Many artists take photographs in the course of their work, as a general aide memoir, or a reference to details that may be relevant later. Most now use a digital camera, where images may be later enhanced and analyzed by graphics programs on the computer.
But painting portraits from photographs alone is a different matter. Unless taken by professionals when a photographic aesthetic is interposed, markedly different from what makes a good oil painting photographs tend to flatten tones and colors. From photographs alone it is therefore difficult to identify the main tonal groupings, or to extract colors that will serve for interesting color schemes. Nonetheless, many artists do paint directly from photographs, and these services are widely advertised on the Internet. The fees are generally reasonable, and clients seem very satisfied. Should you offer this service yourself?
It goes without saying that you'll need to be a well-organized and competent craftsman. Capturing a likeness is essential, and that takes considerable skill, and can be frustrating and time-consuming if a likeness doesn't come off immediately. Some faces are inherently difficult, and there is always the vagary of the client's expectations. Subjects expect to appear in a favorable light, with a panache or kindly authority that is not always evident in the photographs submitted. Moreover, they expect a work of art, not a mere copy of the photograph, and that again means adding features accessories, background, telling hints of personality which can greatly add to the workload.
The conclusion? Try a few commissions with friends where results aren't critical before setting up your website or contacting a local gallery. Estimate costs of materials properly, and the time needed, including time not actually spent putting paint to canvas. It's a business you're entering, and you must treat it as such. If fees come out at $2/hour you may think your time better rewarded doing something else. But fees may be higher, or you may regard these early years as an apprenticeship, an investment towards becoming a celebrated portrait artist commanding very high fees in time. You just need to ask around, be realistic and do your sums properly.
The top illustration shows a detail from Domenico Tiepolo's 'An Oriental Encampment' (c. 1752. Landesmuseum. Mainz). Why does it appear so attractive? To answer that, first look at the tones, the second illustration. The first image has been exported into a simple graphics program (Paintshop Pro) and converted to a 256 grayscale image, a simple, one-click operation. You will note how vigorous is the drawing and the variety with which tones are distributed. Reducing the image to a black and white illustration will identify shapes, which are also revealing, though not illustrated here.
Now focus on the orange-red tunic of the figure in the foreground. It appears very localized, but is nonetheless harmonious, coexisting well with other colors. Part of the reason is the tone: it balances well with similar tones, as the second illustration indicates. But suppose we replace hues similar to its orange-red with vivid green, so that we can judge their full extend. Again, this is a one click operation, and the results (third illustration) are striking. Orange-red hues are widely distributed, are indeed one the foundations of color composition.
We can analyze further. What color are the stripes in the background awning a brownish green? Place the eyedrop tool on the color and check. Yes, but closer to brown than you'd suppose. They appear greenish by contrast, and the artist has again produced variety without upsetting the color scheme. Many other felicities of color can be explored by this approach (and would be apparent in a larger illustration). Tiepolo is inheriting not only his father's legendary color skills, but two hundred years of Venetian expertise.
What color scheme is being adopted in the detail? Broadly a split complementary: blue in opposition to yellow-orange, orange and orange-red. Suppose, however, that Tiepolo wanted to change this scheme, and perhaps make it closer to an analogous one. He replaces the blue with yellow-orange: fourth illustration. The loss is immediate: the figure doesn't stand out, and the surrounding colors look dull and uninteresting.
Primarily, you'll want to do these exercises with your own painting, to plan properly, and find solutions to problems. But you should also study celebrated works, particularly those with styles or subjects close to your own. So a word of warning. Copyright has become a complicated matter. If you scan large and complete photographs in books, or download whole images from gallery websites and store them on your computer you may (or may not: authorities disagree) be infringing copyright restrictions. If the work is for your private study, it's doubtful that anyone will complain, or even know. But if you're going to create slides for a talk at your local art club, publish the work on the Internet, or (worst of all) write a book, then you may need to take legal advice. Fees become payable for commercial ventures. Many deprecate these developments, arguing that national galleries were set up to give ready access to what was anyway bought with public funds, but galleries are increasingly under pressure to conduct themselves as businesses, and to capitalize on investments. Expect a tightening of copyright regulations as institutions respond to the Internet revolution.
But so far so good. Graphics programs are not expensive, and you can buy the slightly outdated but still perfectly satisfactory Version 6 of Paintshop Pro for $30 odd on eBay or other auctions of secondhand software. You will need to familiarize yourself with the main functions of the program, and work in good quality jpeg formats (not gif, which employs only 255 colors). But why not go further, and actually do much of the painting in digital form, only switching to oils for the final product?
Today, this is perfectly feasible, and good deal of advertising and illustration artwork is indeed done on the computer. But shouldn't oil painting be a fine art? Of course, but remember that the old masters generally had large workshops, with assistants to mix paints, scale up drawings, and do much of the basic painting, leaving only the maestro to finish the really difficult bits. No, your reservations will lie elsewhere: in the cost of what is currently available, and the dangers of short-circuiting the creative process.
To take the first. The produce artwork of any size you'll need a powerful computer, a digital camera, a decent-sized graphics tablet, good software and large color printers to run off your creations all which could sting you for several thousand dollars. Then you'll need to master the software programs, and apply your painting skills through the unfamiliar medium of a graphics tablet. Yes, it can be done design studios use this setup every day and costs are coming down even as better hardware is coming on to the market. Digital cameras are not essential: you can scan normal photographs. The new generation of computer tablets should be much cheaper and more portable. Wacom produce an excellent little graphics tablet and cut-down version of Painter software (Graphire & Painter Classic) for a combined price of $100. And you don't need your own printer: online bureaus will faithfully print your creations for a very modest fee. Undoubtedly the future lies in these directions, and anyone wishing to get ahead of the game might climb aboard now.
What about the creative side? Painting programs are strange creatures to work with, and results to date have not been wildly exciting. The work may reflected the limited skills of hobbyists, rather than the sustained efforts of serious painters, of course, as even the cheaper programs come with a wide array of tools. But it may also be that computer-assisted painting is inhibiting, preventing the natural interplay of hand, brain and eye that comes naturally with experience in any craft.
Time will tell. For the present it seems sensible to at least use electronic devices to facilitate the many purely mechanical aspects of oil painting, and to explore the new opportunities of electronic formats as time and funds permit.
Specific recommendations are given in the text. You may also find these useful:
1. 'Bruce Kaminsky: Painting Technique. Step-by-step instructions for painting portraits in oil and egg oil emulsion: shows the detail possible with this approach.'
2. 'How to Draw Life-Like Portraits from Photographs' by Lee Hammond. Northern Light Books. 1995. A simple approach, but one that works even for beginners
3. 'Step by Step Art Schools: Portraits' by Jack Buchan & Jonathan Baker. Hamlyn. 2001. Not for the professional or advanced amateur painter, and not advocating painting portraits from photographs, but a good introduction portrait painting techniques.
4. 'Painting Portraits in Oil from Photograph's by Johnnie Liliedahl. Video (NTSC format) 2000. A demonstration in ten easy steps: includes computer enhancement advice.
5. 'Painter 8 Wow Book' by Cher Threinen-Pendarvis. Coriolis Group. 2003. Examples of work and a very full guide to using the Painter program.
6. 'Digital Painting 101, Lesson 4: Layers'. Lifehacker. One of a series on digital art.
7. Paint my Photo Now. Commercial service at modest prices.