Let Reference Photos Know Who's Boss

When I was a young advertising artist with deadlines chasing me, I shot reference photos with whatever camera I could find. Most of the time I was using a Polaroid. It was quick but produced photos that were really too small. As I came up in the world, I used a Nikon and now, older and wiser, I'm a watercolor artist and I'm using a Canon digital. 

I use a multitude of reference  photos in the design and painting of a picture. In this case, about 25 photos were used. Along with photos, I use value roughs, color roughs and some full size color studies.
I use a multitude of reference  photos in the design and painting of a picture. In this case, about 25
photos were used. Along with photos, I use value roughs, color roughs and some full size color studies.

I am a strong believer that a camera can be a great aid to a fine artist. That is especially true for artists who paint realistically. The camera can catch the graceful motion of a person walking, record the unique details of a scene, offer back up material for location sketches and so much more. However, if not used correctly, the camera can take over and it can rob you of your creativity. You can never let reference photos become the boss.

Four things you can do that will enable you to work with photos without surrendering your creativity. 

1. Avoid working from a single photo
If you rely totally on a single photo, your artwork will wind up being no more than a rendering. It will be no more than a copy of the photo image. Used that way, the photo crowds out your creative expression. You are left with nothing to say that has not already been said by the photograph.

If you are stuck with only a single photo, try to use it as a point of departure. Avoid thinking of the photo as the total visual authority on the subject. Begin by making small thumbnail roughs changing the way that the picture is cropped. You might change the contrast or the general composition. You might consider changing the background or foreground. In other words, use the photo as a tool rather than a total copy source.

2. Always shoot your own photos
With all the cameras around, there is seldom an excuse for not working from your own photos. If a photo is not yours, it probably belongs to someone else. In that event, you may be infringing on a copyright. 

 This color study was made to establish the girl as the center of interest, with the doors and remaining figures offering maximum contrast.
This color study was made to establish the girl as the center
of interest, with the doors and remaining figures offering
maximum contrast.

When using a camera, never try to compose a picture in the viewfinder. Shoot more photos than you think you may need. Start shooting back away from the subject—taking in extra foreground—and gradually work your way closer. When you have a good viewpoint, shoot slightly to the left and right also. In doing so, you have a panorama of the entire subject area. If you can, return to the location for photos with different lighting or weather conditions. 


3. Try to work from several reference sources
When you encounter a potential subject, it's best to make sketches and notes along with taking several photos. In doing so, you have a complete visual record of the subject and your experience. Your artwork is supposed to be a personal expression based on your experience or feelings about a subject. Some of your feelings or attraction to a subject may be quite subtle or even difficult to totally understand. There are times when the struggle to understand a subject can be the spark that helps produce magnificent artwork.  

When limited to photo reference alone, having a number of photos can be a great help. If you see a strange guy shooting photos of people crossing streets, it's probably me. I spend days shooting people in urban locations crossing streets, walking, reading or what ever I happen to find.  I may take hundreds of photos to find a few that might work. Then I begin making thumbnail pencil roughs trying to come up with a good picture design. Some times this takes a long time and a lot of reference. 

4. Remember photos don't always tell the truth
Photos have limitations. Depending on the lenses used, a camera can distort depth. When photographing a standing figure from six to ten feet away there can be extreme distortion. With some exposures, dark values can record as black or light values can be lost in high light. The camera does not see the same as we do. If we copy a photo directly, we are copying any errors, distortion and loss of value that are part of it.

It is seldom good to use photo color as is. I always make several small color roughs. You can always make improvements on photo color. It is interesting to note that, as realistic as his color was, Norman Rockwell always worked from black and white photos. 

Once you let your reference photos know who's boss, 
you can work with photos without surrendering your creativity.

Paul Sullivan

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Paul Sullivan

About Paul Sullivan

After a long career in advertising art, Paul Sullivan is now a full-time watercolor artist. A graduate of the University of Toledo and the Toledo Museum School of Design, Paul has a BA in Fine Art. He is a Silver Signature Member of the Arizona Watercolor Association and a Signature Member of both the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society and the Watercolor Society of Alabama. Paul's work has been featured in exhibitions throughout the U.S. and in China. Visit his website → http://www.paulsullivanstudio.com/. View all posts by Paul Sullivan → http://www.artistdaily.com/author/paul-sullivan

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