There are many stages involved in creating a painting of a scene. I’m an indoors type of painter so I like to use the convenience of a camera to record the details of a subject for future reference. Using photographs for reference is really great, if a few things are kept in mind and a couple of pitfalls avoided. The main elements that I have found to be of vital importance are:
- free nature of the art
Attention to Composition
The first thing to do is to capture the subject or place that you’re interested in with the camera. This can be a bit tricky. The number of photos I’ve taken only to find, when I get home, that they just don’t have what I’m looking for to inspire me to a painting. I’ve written a few posts about what I look for and strive for when taking photographs.
Cropping a photograph can make a tremendous difference to the feel of the subject. Understanding composition and using it to show off your subject in the most flattering way can change a prospective painting from dull and commonplace to really eye-catching.
I really liked this photo of trees in a park in England.
"Stourhead Majestic Trees" Reference Photo
Cropping it to an oval brings focus and a kind of movement to the trunks as the eye is drawn into the painting.
You can see more about the park that inspired this painting in a previous post: Egg Tempera Painting of “Stourhead Majestic Trees”.
It’s also fun to put together a composition from a variety of reference photos, as was done with the “Knight and Monument” watercolor painting shown below.
The monument is a war memorial from a photo I took in London from a double-deck bus; the trees are from the French Jura mountains; the greenery in the foreground was taken from a flowerbed in Geneva; and the Knight and his horse are taken from a variety of shots of people on horses from a movie – the man on the horse is different from the one on that horse in the movie. Creating this painting was a lot of fun.
Another facet of composition to be aware of is to exclude any details that are present in the photo that aren’t essential to the meaning of the piece, or may even be distracting from it. In this reference shot of a road in the town of Gex, France, the removal of the trash cans and cars, along with all the markings in the road, helped to focus on the real essence of the scene.
Reference Photo for View of Gex Town Hall from houses and church
Below you can see the watercolor painting, “Gex Church View”, that resulted from using this photo as a reference. The lamp that you can see at the top of the photo wasn’t included because it distracts from the main focus of the scene and draws the eye up, when it’s important for the art to draw the eye into the painting.
The painting is for the Gex Book. The back of the Gex Church is to the left, and there are houses to the right. Looking down the street you can see the dark grey turret of the Town Hall; it has the same distinctive clocks on all four sides. Beyond is the Geneva valley. In the distance, Le Saleve is visible to the right.
The Importance of Color
Color is one of the things that is probably the most influential of all factors in a painting. At least, I’ve discovered that this is true in my perception of artwork. If the colors are appealing to me, I am often immediately drawn to a painting, and then I look closely at the subject of it.
Even though I’m strongly driven by color, it has taken me quite some time to begin understanding how to use color to the most benefit. A short, but very clear article, that I’ve found very helpful is at Indezine.com: “What Is Color Theory”. I have also found the image of the color wheel shown on the book called “The Color Star” by Johannes Itten to be useful.
I haven’t read Itten’s book however, since one of the customer comments on Amazon.com mentioned that his books are extremely good, but that they are rather heavy in theory and somewhat complicated. Perceptions of complication are somewhat subjective, and whether it’s the case or not for this book I don’t know, but I decided to wait and see if I could achieve what I wanted with paintings before committing myself to further study!
The thing about cameras and computer screens, and printers for that matter, is that most of them all portray the same colors a bit differently. Some cameras are set to give a very bright, colorful rich image, while others tone down a lot of colors and almost give a blue tint to everything. My larger camera does the latter.
So it’s important to remember the colors and lighting of a place or subject that you saw as best as you can. Some artists do quick sketches and watercolors on site so that they can better remember the essence of the light and atmosphere of the place. Then they combine this with the use of photographs to provide more details. James Gurney has good articles on this and many other subjects at his blog Gurney Journey; one in particular on this subject is Using Photo Reference.
The reference photo shown below is somewhat limited in its color appeal. And there’s a tourist in the way! (No, I didn’t take this photo, but I was there.)
Reference Photo for View of Le Saleve and French Alps from Gex
I decided to portray what I know of the atmosphere and feel of the place in the following way with the painting, “Gex View Across The Valley”:
This painting too is one I’ve just completed for the Gex Book. There are spectacular views from the town of Gex, which is located in the foothills of the French Jura Mountains. In this painting you can see to the south of Gex, across the valley towards the city of Geneva in Switzerland. Le Saleve is the first set of hills on the other side of the valley. Le Saleve is in France and not Switzerland, the Swiss border ends pretty much at the foot of Le Saleve. The mountains beyond it belong to the Mont Blanc Massif.
Draft page layout Gex Book
Here you can see how it looks in the page layout for the book. In a previous post I mentioned that the other sketch that wasn’t yet completed on this page (which happens to be this painting, and is now completed) would be of a view down the valley towards Bellegarde – well, turns out it wasn’t – this one also faces towards Le Saleve! But there is a view looking down towards Bellegarde in at least one painting still to be done for the book, and it will be painted and shown here on DweezelJazz Art blog eventually.
Look out for Proper Perspective
Many camera lenses distort. Even with anti-distortion on, the distortion of lines, especially towards the edges of the image, can still be very pronounced. I was so surprised when I started looking more closely at just how much distortion can go unnoticed by the casual glance at a photo. It’s almost as if the eye makes up for it. But in a painting, I think it’s a different story. If the perspective is odd, then it most likely will get noticed, especially if it’s unintentional!
Making the Art Unencumbered and Expressive
It’s super easy to get lost in all the detail that a photograph provides. It can become an all-consuming goal to try to portray the scene or subject in all it’s complexity, with the utmost accuracy. Unless this is done with extreme care, this can quickly kill the feeling, life, and atmosphere of a piece. It’s very good to consciously decide in advance how much detail is wanted, and how it will advance the aim of what the painting will convey. Always staying aware of atmosphere, feeling, and even the emotions of the piece will help to maintain the focus of the goal for each painting. It will also help to consider these things when choosing the predominant colors for a painting.
More important than detail or accuracy is the conveyance of meaning, atmosphere, life, and what the artist finds uniquely interesting in a scene or object, rather than to present all its details in accurate duplication. Individual expression and viewpoint is what makes creating and observing art so endlessly fascinating.