Painting from Life vs. Photographs: Pros and Cons of Different Approaches to Portrait Painting


Portrait painting is an art form that has been around for centuries, and it continues to be popular today. One of the most common debates in portrait painting is whether it is better to paint from life or from photographs. Both approaches have their pros and cons, and it ultimately comes down to personal preference and the artist’s skill level.

Painting from life involves setting up a life sitting with the subject, where the artist can observe them in person and paint directly from what they see. This approach offers the advantage of capturing the subject’s unique personality, subtle nuances, and subtle shifts in light and shadow. However, painting from life can also be challenging, as the subject may move, get tired or become unavailable. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of each approach to help you make an informed decision.

Painting from Life

Painting from life involves setting up a still life or having a live model pose for the artist. This approach allows the artist to see the subject in three dimensions and capture the nuances of their appearance in a way that photographs simply cannot replicate.


  • The artist can see the subject’s true colors and values in different lighting conditions. This is important because photographs can sometimes distort colors and values.
  • The artist can see the subject from different angles and capture unique expressions and poses that may be lost in a photograph.
  • Painting from life allows the artist to engage with the subject and create a more personal and meaningful piece.


  • Painting from life can be time-consuming and require the subject to pose for long periods of time.
  • The subject may not be available for multiple sessions, making it difficult to complete the painting.
  • The artist must work quickly to capture the subject’s likeness before they move or the lighting changes.

Painting from Photographs

Painting from photographs involves using a photograph as a reference for the painting. This approach is popular among artists who want to capture a moment in time or recreate a specific scene.


  • Painting from a photograph allows the artist to work at their own pace and take as much time as needed to complete the painting.
  • Photographs can be taken from different angles and in different lighting conditions, allowing the artist to choose the best reference photo for their painting.
  • The artist can use multiple reference photos to create a composite image that captures the subject’s likeness in the best possible way.


  • Photographs can sometimes distort colors and values, making it difficult to capture the subject’s true appearance.
  • The artist is limited to the composition and angle of the photograph, which may not be the most flattering or interesting.
  • Painting from a photograph can feel impersonal and lack the personal connection that comes from painting from life.

Which approach is better?

As mentioned earlier, it ultimately comes down to personal preference and the artist’s skill level. Some artists prefer to paint from life because they enjoy the challenge and the personal connection with the subject. Other artists prefer to paint from photographs because it allows them to work at their own pace and choose the best reference photo for their painting.

In conclusion, both approaches to portrait painting have their pros and cons, and it is up to the artist to decide which approach is best for them. Regardless of the approach chosen, it is important to practice and hone one’s skills to create the best possible portrait.


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