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Art Resource Photos

Add Realism, Life and Details

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Resource image for orchid pool
Orchid Watercolor with pool

“I know what a tree looks like, but when I draw one, I want there to be a realistic feel to it. I could wait for the right time to sit in the yard and draw that tree, but in reality, I have deadlines so I use photo references to get the realism I am trying to achieve.”

- Greg Land

From the moment the morning light pouring in through my windows awakens me until the soft yellow glow of the houses reflected in the lake darkens I see subjects for my art everywhere - my breakfast cups and bowls arranged just so, the rainbows shining through the crystals on my back porch, the sumptuous orchid blooms, the dear faces of my children, the antics of my animals, the change of the seasons. It’s a visual feast! There is beauty everywhere I look and I want to savor every moment. I take thousands of photos in an attempt to record these moments. Yet, less than one in one hundred of my photos are worthy subjects for a painting.  

On my phone, there’s a folder for everything that inspires me to create and I wander through it when I am ready to start a new painting. 

There are two different types of images in my reference library - other people’s work that I would like to emulate in some way and my own photos pulled from my daily life. 

Most of the photos I take detail the memory of the moment; who was there, where we were, what we wore, and when it happened. I can relive the emotions of the moment when I look at them but very few are artfully arranged to engage an unknown viewer to share in the experience of that moment. 

It excites me when a photo jumps out from the crowd with all of the “right” elements for a strong painting.

Taking resource photos for your art is an important part of developing your artistic taste and style and tapping into the emotions you’d like to relate through your art. You may discover when you look through your pictures that you love photographing people engaged in their work, creating portraits of animals, or finding abstract patterns in the streets. 

Look through your photographs and you will begin to pinpoint the subjects, colors, and general moods you are drawn to. My personal library of reference images ensures that I always have something to work on that is truly unique and inspiring.

What kind of artist are you?
How you use reference photos will depend on the kind of artist you are. You may paint only from life and take days to set up a shadow box in your studio, or you may paint only plein air, setting up your paints in a park or on the street to paint as people walk past. You may create collages using magazine cutouts or ready-made supplies. Or, you might be a cartoonist/comic book artist using exaggerated models for your action scenes.

Your techniques and your media are part of the way you get your message out into the world. Perhaps you will use other people’s, or your own, photos as inspiration only or to document the details in a scene you might paint sometime in the future. Knowing what you need will help you to determine the kind of photographs to collect.

The debate over references:
Have other people’s comments about your art ever made you feel guilty or less of an artist? It’s easy to judge the way others do things as wrong. As you can see in the commentary above, an idea is floating around the internet that artists who draw from memory are superior to those who use reference images. In my opinion, there are too many elements to drudge up from the depths of memory to rely on visual recall for an exact and lively representation of anything. 

Too often we allow judgments like these to restrict us from creating where we are, with the skills we have. If you paint for the pleasure of it, then paint anything that inspires you regardless of its source. However, if you paint for competition or if your artwork will be sold or seen by the greater public you may want to give more thought to how you incorporate references into your work.

For an artwork to be truly your own everything in it from inception to planning, to execution should originate from you. Using your own photographs gives you control of your process. It eliminates any problems with copyrights should your painting win major awards or recognition. If you constantly adhere to other people’s photographs as the basis for your art because it's convenient, take the opportunity to reflect on your comfort level and how you may be holding yourself back from artistic growth.

I also think it’s a bad thing to be a slave to your references. I use and modify references to serve my drawings, not the other way around. 

I incorporate ideas from my inspiration library, color arrangements, still-life setups, poses, anatomical references, lighting, etc into every artwork. My standard for appropriation is that if the photographer would not recognize their image inside my work, then it’s OK for me to use. 

This sliding gray scale of appropriate appropriation is going to be different for each one of us. Choose where you stand on this issue and don’t let others make you feel guilty for your choice.

How I use Reference Images 

I use two types of reference images for my work. Inspiration images are grabbed from everywhere on the internet - Pinterest, Google Searches, Facebook, etc. If an image excites me and I want to study it further I set it in a folder where I can go back and find one or two elements that I can pull from it to add to my work. I call this “Stealing Like an Artist”. I have no intention of copying another person’s work and calling it my own, but I am interested in allowing other people to contribute to my work in ways that keep my work fresh and I had not considered before.

Source photographs can be resources for an entire painting or references for elements within the painting. My primary image is almost always a photo I took myself. I generally change things inside my photo, maybe the pose of a figure, the clothes, the color arrangement, or some magical details I want to add. 

I incorporate a whole selection of images even while I am drawing from the main one. Photo references remind me of details I might otherwise forget and they speed the process of getting from concept to a successful drawing. 

