I was just reading Jerry Lebo’s blog, Sixty Minute Artist and this post scared me at first. Jerry’s talking about the limitations of photographs for expressing middle values, and the subtlety that is lost – and how painting from a photograph can be so third-hand – it loses something in the repeated translations.

But this paragraph encouraged me again:
a good painting has to convey something to the viewer–and a direct reproduction of photo is unlikely to provide the necessary information to convey that sensation. Another way to think about this is to consider paintings that you like–and compare them to photos you have seen of the same thing. For instance, would you prefer to see a Manet painting of a bowl of peaches—or a photo? What would it take to make a photo of peaches as interesting, or better, than a painting? As Edgar Payne says, “A pictorial representation (painting or photo) is always a translation.” The art is thus in the translation. So, if you are going to paint from photos—don’t rely entirely on the photo—think about the translation.

I paint from photographs. I have to. The climate and my lifestyle as a mom of three preschoolers makes 15-30 minute painting sessions all I can manage, and so painting indoors means I can paint whether it is snowing or dark, or both. The criticism of using reference photos has always bothered me, because at this point I don’t have a choice.

Recently however, I’ve come to the same conclusion as Jerry, and that is, if I am going to paint from reference photos, it should not be to copy them and strive for photorealism. My approach is to exaggerate the photograph – strengthen focal details, amp up the colors, and play to the strengths of the watercolor medium – lots of wet-in-wet and transparency.