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The Argument for Painting From Life

Heather Martin

A lot of people ask, “Why is it so important to paint directly from life, when you could easily just snap a photo?”. So I've been chewing on the question, trying to put it into words why I insist on painting an ever-changing subject with challenging obstacles, vs simply freezing time and painting at my own leisure. Am I just a masochist? Probably.

But consider it like experiencing a song from the front row of a live band, vs. hearing it from a crappy CD in a 2004 toyota Corolla (If that’s your car, *HIGHFIVE* it’s mine too). It just doesn’t compete. With the live musicians, you can FEEL the vibrations, and SEE the energy and motion the players are putting into the music. The audience is excited, leaning in to the music. All your senses are firing, and it becomes a true experience. 

Let’s go back to February of this year (2019). I had brought one of my friends Charity Anderson to one of my favorite spots on a hill top of Lime Ridge near a grouping of eucalyptus trees. Just looking at this image brings back so many memories. The sounds of the leaves shimmering in the strong cold winds, and the smell of the air. 

The cold and powerful winds were invigorating (to put it kindly), and I remember painting furiously...partly as a distraction, and to keep warm. I can still see Charity bundled up with her hood tightly wrapped around her head, hopping around to get the blood flowing. Using the energy from the wind, and seeing the swaying of the leaves, and longing for that warm sunshine was truly a huge part of this piece. I was able to dissect patterns and colors, and make the scene into my own creation. 

By painting from life, everyday objects start to seem more beautiful. It's given me a greater appreciation for life's simple pleasures. You start to look closely at all the colors and reflected light. Once I realized this, I was unstoppable and painting any and everything around me (much to my husband’s annoyance).

Not only is everything just more spectacular in person, but it creates a strong memory. This is great news if you're like me, because my memory is TERRIBLE. Photos are good and all, but by painting the object, one is able to feel the form. You can see each individual leaf, and how the colors change at different angles in the sun. You'll know the height of the grass, or the silhouette of a flower. You'll remember who you were with, the conversations with strangers, the feel of the sunshine. 

Looking back at this painting from May 2018, I’m instantly transported to the Yerba Buena Gardens with some friends. It was my last day at my job in the games industry before leaving to go into the mysterious fine art world. My friend, Fiona was taking part in our daily “lunch-sketch” and I just loved the way her new shiny shoes were flipping on and off her feet. It felt like freedom, youth, and happiness. There’s no way I would get these same feelings if I were to paint them from a photo.

Or going back to January, 2018, this painting of my late grandfather is easily one of the most significant ones I’ve ever done. Painting each faded framed photo, and all of the items of the desk felt like I had tenderly touched and held each item. I remember him eating his packed lunch, staring out the window on a snowy January day. His office was covered with tiny meaningful objects, from the dancing hula girl in the window, to the stuffed teddy bear. 

Even still-lifes can leave a lasting impact. These yellow lilies were some left-overs from a bouquet, and I remember picking those philodendron leaves from our front yard (more like brutally sawing them off with a steak knife). It honestly makes me heavy-hearted looking at it, because it reminds me of my dog that passed away the day before, and I remember just painting it to find a relief from sadness. Side note: I later found out that lilies are extremely toxic to cats. The pollen alone can kill them, so I won’t be painting these anymore inside.

On the flip side, photos aren’t evil, and painting from life isn’t the be-all and end-all. If you paint from a photo, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to tell. And if I painted from one, you might not be able to tell either. Photos can be a great tool when looking for unique compositions or angles (If you were to scroll through my phone you'd see hundreds of pictures of the same subject from slightly different angles).

Sometimes I use a photo as a reference for a specific pose of one of the fidgety animals, and try to paint the colors and mood from them in person. These snapshots can be a great resource, so over time I’m experimenting and working to use them to my advantage. In the future, a goal is to use them in combination with a more attuned memory. 

But in the end, I think I will always prefer painting directly from life, and just writing this post is a strong reminder of why. Each painting tells a story, and is a part of who I am as a person, and represents a chunk of my life. Selfishly speaking, the collection of work is a visual journal, and at the very least, it brings me happiness looking back at them and thinking of that moment.

So next time you see another work from life, try to look and FEEL what the artist is experiencing. Let the painting take you to that moment and place. Hopefully now you’ll have a greater appreciation for painting from life.


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