Is it ART to do a 1:1 copy of a photo?

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LisaPannek's avatar
Hello guys,

this is a topic I always wanted to talk about, and - of course - I know, my opinion is debatable. I updatet this text after some good comments and discussions where other people found better words for what I tried to say.

In my opinion, drawing someone else's photo 1:1 is no art, but a good exercise. It is craftsmanship, but there is no creative process in that. You can train your sleight of hand and working with your materials. But you do not have to contemplate about light, the composition - the photographer did it already. The photographer made all the artistical decisions, how you see something -THAT you see this and nothing but this. For me, these decisions are a huge amount of what is art and creativity. If every painter would copy photos, the only creative people would be the photographers, and we would see every picture a second time.

Another disadvantage is that you can recognize if something is drawn from a photo: For example, a bird is seen in profile and the primaries lay folded on the tail feathers. The end of the hinder wing is darker and partly covered by the anterior wing - on the photo you only see something dark above the tail feathers and you draw it as something dark above the tail feathers - not as the primaries of the hinder wing. Do you understand? ;) You will never learn something about the anatomy, the thing, because the photo releases you from thinking about what you see on it.

The last point is, and this is completely incomprehensive for me, that you copy the work of another artist - and you do not mention them. There are exceptions who mention the artist of the original - Thank you for that! - but that is the smaller part.

But there are solutions. The first point: You make your photo references on your own. Of course this is difficult if you would like to draw a snowy leopard, but it is a solution to avoid the problems with author's rights and the lack of conception of an object, because you can watch and understand it in real life, from different angles. And of course, you can determine the composition on your own. This is a creative performance. For this purpose I have a huge library of photos on my PC I made at zoos and excursions.

Another solution: You are an artist? So be creative! You can add or exclude things, backgrounds, objects. Make this motive your own. Use different pictures and create an object of them. This is a technique I often use for bird drawings of birds I have never seen in real life, like the Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill or the Northern Flicker. I look at about 50 or 100 photos of the bird so I can imagine it from all angles. When I have decided about the pose and light, I look for photos that are similar to the picture I want to draw. In the end I have about 3 to 10 photos I work with, but you would not be able to say which I used exactly.

The more I work as a professional illustrator, the more I learn: It is a super advantage to have the object you are drawing right under your nose. If I work with dried bird specimens (for example), I can turn them around, change the light, take a closer look at them. What is the colour of the underwing coverts? Can I see the beak from another angle, please? No Problem. When you watch living animals, they are moving all the time, and you just freeze the posture you like to have on your paper. You choose how you like to show something, no photographer.

If you start to proceed this way, you will learn anatomy and (example: birds) feather topography very fast, because you learn to see. Wonderful objects to start with are shells from snails and mussels, they are not moving and have very interesting structures. And here starts the creative process, the individual style: What do you see, what is important to you? The structure itself or the tiny little scratches on the shell? You decide, and no decision is wrong, because it is your way to see. Later you ask yourself: Why is this structure this way and not different? Can you analyze, how the shell is growing, and what function some structures have? Then you are on a point of understanding. And if you understand the priciple, you can change it however you like. This is how I draw birds, I construct them.

Of course, photos can be useful and support your work in many ways. And if you like to draw the dog of your aunt for christmas - I would take a photo, too, so the dog is really looking like this dog and drawing gets faster (there is enough other stuff to do before christmas)... :) But to improve your style of art, your knowledge and your brain, you need more than making an expensive copy of a photo - a picture that isn't new and already there.

Perhaps you like to discuss this topic below? I am curious if you would agree or think completely different about it!

© 2017 - 2021 LisaPannek
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DerMonkey's avatar
Studies very valuable and necessary, yet should be declared as such. As you learn about a subject, you'll acquire more knowledge about the inner workings of it: the construction, the volume, the texture etc. This all contributes to a mental image library which you can then constantly apply to your original work.

However i don't think there is any shame in looking at reference when not sure about details. ;)
asio-otus-otus's avatar

At the beginning of learning to draw it is ok to copy photos 1:1. It is the same our ancestors did years ago. Like Albrecht Dürer. He had to copy the arts of his master before he was allowed to do his own work. They learned: how did Master draw this?

If you copy photos, you shouldn’t only draw, better you ask yourself questions while drawing.

Real birds are difficult to draw. They’re too bustling. It is difficult to see exactly each feather. (I’m thinking of a small bird, like a great tit.)

I’ve seen many zoological specimens that doesn’t look like the real one. It is often the expression or the gesture that doesn’t fit. So you can also learn wrong things of the specimens. Another point: the color of the specimens become pale and the glance of the feathers is gone. (The good specimens are closed away, because they’re too valuable to show them to everyone.)

And dried specimens are also artworks! A work of an artist!

In my opinion you should have seen the species you want to draw in real before, to know how they act and behave.

I think, copy photos 1:1 is ok at the beginning of learning. You also can use/copy photos to create your own work. Like you do this with specimens.




Lambity's avatar
I've been trying to put into words this concept that it is so necessary to focus on what you're actually learning from the photo rather than just copying it (drawing from life is always better but sometimes not an option). Your explanation helped me a lot with that! Thank you for sharing!!
Foxofwonders's avatar
I agree, though I think most people who draw exclusively from photos are people who have only just started drawing and want to see some results quickly to keep themselves motivated.
Skudde's avatar
Virtualysis kinda nailed it there. Not everyone has access to real bird specimens, so photos can be the only way to learn. You're also making a lot of assumptions about the artist by saying they'd 1) literally copy the photo instead of making tweaks and adjustments based on their own knowledge and interests, 2) wouldn't understand the anatomy of the topic, 3) would only be interested in learning anatomy from trying to replicate a photo - instead of the other aspects of creating art - and your biggest mistake: 4) that art is defined by its originality.

Yes, the photographer did the work for composition and lighting, but what if those are exactly the things the artist tries to learn? The photo also has texture, proportions and colors - all things a good painter must learn to do and the only way to learn is to study real life or photos. What if they aspire to be a hyperrealistic painter in the future but are kind of stuck trying to learn their craft through studying photos for now?
You're stomping down the idea of tracing photos entirely as a learning tool, which is quite uninformed honestly. All the compositions I had to paint and draw during my school years could have just as well been photos (a statue, a model, a tray of fruit with lamps to create lighting) and I learned a ton about the tools and the subject.

Birds are complicated and I agree that you can't learn everything about their detailed anatomy by copying photos, but photos can be one tool in the pool of many and not all subjects are as difficult to grasp. Not all subjects also need to be grasped in such detail and one can do fine just learning how they look instead of how they work - or do you really expect me to do a year long study on apples just so that I'm allowed to illustrate them without you stamping my work as "not art". See that's the kicker here.

Crediting the photographer in case of publishing your work is part of the deal. Those who don't do it, should.
vireosy's avatar
I don't necessarily mean this as a counterpoint, but more as an addition? Working from a photograph is a good exercise for improving technical skills—more as a means to practice with a medium than anything else. Of course it's better to work from life/with your own content, but I don't think you necessarily need to discount copying photos in their entirety. It's a tool similar to tracing—something that can be helpful when used correctly, in moderation, and more for studies/exercises than finished pieces. I mean, you mention craftsmanship, and sometimes that's all you want to work on improving at the moment.

But I largely agree with you, I think. If you want to learn anatomy and form through photos, you're putting yourself at a severe disadvantage. On the other hand, I understand that sometimes photos are all you can access, which can be frustrating, but work with what you can.

Either way, it's definitely best to credit photographers.
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