Working with Your Reference Photos
You Wanna Put My Art... Where?
A Harmonic Connection of Body and Soul
Change Over Time
Richard M. Powers, February 24, 1921 – March 9, 1996
Working with Your Reference PhotosBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
Another month, another article! In the past we've tackled both how to take your own reference photos and how to use them to draw. This month I'd like to go into some detail about choosing which reference photos to use. We'll go through lots of photos and I'll discuss what the merits and disadvantages of each one are. The main points to consider when deciding whether to use a photo or not are this:
First off, a quick summary of how to take your own reference photos. Get comfortable with your camera, and take it everywhere with you. You should be confident enough with your camera that you don't have to think about how to use it or change a setting. Next, be prepared to take a lot of photos. And I do mean a lot. In one trip to the zoo I'll take between six and eighteen hundred pictures. Of these, perhaps half will be useful. Take pictures in at all angles and exposures, in different lighting.
Once you have your photos on the computer (or developed, for those of you using film), it's time to sort them. I use a system of folders and subfolders (as do all of you, I imagine). My photos are usually named by the location and date. For instance, a picture I took at the Toronto zoo in December would be called 'toronto_30_12_08. The biggest reason I do this is because animals look different in the winter than in the summer, especially in the northern climate I live in, and I need to keep track of what was taken where. Since all my pictures of lynx are kept in a 'lynx' folder, I don't really feel the need to add to the file name any more than I have to. And the underscore in the file name is important, because not all software will read a 'space' in a jpeg name correctly. I keep all my 'personal' photos -- photos that are of family, friends, pets, etc. -- in a different location altogether, as I rarely use them in my work. Whatever system you use to organize your photos, it should be consistent and intuitive to you. I back them up on DVD a few times a year.
When I first look through a batch of photos from an outing, I am merciless. If I kept every photo I took I'd be up to my eyebrows in DVDs. If I don't like it, it's gone. If I have a dozen variations of the same shot, it goes. Shots that don't look like anything, or that are too blurry to be helpful, are sometimes kept in a special folder called 'design' if I think their abstract composition is neat.
First, a few examples of an awkward pose. When portraying a creature in motion (walking, running, whatever), pick a pose at the beginning, the end, or in the middle of the motion/stride. For example, in the leftmost photo of the wolf, one forepaw is just about to leave the ground and the moving hind foot is getting ready to hit the ground. It looks awkward and terrible. In the right photo, three of the four feet are firmly on the ground, and the moving forepaw is exactly halfway in stride. Looks much more balanced, doesn't it?
The same principle applies to most actions, including flying (as if it weren't hard enough to draw creatures in flight!). The left photo shows the bird in the process of pushing his wings up. He looks kind of strange, and most people would probably have difficultly figuring out what's going on. The pose in the right photo is much more clear and dynamic, not to mention a little majestic! What the silhouette of a pose looks like can be very telling; if you can read it as a flat silhouette, then you almost certainly have a good one!
One more example of this before we move to another point. This turkey vulture on the left might look like he's about to take off, but he's actually just hopping around (which is a little hilarious to watch really). Also one of his legs is doing something funny. So while this wing pose might look great to show a dragon basking with his wings or something similar, it wouldn't work to show one landing; the viewer would just know it doesn't look right!
Our next point is that you can't always trust your photos, so you need to do your homework. The cheetah on the right has unusually dark cheek patches, more so than any other I've ever seen. You might wonder what the problem with this is. It's a little difficult to explain so bear with me. Visual art is really about communicating with your viewer through two-dimensional symbols. If you are trying to paint a cheetah (or a griffin with cheetah markings, etc), you want it to be instantly recognizable to your viewer. The more your subject differs from the common norm, the harder it will be for you to paint, because you will have to be that much more accurate in order for your viewer to get the same message. It takes surprisingly little visual information to get your point across if the viewer is familiar with the subject.
The second point is this. If I saw a painting of such a familiar animal with just a weird, small but very obvious difference such as this, I'd immediately wonder why in the world the artist did that, and would probably conclude they didn't know what the heck they were doing. That's because when artists chose to make a subject 'stand out from the crowd,' we make it a definite statement. That's one reason why white tigers, for instance, are quite popular in fantasy art, compared to say, red tigers. Since a tiger's natural color is orange, red isn't really a big difference. If you saw a red tiger painting, you might wonder if the artist just didn't know how to paint an orange one. Subtle differences are a cause for suspicion. Big differences are a statement.
’Okay,’ you might be thinking, ‘what's wrong with this lioness? Other than the terrible overcast sky giving me terrible lighting?’ Well, the problem is that this isn't a lioness, it's a neutered male lion. He was altered when he was young, and so never grew a mane. He's still full size, however, and is huge compared to his mother, and any other lioness. You might also notice the bit of snow in the foreground. This picture was taken in the winter, and so if I were to use this picture, I'd have to keep in mind that he's got a layer of fat on he wouldn't normally have, as well as being a good bit shaggier than normal. Lions are among the many hot-climate mammals that have no problem adapting to the cold. These are all little things that you have to keep in mind. If you are going to differ from the norm, do it on purpose.
On to our next victim! I’ll use these guys to pound home again the importance of recognizable symbols. I would not have to use this picture as reference very often, and it's for this reason: these tigers are an awkward age. They're about a year old in this photo; too old to be easily identified as babies, and too young to be intimidating, majestic adults. An uninformed viewer looking at them would just think they're small tigers. And again, we want the viewer to know right away what they are looking at; no messing around. If you want baby animals, make them easily recognizable as babies. That means big ears and eyes, knobby joints, usually softer fur and baby fat. Anything at adolescence and beyond will be difficult to convey to your viewer.
This one's obvious. The photo is over-exposed, and so the light areas are pretty much white, while the darks are still in a middle-value range. So while this photo is fantastic for the detail you can see in the shadows, if you decided to paint it, you'd need to adjust your values and pump up the color. Otherwise you run the risk of painting something that looks wishy-washy and bland. Also note that the white shape on his back makes it difficult to discern what's happening anatomy-wise.
Our amur leopard is going to help us illustrate another common photo problem: the deadly foreshortening! Foreshortening is when the forms closest to the camera are distorted larger than they should be in proportion to the subject. There's all kinds of possible complications with this pose: the forepaws are larger than they should be, and the photo doesn't quite illustrate how far forward the upper forelegs would be resting. A cat's hind legs are difficult to draw from the front no matter what pose they're in. Having one partially hidden doesn't help anything.
That's it for now! I hope I've given you all new points to consider when going through all your photos, looking for something to draw. Once you've picked a photo, spend a few minutes taking a really good look at it, and write down any pertinent things you should keep in mind, so you can refer to it as you paint. Photos can be a huge help to any artist, as long as you are always aware of the ways they can mislead and take steps to prevent them. Next month we'll tackle some of the properties of paint and go over some of the ways you can learn how your paints work. Until then, good luck to everyone!
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