How you transfer your drawing to the final paper or canvas is another area where judgment prevails. Should you project your drawing onto paper or canvas? Should you print and trace your photo and then use or FedEx to make it larger? Should you use a grid? Should you look at your photo on a computer screen only and commit it to memory? Or should you allow yourself to be inspired by the image and freehand your drawing in a personal interpretation? Time, drawing ability, and style will determine which is right for you. To me, this is another gray area where only you can decide. Make your choice and stand by it without guilt, recognizing that other artists have thought long and hard about this question too.

Famous Artists who use reference photos

Artists have used references to engage in believable flights of fantasy since Baroque times and probably before. Before photography artists would construct, drape, and light small sculptures to see how their arrangements would look in a variety of lighting arrangements. NC Wyeth, Alphonse Mucha, Toulouse Lautrec, Norman Rockwell, and James Gurney are only a few of the artists who rely on reference photos for their art. As the twentieth century progressed artists in America and Europe perfected sequential forms such as comics, animation, and video games using an even greater variety of digital and photo integration. 

North Carolina artist Ivy Dolamore says "Listening to professionals proudly saying they use reference has helped me immensely. Learning that work I admire isn't created out of thin air gives me the confidence to think, 'Oh, I can do that, too'. I've stopped thinking as much about the purism and more about how I can achieve that initial vision. Why not use the tools available?"

Building a library of reference images doesn't have to be complicated, or time-consuming and you certainly don't need any fancy equipment. You just have to be creative with what you have and remember to take advantage of situations that you may be in on a day-to-day basis.

Types of Cameras
Most cell phones have great cameras and you just have to remind yourself to take photos when you're out and about of subjects that call your attention. 

Digital Cameras - Perhaps you already love using your DSLR camera to take high-quality images. If this is new to you you might want to learn from experts. One website I know of to help you learn how to use your camera is Digital Photography School.

Taking a good photograph depends a lot on what you are photographing. Figures, portraits, animals, landscapes, children, still life, motion, nature, and machinery all require different skill sets and ways of looking. I am going to give you some tips that I find helpful for my own photography, feel free to discard anything that doesn’t apply to what you need.

Planning a good photograph:
Some amount of planning and preparation goes into an effective artwork. Aside from deciding on a subject, think about what you want your final piece to transmit. Is it a detail, an idea, or an emotion?

Choose a subject that attracts you but is also the right level of complication for your patience. My son asked me to make a painting out of this photograph he took in Lisbon.  It’s a wonderful photo but there are too many small shapes and details for me to enjoy painting it.  Someone else might find it ideal. 

Have an idea/emotion in mind when selecting a color scheme and creating the general mood for your photograph so that it can later be translated into a drawing or painting. Color has many emotional associations and I find I rarely paint the colors from my photograph for my final painting.

You will probably need to shoot dozens or even hundreds of images to get exactly the right one, no matter how careful you are in setting up an arrangement. This is especially true if you’re taking pictures of children or animals. The bottom line is that no matter what you photograph or how careful you are in preparing, you really can’t take too many pictures—the more you take, the better your selection of good reference photos will be.

If at all possible, vary your position in relation to your subject. Play around with the perspective, try shooting from above, or below, from very near and very far away. Notice where the light is coming from and try moving yourself and the objects so they are lit in a variety of ways. If you can move yourself or your objects try to rearrange them in such a way that the viewer’s eyes naturally move towards the object of most importance

Composition - Rule of Thirds
Your center of interest looks best located away from the center or the edges of the image.

The ideal location is in the “rule of thirds”. The rule of thirds divides each side of the image into three equal slices and where the dividing lines cross is an ideal point for your center of interest.

In the studio - When setting up a subject such as a still-life, in your studio, you have control over the elements you include and exclude. You can make use of blank walls or use a backdrop of some type to simplify the background. Stripes and plaids clash in your wardrobe and the same thing happens in your photos. The simpler your background, the better, unless you’re looking to integrate a contrast of complex designs.

Outdoor shots - You may not be able to do anything about the background or the foreground if you’re shooting on location, since whatever’s in the landscape will be in the landscape no matter what you do. Just remember that you can always take a few steps to your right or left to minimize the environment's distractions and keep the focus on your subject.

Light Source 
A strong light source is the most important factor in any photo. If you do most of your photography outside, you already have a strong light source (the sun). If you’re shooting inside, it’s best to use just one primary light source to provide strong light and shadow on your subject.

Setting up a weaker light source from a different direction can provide “reflected” light and help keep shadows from getting too dark. You can also make use of reflectors to redirect light into the shadows or make use of white or light-colored walls to create reflected light. Be aware that any colored surface other than white will influence the color of the reflected light on your objects.

Photographers get very excited about the effect of “golden” light at dawn and dusk. Everything and everyone looks more attractive in this light so it makes it worth timing your outdoor shots for this hour of the day.

Even on a cloudy day, the sun will provide all the light you need for most photography. Position yourself so the sunlight comes from either your right or left, giving you clear contrasts in light and dark. Your painting will be much easier to interpret if the image has easy-to-read form shadows and clear cast shadows.

