Paintings vs. Photographs: Which is Better?

The title of this article could hardly be more provocative – by asking this question in such a simple manner, it seems inevitable that strong views would spring up on both sides of the argument. Of course, both paintings and photographs have their merits; photographs provide instant snapshots of reality in a way that a painting could never hope to challenge. 

Whilst the simplicity, convenience, and ease-of-use of modern cameras make them ideal when such instant snapshots are needed, it is this same simplicity which makes a photograph far inferior to a painting when discussing which medium is most suitable for creating art.

This is not to say that a photograph cannot be fantastic artwork – there is no question that it can – a quick look at the value of the most expensive artworks sold at auction throughout 2020 demonstrates that there is little appetite for photographs amongst the world’s most dedicated art collectors.

Defining the Two Mediums

Before we go any further, it seems sensible to define each of these two artforms specifically. Amongst the many reasons to do this is the fact that art is easily transferable – photographs are regularly taken of well-known paintings, yet any photograph will never be as valuable as the painting which was its subject.

Likewise, although it is a much rarer occurrence, it is simple enough to create a painting based on an original photograph. It is much harder to justify the need to do this, although from the painter’s perspective a photograph is the ideal subject because they do not move, nor do they change over time.

What is a Painting?

Painting is perhaps the world’s most ancient artform. Simple zig-zag patterns have been found which date back over 100,000 years, although the earliest known complex paintings are much newer than this at roughly 40,000 years. These early paintings were found on the walls of caves and often portray plants, animals, and humans who are in many cases, seemingly in the process of hunting.

Okay, so paintings are old – but how do we define a painting itself? Any solid surface on which somebody has applied paint can be described as a painting. Taking a look at the paintings collection of many modern galleries and museums, canvas has undoubtedly been the most popular media used throughout the last few centuries – although canvas is not required for a painting to be defined as such. 

What is a Photograph?

Photographs are created by gathering light using a camera to create an image. The first cameras used polished copper plates, which allowed Paris resident Louis Daguerre to take the first known photograph of other people in 1838 (shown below). Later iterations used paper coated with salt and silver nitrate, a predecessor to 20th century film and resulted in a “negative” which could be used to create multiple copies of each photograph.

Until the late 1990s the term “photograph” was almost always used to refer to the final images produced from a negative which was printed onto paper. As digital photography became more popular, the term “photograph” (or the shorthand, “photo”) began to be used to describe the original representation of digital art – such as when being viewed on a device, digital camera or smartphone. Digital art has now grown in popularity as technology has changed. Artists are able to manipulate their photographs now, even creating transparent background images.

It seems relevant to mention that early photographs were always black and white – the first color photographs were produced in 1861, but cameras which could produce them were prohibitively bulky and expensive for several decades.

Image source

Why Paintings are Superior as Artwork

Paintings allow artists infinitely more creative freedom when compared to photography. For example, lets imagine two artists going out to create a landscape of a river at the base of a mountain. The photographer might get there and find the weather completely unsuitable for his task, whilst the painter can sit down and use his imagination to alter some aspects of what he sees to create a more useful or attractive image.

If absolute duplication of reality is all that matters then photography will always be superior to painting, but as far as artworks are concerned, this is rarely the number one priority.

If we switch to thinking about portraits next, then a photograph can seem to be the ideal medium – it doesn’t require the subject to sit still for an extended period, and a portrait is often intended as a means of recording the way someone looks at a particular point in time.

On the other hand, early kings and queens would likely have been horrified by the prospect of “having their picture taken”. Removing the artist’s ability to change aspects of the final portrait as the subject desires would make photography instantly unappealing to many such people, who would likely have ordered such photographs be destroyed if they were unhappy with them.

The ability to apply creative freedom to the result of a painting is far superior artistically to any technique that could be used in a darkroom or on a computer to manipulate the look of a photographic image. 

As we continue our progress towards an advanced civilization, photography is an amazing invention which allows us to capture the world around us more regularly and in more detail than painting can ever produce. At the same time, the ability of painting to give creative freedom to artists becomes more valuable than ever, too. The one-off nature of a painting – and, in turn, the ease with which a photograph can be duplicated – guarantees that paintings will always have greater value than photographs.


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