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Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Top Tip for Painting from Reference Photos

'A Great Day for Sledding'              5.5 x 5.5            pastel on Canson         ©Karen Margulis
 I love painting from photos.  Most of my paintings are done from reference photos. My students all paint from photos. I do love to paint from life but I am not a plain air purist. I rely on photos.  I  see students struggle with their paintings and most of the time part of the problem is caused by the reference photo....relying too much on the photo for their painting decisions.

Have you ever heard yourself saying "I put 'x' in the painting because it was like that in the photo"?  

Photos have their own issues and if we copy what we see in the photo we often create problems in our paintings...color, value, composition problems are easily transferred if we try too hard to paint what we see in the photo.  Read on for my tip for avoiding this potential problem.

reference photo used for this painting


Think of your photos as if they were video thumbnails. You look at a photo which is simply a moment frozen in time. You took the photo so you were there. You experienced the scene with all of your senses. If you look at the photo you can turn on the video....replay the scene. Try to remember the colors you saw, the interesting shapes, the sounds, the warm or the cool, the breeze, the smells. Allow the photo to take you back. 

Now when you are ready to paint look at the photo and  try to pull out the things that you recall. These are the things you want to put in the painting. Everything else isn't as important. Allow yourself to simplify or rearrange the elements in the photo to best express your scene.

 How did I use this tip for today's paintings?

'The Top of the Hill'         5.5 x 5.5           pastel on Canson
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  • I took these photos of kids sledding on my street after our Atlanta snow storm.  I stood back and watched so the photos aren't that clear. The kids are tiny, the colors washed out and the photos are filled with clutter like cars, houses and telephone wires.
  • I looked at the photo and I replayed the video in my head. I heard the laughter, the crunching of the ice. I felt the cold air and the warmth of the sun on my face.  
  • When it was time to paint I looked at the shapes of the trees and hills and decided how to rearrange them to make an interesting composition. I pulled out some of the color I saw and enhanced it. 
  • I put the photo aside and allowed the painting to develop from my memory. I made it personal and not a copy of a bad photo.

You don't have to be a good photographer to work with your own photos! Tomorrow I will post more about gathering your own reference photos.


Jo P. said...

Karen, I can't begin to tell you how much I love your recent works. The free/loose style is amazing and just lets my mind fill in the story you are trying to tell. Thanks for the tip about not being a slave to the photograph. I am aware of that but so many people are not. Such an important thing to know.

Keep up the beautiful work.

Karen said...

Thank you Jo! I appreciate your comment. I am trying to be more expressive with my photos!

Diane Mannion said...

Excellent post, Karen! Bravo!!!
And love being your neighbor most of the time on DPW.

Helene Johnson said...

Priceless information! It is good you mentioned using one's own photos, as sometimes using a photo without permission is tantamount to taking someone else's art. (Although I do make an exception when asking my daughter to take photos for me.)