Tuesday, November 11

How I Paint From a Reference Photo

Today’s Image

Last blog I wondered if the Impressionists would have used reference photos, and I decided that, yes, they would have, considering photography was brand new in that era. I also said I’d be discussing my own process for painting from a reference photo, so here goes. Today’s Image is my acrylic painting—North of Goleta-- painted from the reference photo overlooking the Pacific (north of Goleta, CA, and shown in my last blog).

I said I wouldn’t really call it a process (my painting from a reference photo, that is), but more like working in the moment. But, first things first. When I began drawing and painting again in 2007, I started by looking for interesting, inspiring, art-worthy subjects that caught my eye in photographs in magazines, brochures, and online mostly. I just mainly wanted to draw or paint subjects that would help me to renew and sharpen my drawing and painting skills. Most were paintings I did for my own education and enjoyment.

After I decided I might want to try to show my artwork at shows, festivals, galleries, or whatever, I decided to ask a professional artist for advice on reference photos. His advice: if you’re going to submit your artwork in shows, etc, you, as the artist, should also be the photographer of the reference photo used for the painting. Otherwise, your rendering would actually be a copy of the image as seen and photographed by someone else. I believe the key point is that if you submit artwork for ‘public’ viewing, it should be entirely your own—your imagination, your subject, your viewpoint, and your style and rendering.

That said, you do have a great deal of latitude in the outcome of your work. If you took the photo yourself, you were obviously there (at least physically, let’s hope!), so you also have a lot of ‘information’ about what was happening in the moment that may not show in the photo. For example, you know the time of year and time of day and what the day (or night) lighting was like even if the photo shows something different. You may also be aware of the dynamics of the situation, and can add, if appropriate, potential action or anything else not apparent in the photo. So remember you have a lot of freedom when painting from a reference photo.

So what do I do?
  • First and foremost, select your reference photo carefully as this determines the motif for your painting.
  • Second, and you probably have already decided this, choose the medium (and I’m assuming either acrylic or oil, but could also be pastel or other) and support (canvas, linen, paper, etc).
  • In this digital age I’m assuming you’re using your digital camera and printer, so scan or download your photo, then print it out in as large a format your printer allows.
  • Next carefully study the photo to determine if it looks the way you remember or if you need to mentally (or digitally) crop the photo to better focus on the subject or subjects. Your art instincts should tell you where your viewer will enter and move around the painting.
  • This is important—be aware that the colors on your computer screen and/or the colors printed out on your printer may or may not match what you viewed and experienced, so decide what, if any, changes you want to make now.
  • After considering the color effect of the photo, select your palette; you may already have a standard one you always use no matter what the subject, or you may want to (or have to) add/ subtract/change hues as you deem necessary for what you want to portray.
  • Next, think back to the time or even the moment in which you took the reference photo—what were you trying to capture in the photo; how were you feeling or what was your state of mind; think about your subject—if inanimate, how was it situated (lighting, perspective, etc), if a living thing, what was it’s demeanor, etc? Determine what in the photo makes it art-worthy for painting.
  • Then sketch the major elements on your support (as you normally would).
  • Now, remembering the time at which the photo was taken and using your natural or a selected style, paint deliberately and boldly from the reference photo; keep in mind any element, or elements, you want to emphasize or de-emphasize; likewise, determine if you want the color values of your painting to match that of your reference photo, or do you want to change them to be more or less true to the moment?
  • Your artistic vision for your artwork from a reference photo will be realized—so that's it, congratulations!

By the way, in North of Goleta, I painted the sky as it appeared in the printed photo rather than on the computer screen, which more closely matched what I saw in person when the photo was taken. On the computer, the sky in the photo appeared a much brighter blue than I remembered. As I recall, the sky was a bit more pale and hazy especially on the horizon; so that is how I painted it.


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