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Friday, February 20, 2015

How to Use a Bad Reference Photo

'At the Edge of Forever'                 11x14                  pastel              ©Karen Margulis
I'm not sure what possessed me to use this reference photo. It was a bad reference photo. It was beyond bad. It was downright terrible. It was underexposed. It had so little color it might as well have been black and white. There were several bushes and tree limbs in awkward places and a jumble of docks and boardwalks. I couldn't make heads or tails of them and without my glasses I couldn't even see them.

I decided that the photo is so bad it is good. It is actually a great reference photo if you have a different attitude towards reference photos. I actually prefer bad photos. Bad photos free me to interpret the scene in my own way. I can only improve upon it!

There are two important considerations when using poor reference photos:

  • The photo needs to have good bones. It has to have some possibilities. I ask myself if the photo has good shapes? Interesting arrangement of shapes? Interesting color? Is there enough information for me to use even if I have to change some things? And am I comfortable making the changes?
  • The photo has to be mine. If it is mine then I am able able to recall the moment the photo was taken. I can call up all of my senses and use my memories to infuse my painting with authenticity.
Take today's bad photo. It is my photo. I very clearly remember the place and time I took this photo. It was a special week in a wonderful place with my best friends. We were only at this spot for an hour but I remember it as if it was today. 

Since I can recall it so vividly I am able to make the changes to the photo to better reflect my memories. It was a bit chilly and overcast but bright at the same time. I remember the trees dripping with moss. They had layers of subtle but beautiful colors.  The docks and boardwalks are not important. I remember the trees and their colors and reflections. Here is how I went about interpreting the photo:

The underpainting done with a turpenoid wash on Uart paper
I decided that a turpenoid wash would be a perfect underpainting technique. This would allow me to start the painting with bold and rich color. The drips would help me suggest moss and reflections. I chose to use a creamy yellow in the sky and water which would be the base for the soft glow I wanted.
Once the underpainting was dry I began with the pastel, darks first then the sky and water and then the trees. I spent time working on the negative spaces in the trees trying to give them interesting shapes.

Have a look at your reference photos....don't throw away the bad ones. Spend some quiet time recalling the moment....paint that moment!


Catherine Selinger said...

Amazing and beautiful results again with your less than stellar reference photo Karen! :)
When you are deciding whether the photo has 'good bones' (or not), do you look for a photo that at least has receding planes? Or is that not an issue for you?
I'm asking because I have a lot of poor reference photos too and don't end up using the ones that don't convey depth. Maybe I don't need to toss those ones? What do you think Karen?

Karen said...

What a great question Catherine! The short answer is that many photos don't really show good depth but I will exaggerate or find ways to create the illusion of depth. So don't toss those photos! I'd like to answer your question in more detail in a blog post if you don't mind!

Catherine Selinger said...

Thanks Karen! It would be very helpful to find out more about how you go about creating depth from a reference photo without any! As I seem to have many of them.
Plus I don't find them very inspiring probably because my track record proves that I end up dissatisfied with the result - doesn't matter which medium used or technique used or whatever...! So your advice would be much appreciated! :)

robertsloan2art said...

This is such a great article! When I first got a phone with a camera, I started to love the small grainy photos from the Razr. I always had it with me. They were simplified and I could remember better what I was looking at. The color was so ghastly that I had a lot of freedom reinterpreting it, but I'd have the shapes.

People wouldn't believe me that was easier than working from good photos taken by people with good cameras. I still use my phone or Kindle to get reference photos. With the Kindle it's easier to get good photos of my art than it was before, but I don't worry about it if they're overexposed or blurry or something. If I like the photo it's easier to paint from.

IF the photo is a great photo, then that's more like copying someone else's art and it's going to have more of the photographer's input. I sometimes wind up doing more than cropping if I use reference library images, just take what I want from it and completely ignore the rest. I have to do that for some subjects but the better I get at painting, the more those just become a starting point. Mostly they're useful for anatomy. And of course I can always wind up checking it against real things, sometimes big cats are vastly improved by looking at my cat while painting! He bends the same ways.

Way cool! I love the painting too. It's liberating to be able to decide to get rid of things like docks and buildings even if they were there in life. Your painting is much better than the photo!

Sharon Cullen said...

This is beautiful Karen. You make it look so easy. I loove the blue a violet undertones. Gorgeous. I do okay with photos, although a beginner with pastels, but real life, yikes! I just joined two groups, the Great Lakes Pastel So itty, and Michigan Plein Air Painters. Both of which are very intimidating. I found out that Sharon Will and Vianna Szabo, both great pastel lists live right nearby and I plan to take classes. My newest problem seems to be tripods! I have been through two. Can you recommend a tripod in the under $200 range?

Karen said...

Thanks Sharon, I have an Oben AT3400 tripod which is very lightweight and folds down small. It only holds up to 6 lbs so you need to weigh your box to make sure it isn't too heavy!!