When photographing people or creating portraits, “Rembrandt” lighting is the easiest to translate into paint. In this type of lighting one side of the face is in the light and the other in shadow with a “triangle” of light on the cheek on the dark side.  When painting people I find you can get a believable image in just a few quick strokes with only this typical shadow pattern on the face. 

Be very cautious when using magazine or fashion photographs of people for your resources as most of them have been retouched and the shadows have been removed. Fashion photographers purposefully eradicate shadows on the face to give the model a pristine flat look. This covers a multitude of flaws in the face but provides the artist with no information on the structure.  Depth gets wiped out in flash photos too so avoid using these as a resource for your portraits.  Without cues for depth, your portraits end up looking flat and washed out and you think it is your lack of talent that caused the problem!

Range of Values 
Value is a measure of lightness to darkness in steps usually from white to black (not monetary worth). A good photo has a full range of values. The value pattern is the first thing people notice about your work and the most common element judges use when separating award-winning from ordinary art. 

Photographs naturally harden the edges of different values, unless a filter is applied. A soft transition from shadow to light on a model’s cheek will often look quite harsh in a photo. When you draw or paint from a reference, make sure you err on the side of soft edges for your form shadows. That little bit of compensation will help keep your art from looking flat and unrealistic.

Be aware you may fall in love with a photo because of its associations for you.  You may love the subject so much you want to paint it even though the image is not ideal.  One way you can check your photo to see if it will make a good artwork by creating a Notan of the value pattern.  

Notan is a black-and-white pattern that documents how light falls in the image. This abstract image will indicate if the picture has enough contrasts to make a good painting. A strong Notan tells the entire story of the image in just two values. Abstract artists can find great shapes and sources for strong pattern arrangements using just the Notan from their photos or famous paintings.

You can play with this inexpensive app to create two and four-value Notans of your photographs. NotanIzer App: Google Play Link Apple Store Link You can also use a pen and ink to create a hand-drawn Notan the old-fashioned way in your notebook. 

Color Study

You want strong colors but not too many colors. Look at these two photographs of flowers in a vase. The first one has too many clashing colors. The second will make a better painting. 

I rarely paint the colors from my photographs directly. I prefer to select my color references from other artists’ paintings or advertising images.

Leaving things out/ Adding things in

The temptation to copy every pixel of a photo reference is always there for an artist. People and things don't look the same in a photo as they do in real life, so remember that a reference is there for you to gain information about the proportions, values, edges, and colors.

To get a realistic result, you will most likely have to deviate from the reference. Don’t be afraid to remove things that don't add to the final composition.

I normally use two or three separate references to create one artwork by cutting and pasting separate elements and combining them into one image using tracing paper or Photoshop. In the painting below I subtracted most of the building and added an umbrella, a man, and a dog to make it more lively.

Visualizing and modifying references gets easier the more experienced you become. 

Create a catalog of references

Once you start doing your own photo shoots it's in your best interest to keep your reference photo library organized. Even if you don't end up using the photos in the next few months, you could create art or studies with them in the future. I like to name my folders according to the subject type: Portraits, Still Life, Cityscapes, Indoor Scenery, Landscapes, Animals, etc.  

As I stroll through the tiny thumbnails of my resource images on my phone the really strong images tend to jump out at me even better than when I look at them full size. I start to get excited now when I notice a great photograph that will make a wonderful painting.

I like these four images a lot but they won't make successful paintings for me. Each one is problematic for different reasons. The car in the first picture blocks the boat and I don't think I can fake it in realistically. The red flowers are lovely but the lighting and the arrangement of the objects are less than ideal. I would like to have more contrast and to be able to see the little bottles in more detail. The rocks have great lighting but everything is gray - not enough color variation to keep me interested. The On-Time image has some wonderful elements, I love the moonrise and the movement, but this image would be a test of my patience to paint.

Taking resource photos for your art is an important part of developing your artistic voice. As you direct your photographic eye to the world around you, you build a library of the subjects, colors, and moods that light you up.

Your drawings improve when you look at photographs rather than relying on memory. Photos add realism, life, and detail to your art. Using your own photographs gives you control of your process, it eliminates any problems with copyrights should your painting win major awards or recognition. When everything in your artwork from inception to planning, to execution originates from you then the artwork is truly unique and truly original to you.

In this month's essay, I shared some tips that I find helpful for my resource photography. Different skill sets and ways of looking are needed to photograph resource images for portraits, landscapes, still-life, nature, and even abstraction. Yet good photographs and good paintings share common elements such as a strong light source, a range of values in a pattern, the positioning of objects, and related colors. A personal library of reference images will ensure that you always have something inspiring to work on that is 100 percent your own.  

I hope I have inspired you to create artwork that is more unique and personal to you and given you some tips you can use for taking resource photographs that develop your artistic taste and style. 

My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to help you create more realistic art. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me below with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight


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