Thought Leadership

OFF-TOPIC: Painted vs photographic images

By Colin Walls

Photography is a big interest of mine and, hence, a topic that I talk about here from time to time. Today I am pondering the relationship between photography and painting; in particular when thinking about portraits.

Before photography was invented, the only way to make a record of anything you saw was to draw or paint it. Obviously the quality and fidelity of that record is dependent on the artist’s skill and eyesight. Professional artists were hired by those with money to paint views and portraits. They were concerned for their wellbeing with the advent of photography. Of course, initially photography was almost exclusively monochrome, but full color was not too long coming along. Very quickly, even people of modest means could have portraits of their loved ones.

What about nowadays? Every day more photographs are taken than on the day before [this observation has been true for many decades]. It has never been cheaper or easier to obtain images. Is there still a place for people who paint, particularly portrait artists?

There are certainly many people who enjoy painting and it is still possible to commission portraits. However, it is now most common for portrait artists to work from a photograph [or from several]. This disturbs me because I really wonder what they achieve. My thinking goes like this: We live in a 4-dimensional world – 3 spacial dimensions and time. A photograph is a 2-dimensional representation of that world. This differs from, say, a painted portrait made from life. In this case the artist can view the sitter from numerous perspectives and spends quite some time with them; they have the opportunity to integrate this additional information into the final work. In most cases this integration is quite subtle, but I have seen many painted portraits that do have a mysterious “life” to them. Artists who practice cubism use a technique to try to show their subject from several viewpoints at once in a very explicit way. Of course, an artist can choose to paint/draw someone in a style that is different from what they really see – a caricature for example; that definitely adds value.

So, where does this leave photography? Is it just a means of recording what is there? The answer is that it can be just that. However, there is plenty of room for creativity. A good photographer [IMHO] does not simply photograph what is there – they photograph what they see, which might be something else altogether. Creating that vision may be any combination of choosing/creating the light, choosing a viewpoint/angle and work on the image after capture.

So, are photographic portraits worthwhile? Of course they are. A good portrait photographer will apply the skills I mentioned above and may produce some outstanding results. The rest of us take snaps and enjoy them and that is fine. But maybe I can offer a couple of tips. Here is a picture of my wife, Libby, that I took a few years ago:

It is a very relaxed, casual shot, taken on vacation. Libby particularly likes the image and I think that I know why. It is a reflection in a window. This means that she is seeing herself in a familiar way, as she would in a mirror. I believe this is why many people do not like being photographed. I must do a controlled experiment to test this theory …

Another issue I have encountered is that, regardless of their attractiveness, some people photograph well [Have you heard the phrase “the camera loves them”?] and others do not. Again I have a theory. People’s faces are in constant motion, with expressions changing very quickly. Some people do this more than others and I believe that you are more likely to capture a less attractive image of such a person. A solution might be to not take a single picture, but a burst of images; perhaps one will capture them at their best. Again, I need to experiment. Leave it with me.

Leave a Reply

This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at