Pastel Pointers with Richard McKinley – The Limits of Photography for Painters

Pastel Field Sketch by Richard McKinleyAs I was cleaning out the other day, I ran across a page from an article I’d saved from a February 2006 issue of Time Magazine. The article, “Twilight of the Bad Boy,” was about artist David Hockney. Many years ago, I was fortunate to see an exhibit of his work in the Los Angeles County Art Museum and have been interested in his various projects since then. As I reviewed the single saved page, I was reminded of what had caught my attention. It was his feelings about the shortcomings of photography when it comes to representing the visible world. “The camera can’t see space,” he says. “It sees surfaces. People see space, which is much more interesting.”

Hockney’s point is the crux of why so many of us expound on the importance of observation and painting from life. When we work one-on-one with our subject matter, we perceive space and attempt to portray it within our artwork. When we work solely from the photograph, we can easily forget to interject that perception. This is especially true for the beginner. The efforts to master a medium can lead to an over-dependence on photographic reference and ultimately produce flat uninteresting outcomes. While it can prove helpful in the beginning to copy photographic reference material, it is imperative, as technical progress is made, to interject the human perception of space.

As the days grow longer and the beginnings of Spring draw many of us out from the confines of our studios, it is time again for the landscape painter to venture forth in pursuit of subject. For some, this will entail long sessions painting directly from nature, en plein air. For many, it will be small field sketches and notations in sketchbooks that may become the impetus for larger studio works. For others, it will entail quiet time spent in sensitive observation, allowing all of the human senses to interact with nature. Photography may play its part but ultimately must be overridden when used as reference. Otherwise, the final painting will only be an artificial representation of surfaces, as Mr. Hockney points out.
Photography is a useful tool. I have and will continue to use it as a reminder when working in the studio (and I have offered tips for making the most of camera technology in previous posts). It is also a valid form of artistic expression in and of itself. Even though David Hockney explained its shortcomings, he has used it for some of his most well received pieces of artwork, like his large photographic mosaics. The key is that he understands its limitations and has never forgotten the importance of human perception when it comes to representing the visible world” around us.


This article was excerpted from the blog Pastel Pointers with Richard McKinley, which is sponsored and operated by F+W Media and the Pastel Journal. Access to the blog is available through Pastel Journal's website at

Reprinted with Permission from F+W Media.  © F+W Media, 2012