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November 2006

November 2006: Ghosts

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  • Using References
    by Melissa Acker

    In September, we learned the ins and outs of taking reference photos yourself. Now that youíve got all your shiny prints ready to go, what to do with them? This month we tackle the tricky issue of exactly how you should go about working them into your paintings (or drawings, sculptures, whatever). The information here will be also be useful if youíre painting from less-than-ideal reference.

    First of course, the burning question: is copying from photos wrong?

    NO. Assuming youíre using your own photos, all youíre doing is taking work youíve done in one medium and transferring it to another. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Virtually every professional artist uses photo references. You can copy your photos as much as you want and you still get to keep your artist card. Donít let anyone tell you anything different.

    The flip side of the coin is, regardless of whether or not it is wrong to do, should you exactly copy your photo?

    The answer is, again, no. Not for any grand Ďartists are above copyingí reasons, but simply because most photos would make horrible, horrible paintings. The colors are off, the shadows are too dark, the highlights are too light, thereís too much detail, the flash looks unnatural, you could catch your subject in an awkward position that makes for a horrible compositionÖ I could go on all day.

    Remember, the reason you are using photos is because you want to bring credibility and accuracy to your work, not because you want to recreate a photo. Even if you are striving for photorealism, the combination of multiple photos and a solid knowledge of your subject gained through study will serve you better than mindlessly copying one photo.

    Which brings me to my next point: donít forget to draw. Knowledge gained on your subject from life drawing will help you immensely when you have to move a leg or add a branch or change your light source. Itís not as immediately rewarding as taking a photograph is, but in the long run it will be worth the time youíve spent on it.

    Composition

    When using reference photos, you begin the same way you should begin every piece you do: make many small compositional sketches (two or three inches on the longest side). You want to experiment with where the subject matter is placed in the frame of reference, and now is the time to play around with combining your different references (ex: ďput this head on that bodyĒ). If you like the composition of the reference, then you donít have to change it, but I suggest you tweak it just a little.

    Itís important not to be afraid to change your composition. Feel free to edit, crop, cut, move, shrink, enlarge, rotate, etc. If you are working on a computer with Photoshop or some other editing program, just go nuts with those photos. Those working without can be creative with the local photocopier. Physically cutting and pasting the photos can set you imagination afire.

    Now is also the time to make sure you really understand the particular photo that youíre working with. Try to understand the lighting direction, the relationships between various objects, etc. I find it very helpful to make a sketch showing the different planes; this makes it easier to simplify or change your light source.

    Once you have a basic composition you like, make some larger sketches (no larger than 8 by 10). Experiment with different light sources, adjust your values, minor cropping, even take out some colored pencils or watercolors and experiment with color schemes. The more work you do at this stage, the easier the painting stage will be.

    While youíre workingÖ

    There are many things to keep in mind while you are working on your finished piece. Foremost among them is this: the photos will lie to you. They will distort reality. There is no getting around this, so you just have to learn what to watch for.

    Flattening

    Humans (and all vertebrates generally) see the world through two eyes, and see most accurately where the visual fields of the two eyes overlap. This is what allows us to judge visual depth. A camera, on the other hand, has only one eye to see through. That means when we look at a photo, itís the equivalent of looking through the world with one eye. It is visually flattened. This tends to have subtle effects; objects donít appear to turn in space like they should, people look to look closer or farther away than they are, the foreshortening is too extreme, etc. It is important to keep all your artistic knowledge in mind to help combat this effect.

    Shadows and Highlights

    Often, the shadows in your photo will be solid black, and your highlights a blinding white (well, not if you followed directions from last month, but even so it could happen). Please, please, please donít put a chunk of solid black in your painting. No good will come of it. Instead, think back to what you remember being in the shadows, and invent some color to throw in there (keeping in with your chosen color scheme). Same thing goes for the highlights.

    Detail

    One of the reasons working from digital photos can be tricky is that you are more likely to get a photo that has intense detail all over, and if you arenít paying attention while youíre working, you can easily put too much detail into your painting. Remember the rules of atmospheric perspective: as you go further into the background, the painting should become less detailed and have a cooler color scheme. The closer in the foreground, the more detail and a warmer color scheme. Your focus points should have more detail than the rest of the painting, with the most important focus being the most detailed.

    Your particular photo will have a focus point, an area that is super-detailed compared to the rest of the photo. Depending on the composition and style of your painting, you may want to down-play or simplify the detail. Donít make the focus of your photo the focus of your painting automatically, make sure it works with your composition.

    A small aside before we move on to the next point: in any given work, you want detail in the shadows or in the highlights, but not both. Decide early on which you would prefer and stick with it.

    Combining Photos

    There are some common things to watch out for when combining elements from different photos. The first is to make sure the direction of the light source is the same, or, if it isnít, to make a conscious decision which you will use and stick with it. The type of light source is also important to note; cool morning light looks much different than light cast from a campfire, for example. You should also keep an eye on the perspective involved in the different photos; for instance, if the photo was taken from above, it will look off when combined with a photo taken at eye level.

    When using a photo that has been taken with a flash, the lights and darks will be extreme. Your darks will be too dark and lights will be too light. Adjust as needed.

    Color

    Some photos tend to have rather bland color schemes, and outside the focus point look rather grey. I have found the best thing to do when using photo references is to just completely make up your own color scheme from the ground up, and just use the photos to keep the relationships between the colors relative. A really great exercise to try is to make a full-color painting using only a black-and-white photo for reference. Doing this will make it easier for you to trust your judgment when you have a color photo.

    Donít be afraid of color. The really great thing about painting is that, as long as your values are correct relative to the rest of your painting, you can use any color you want and it will work. Thatís why those value sketches before you start are so important.

    Weíve covered a lot in this article, and I hope Iíve started you all on the road to using reference intelligently and efficiently. Used correctly, your reference photos can bring that extra level of credibility to your work that youíve been striving for. The more you practice your art, the more comfortable and confident you will become when you have to make editorial decisions that are necessary when working from reference. So keep drawing and keep taking pictures!

    Melissa Acker
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