Should Artists Paint Directly from Life Anymore?

John Singer Sargent, An Out of Doors Sketch, oil

Friday night I drove down to the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD to hear Peter Trippi, the Editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, who had just judged the paintings that came in from the Plein Air Easton event. He spoke about each of his selections for prizes. But he also addressed bigger concerns from the point of view of an enthusiast of observational realism in painting. He argued against the misconception that painting by direct observation of nature produces nothing more than a photograph-like copying of reality.

Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD

As a someone committed to "painting from life" for over four decades I know it has changed the way I look at the world. Try an experiment: stare closely at a photo. Then raise your gaze and look out a window at perhaps the cars on the street outside. What you see through the panes of glass is overwhelming to the eye. You're now taking in tens or hundreds of times the number of "pixels" of visual information than you saw in the photo.

To make sense of it, your brain has no choice but to take in only a small fraction of the mountain of information out there. And here's where the creativity comes in- no two people are going to notice the same features. One can pretty much copy in paint what one sees in a photograph. But when painting by observing real life one has left the realm of just reporting and entered the more mysterious, and challenging, terrain of interpretation

 Here are two highly inventive paintings based at least in part on direct observation. First a Winslow Homer watercolor from 1874 of a man fishing in a small boat. It's fascinating to see Homer swim through the torrent of possibilities and show us only a few favored ideas.

He had become fascinated with the silhouette of the man's head and shoulders and focuses the viewers' eyes there. The playful ripples, so enjoyable in the immediate foreground, are banished from the water on the far side of the skiff. Homer wisely didn't want to distract you from tracing the outer contours of the fisherman. He's also deleted almost all details and folds in the man's jacket. 

Here's another boat painting by (OK, no surprise here to you regular readers of my blog) Edward Hopper.

It's  Dories at Ogunquit from 1914. To paint it Hopper wedged himself down between the rocks of this narrow cove, yet he all but glosses over their particulars as it's the boats and far distance he wants to tell the story.

Direct observation in painting offers no guarantee as the mountains of less than successful realist paintings attest. But in other hands, like Homer's and Hopper's, working from their direct experiences of nature took them to a place more selective, more subjective, and more personal.


  1. Phil I do not disagree with what you say above as painting from direct observation can only enhance ones work and view of the world.I often work from my sketches done plein air as reference for finished studio paintings. But I also find value in photos as reference to refresh my recollection of a scene. How ever there needs to be care taken when referring to photos as they can be over used and should be seen as a tool like any other source.
    So I do tend to disagree with what you say about painting just from a photo that "One can pretty much copy in paint what one sees in a photograph". I think it takes a little more skill and ability than that. Just as it takes many years and a great deal of skill to train ones self to paint plein air.
    Hope all is well with you and enjoyed the above blog !

  2. I'm basically with Phil Carrol on this too. Although I think you were trying to make your point and you did that with the last paragraph.
    I certainly think an artist MUST look at the real world and work from it (plein air) or at least observe and learn HOW to see. But I have always seen it as simply another way, a certain discipline, subject to its own pitfalls just as working from photos or even our imaginations.

    I know for me many of my subjects can't be painted or even quick sketched from life whether they are too complicated or I can't gain access to them so I need photos as an aid, a tool as Phil Carrol says.
    Schooled as an illustrator we learned how to use them without being overly reliant on them, again another artistic discipline.

    Although not in the case of your work and many other astute artists I find all too often most plein air art to be what I would call 'fair weather art' meaning done on pleasant days and in the middle part of the day.
    I suspect part of its recent popularity to be as much about the socializing and the event itself and less about what the artist has to say.

    So really what I'm saying, and I think you too, it has to first start with the artist knowing how to see and actually having something to say otherwise it's just a pretty picture.

  3. Good comments both from Phil Carroll and David Teter!
    I teach at MICA and very often see excellent work done from photo sources by young artists who have first had extensive experience "working from life."


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