A Good Reference
To achieve a good painting you need to start with good reference material. But what constitutes a good reference? So many students start with poor photos thinking that because the subject matter is interesting that it will make a good painting. In my painting below "Windswept", it wasn't the Golden Gate Bridge that I wanted to paint. It was the windswept bush/greenery that pulled you into the painting & strong design that attracted me. The bridge just came along for the ride. Here's my list of the good, bad and the ugly in reference photos.
The BAD & UGLY
- The AWESOME SUBJECT PHOTO - So caught up in the subject matter, that you fail to see that there is no design, poor/no lighting or interesting shapes. Ask what is drawing you to this particular photo. If the subject matter is your first answer then ask more questions.
- Photos from magazines - Photoshopped to death & has nothing to do with you. I've seen my fair share of photos that students pulled from magazines. Perfectly coiffed floral arrangements or interior shots that have poor or many light sources. Just walk away. Go set up a still life or paint your own kitchen. There will be a connection to you in the painting because you picked out the flowers/objects & spent time arranging the set up or it's the kitchen where you cook for your family. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it breeds good art.
- Bright sunlight (color is washed out), while in person it might have that special quality, the photo will never capture it. Using photos taken midday is setting yourself up to fail.
- Back lit subjects - Reserve this once you've got solid foundation skills & then paint this from life. It's the nuances in the back lit subjects that can make it a special painting
- Overcast or grey day - Once again the nuances are lost in photos, better suited for plein air unless you have the experience/knowledge to go beyond the photo.
- Nighttime - Again, better suited for an experienced painter & done on location, not from a photo.
- Photos that you have taken - If you took the photo, then you've spent at least a little bit of time thinking about it. You have a sense of the day (was it windy), the time, your surroundings (the sights & sounds) & therefore, you can bring something more to the painting besides subject. You will be more likely to some color memory and be able to adjust the palette because photos can't accurately capture the true color of anything.
- Photos with good patterns of lights & darks. Squint to see values & shapes. Do your light & darks connect in interesting shapes or do they look like polka dots?
- Photos taken early or late that allow interesting shadows and beautiful light.
- Is there a story? Not just look at that turquoise front door. Is there an interesting pattern of light falling across the door or flowers in a complementary color that cut across the door. Just having a pretty colored front door isn't even to hold a painting together.
- Photos without blinders - By that I mean, don't just focus on the main subject of the photo. Some of my most interesting paintings have come from the areas surrounding the main subject. It's not usual for me to pull 2-3 paintings from one photo. Don't be tied to the photo as a whole that you miss a more interesting opportunity.
Being an artist requires that you participate in designing your painting. Copying directly from a reference photo doesn't require as much skill as actively creating a piece of art.