I had a subscription to NG as a kid, and like everyone else, couldn't bear to throw them away. It's always the same with that particular magazine, people don't throw it out and collect huge piles of them. I went to a swap n' shop once, and a guy was selling NGs from his dad's collection that went back to the turn of the century.

tubbs said...

But why do I find Chuck Close' work so fascinating?

Mark S. Abeln said...


There are considerable differences between how a person sees the world, and how a camera captures the same scene. Off the top of my head, these differences are notable:

- The eye automatically subtracts out the color of light, so it is possible to identify many colors even under varying light sources. Cameras must do this after the fact, and they aren’t too particularly good at it, and so you often see an overall color tone.

- Cameras typically can only capture about 35% of the colors that the human eye can see. Missing are nearly all of the pure spectral colors along with intense purples and spectral indigo and violet. Good saturated cyans are impossible to capture, as well as many shades of green. Color accuracy isn’t very good overall. Digital cameras also lack a good range of dark colors, and so shadows tend to be black or gray with little color. Artists instead insist that shadows ought to be strongly colored.

- If a color is out-of-gamut, it get forced to one of the digital primary or secondary colors, making brightly colored digital images overemphasize these.

- Cameras can only capture a small range of brightness compared to the eye. Anything beyond that narrow range gets forced to either white or black. In particular, shadows appear much darker in a digital image compared to real life.

- As colors get brighter, there is a tendency for digital to shift the colors, like turning blue skies cyan, as the blue color channel becomes overexposed.

- Digital camera apply tone curves to the image data. This causes bright textures to be flattened out. Overcast days may have interesting cloud textures, but cameras typically force these to be featureless and dull.

I do lots of special camera work and processing on the computer to bring out good shadow and highlight texture and color, as well as added visual sharpness. I’ve learned a lot from painters: ideally, they must compress a vast range of tone and color into a single image that looks plausible and attractive. With my best work, I’m often told that they “look like a painting.”

Your instinct is correct: copying photographs will give you a distinctly different final drawing than copying from life.

Anonymous said...

This might be an oversimplification, but I thought that fashion pictures were often taken from a low vertical position to make legs look longer.
-Greg Williams