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Using Reference Photos
For Your Paintings

Using reference photos as a basis for your pictures is great way to provide yourself with a good source of raw material - as long as you use them correctly!

Many of the great artists in the past - and currently - such as Paul Degas, Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and David Hockney regularly used or use photos for reference, so you're in good company.

The Number 1 Secret to Improving Your Artwork

I'm assuming that like me, you're not an expert with the camera and basically use it to point and shoot.

And that like most people with cameras nowadays, it's the digital version, rather than using film.

Having said that, if you use a film camera, the article is still just as relevant...

So let's look at a common problem.

Here's an example of a view of a farmhouse my eye saw and I thought would make the nice basis for a picture - or certainly as a reference to include in a future imaginary landscape picture.

This is what YOU see...

However, here's what the camera lens actually 'saw' and recorded. You can see what my reference photo of the farmhouse turned out like....

Does this disappointing picture look familiar?

Wonderful things that cameras are, especially in this digital age, they don't distinguish foreground, middle distance and far distance as well as the human eyeball.

Now if you're into photography I'm sure you can make all sorts of adjustments to get the perfect photo, but for the purposes of a painting reference, I'd simply suggest the rest of us zoom in a bit to have a better chance of a picture that's nearer to what your eye sees.

Here's some other points to think about:-

  • Use your own photos if possible because you can picture the atmosphere, sounds, smells, weather, surroundings etc. which all helps to build the overall atmosphere you want to create.
  • Cameras will often distort images, especially say a three-quarter view of a building (ie: getting two sides of it in the view).
  • Photos are ideal for checking how many windows there are in a house and how big they are.
  • Take many more photos than you think you need. This shouldn't be a problem if you have a digital camera as you can always delete unwanted photos. Though you never know....!
  • Try to compose at least one shot as if it was your finished painting, ie concentrating on your main focal point. It may end up quite different but using the camera like this helps to get you used to composing paintings as well.
  • Try to include something of a known size to give a sense of scale. A figure, animal, doorway etc.
  • For a broad landscape, take two or three shots as you pan across the view. You can print them out and roughly tape them together, or electronically stitch them in Photoshop or similar software.
  • Look for a composition that's maybe halfway across two of the pictures that you didn't realize was there.
  • A lot of software packages have a variety of 'painting media' options, eg: coloured pencil, watercolour, pastel and so on. Try these out to see what your painting could turn out like.
  • Blow your picture up and print it or photocopy it A4 page size.
  • Use the 'fast draft' setting on your printer to save ink. This is a reference photo not a work of art.
  • Remember any image manipulation software on computers (Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro - or even the 'free stuff' that comes as a CD with your camera), can adjust the light, contrast and colours of your picture.
  • If you know how to manipulate images, move things around to test out compositional ideas. For example, move a tree to the left, make a building slightly smaller, leave out a lamp-post and so on.
  • Get two 'L-shaped' pieces of card and use them as an adjustable viewfinder frame across your picture. See what different compositions you can come up with - including vertical ones. You're not trying if you can't get at least three!
  • Use a piece of acetate and an acetate pen to roughly draw a figure, animal or other feature you want in the scene. Then move it around on top of your print until you're happy with the placement. Tape it down to your reference photo at that point so you know where to add it in your picture.
  • Don't rely too much on colours in reference photos - the camera/printer settings may distort these.
  • If you have image manipulation software, play around with the colours to achieve something original and different than the 'normal' colours.
  • Try printing a copy of a reference photo in black and white as a good basis for a tonal value sketch.
  • Remember that shadows generally appear darker on photos and are usually just one single tone. As an artist, bear in mind that in real life shadows have a variation of colour and are much lighter and softer at the far edges than right next to the item that's casting the shadow.

See Part 2 of Reference Photos >>>

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