Sunday, May 17, 2015

Photos - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Photo References - 

the good, the bad and the ugly

  Using photographs for reference has a lot of great advantages.
  • Convenience - either printed or on your monitor they are readily available. You can save them up for years, add them to a "to do" file, and have a subject ready to paint at all times and all seasons.
  • Capturing the moment - you can capture fleeting light situations, or expressions on people and animals. Anyone else get tired of the bored look you see on many live model portraits? :) How about wiggly kids and pets?!
  • Detail - you can really see and explore the detail. Textures, forms. You can zoom in and paint almost abstract images from tiny macro details. Or zoom in on that one pesky area that you can't quite get right.
  • Cropping and composing - using simple photo programs you can crop and resize to match your canvas size. A little photo shop and you can even move elements around, play with different colors, try out layers for different option.
And then there are the disadvantages.
  • Shadows. The dark areas in a photo tend to be just dark, very little detail. Much more so than the way we see.
  • Color. Even with a good quality photo you will lose nuance of color, and the colors you see are often too blue.
  • Not a full sensory experience. You aren't there. You can't smell, hear, feel what is going on in the scene. 
  • Detail. This is a good and a bad. It is so easy to see detail in a photo we are often tempted to overdue it.

 Knowledge is power! 

Now that you are aware of the disadvantages, you can work to overcome them

 Rule #1 -Okay, I hate rules. Let's call it

Strong Suggestion #1

Take your own photos

Take your own photos! Am I repeating myself?! This is so important! To help overcome the lack of being there, Be there! Smell, feel, experience. Especially pay attention to your emotions and physical reactions to a scene. You will be amazed that if you take the time to do this, To stop and listen, both to yourself and the scene, those memories will come flooding back when you are painting from the photo. If you have no real connection to a scene - it's just something "pretty" you saw online or on a calendar, it's very difficult to create a moving painting. And we won't even get into copyrights :)

Strong Suggestion #2

Take the time to study your photo, and compose it

Painting isn't just recreating a photo, it's adding your own focus. Filtering it through your eyes, your heart, your mind. What comes out is your experience of this image. And that is different from anyone else's! Expressing your uniqueness. It's golden! More on specifics of composing in my next blog.

Strong Suggestion #3

Edit, Edit, Edit

Remember those shadows? You are going to have to add detail. Oh, and the detail? You are going to have to lose some! And the color? You have those memories, maybe even a sketch you did on the scene. The key to editing is to define your focal point. It's like writing a good story. If an element doesn't lead to, support, or enhance your focal point either leave it out or diminish it's importance.

Strong Suggestion #4

Use that license  

You know, the one that came with your first set of paints. Your artistic License! I hear they revoke it if you don't use it enough :) Move that tree, change the season, change the colors, change the planet! Make it morning, add a figure - heck add a fairy! Have fun and mold that image. Follow your imagination where it leads. Be creative!

Here's an example of one of my paintings and the photo reference....

Coming in the next blog -
specifics on working with composition to turn your photo into a work of art!


  1. Thank you for the "strong suggestions". I am now inspired to be more daring and creative. I like the example shown.

  2. Great suggestions Karen! I really needed this advice since I'm still learning to work from a photo reference. I agree one should take ones own photos. Memory plays it's own magic for sure.

  3. You've given some fantastic insights, and "strong suggestions" here, Karen. Your photo reference and painting were great for me to see right now, as I comb my own films for shots I'd like to paint with "someday" and realize how GREEN so many of them are. Thank you!

    1. Hi Beth! Glad you enjoyed it! Using video to find a reference photo is a great idea! All those variations of the same scene to choose from. Nice!

  4. That is something I have to work on, changing a photo with my own creative ideas.