The Value of Painting from Life

I paint a lot of animals and wildlife, which largely requires the use of photographs. But I’ve found painting from life is invaluable for success in using photos for reference. The colors you see in real life are totally different from those in a photograph. We’ve all experienced being somewhere and taking a photo, then wanting to relive the moment once we’re home only to be disappointed with the image.

And THAT is one reason we paint, to capture the feel, the emotion beyond the image, to evoke the smells, the breeze, the sounds that we knew, that became the total experience beyond simply what the camera saw. This goal is something to remember when outside painting, focused intently on “capturing the light” of the moment. I want to capture the whole experience and express it in paint.

Painting landscapes helps in painting backgrounds for my wildlife paintings. Many times I’ll paint a landscape with the intent of using it as background reference for a studio painting. The painting idea of a chickadee in amongst some sunflowers may prompt a session outdoors painting sunflowers. The concept of bison on the plains may inspire a day spent painting out on the prairie, or in amongst the cottonwood trees.


These images illustrate how the plein air painting (upper), especially the sky on the right, served as inspiration for the background of the deer painting.

When doing a studio painting from photos I always strive to do one or two sketches from life first, whether they relate to the larger piece I’m doing or not. For one thing, they’re fun and no pressure. It helps set the mood and mental spirit for the larger painting, and loosens up the creative juices like playing the scales does for a pianist. You’ll find some of these for sale on my “Quick Sketch” page. I add new ones every so often if I don’t think I’ll need them later as reference for a larger painting.

So treat yourself to the pure joy of plein air painting as often as you can!

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