“What if”…working from reference photos

Reference photos are a critical source of inspiration for many artists. After all, not all subjects lend themselves to painting from life, or we may see a scene in passing that we just have to capture.

When working with reference photos, it’s easy to get frustrated or overwhelmed. The temptation is to paint exactly what we see in the image before us, even if that doesn’t support what we want to say with our painting. But wait, let’s back up a step – do you even know what you want to say? So often, we look at a photo and say, “oh, that’s pretty/cute/colorful, I think I’ll paint it.”

Spending a few moments thinking about the “why” of a painting can take a painting from “nice” to “fabulous” – and don’t we all want that?! Knowing that you want to capture the bigness of the sky; the memory of a treasured moment, the unique energy of a child, or an expression of intimacy will help guide every other decision we make in the development of a painting.

The subject in Summer’s End, the painting at the beginning of the post, is an older farm on a busy road, and I’ve always been intrigued by how peaceful it looks, and how well it nestles into its setting. By going vertical, I could play up the relative smallness of the buildings against a vast summer sky. While the photo was taken in the midst of summer, bringing in hints of fall color allowed for more variation in colors, and helped the rusty barn roof blend into the scene.

Asking “what if” as you develop your painting is a great way to discover the focal point, determine what stays or goes, and zero in on a color palette. In the photo at right, Post Alley in Seattle is a vibrant, colorful place, and Kells Irish Pub has created an inviting spot to sit and soak it all in. As a reference, it’s incredibly overwhelming! While the orientation is great, and the shadows on the wall give the eye a welcome resting place, the rest of it is all fussy details.

So…what if most of the chairs and tables were eliminated, along with the post & chairs in the lower right? What if the buildings in the background were stripped of details, and were rendered as soft blends of muted color? What if the plantings and their containers were simplified into a single mass and a wide planter? What if the windows above the awning didn’t have the distracting curves of the lights interfering with their shapes?

Working through those ideas quickly on my tablet, it’s clear that simplifying the outlying elements will put more of the focus on the middle ground elements that will pull you deeper into the alley, and have you wanting to take a seat at one of the tables. I’ll also make sure to work in a limited base palette to keep all of the elements unified, popping in brighter hues for the wind socks, awning and planter baskets. The door will get richer red colors as well to enfold the seating area in warmth and color.

Experimenting with an Appaloosa’s spots

The subject of this painting is a “leopard” Appaloosa with an amazing array of spots over its entire body. Painting the form of the horse was pretty easy, but those spots are something else! While the urge was strong to just dive in and start painting blotches, I didn’t want to mess up a good start. So, I pulled out the patience and a piece of scrap paper and began to experiment with different options. And wow, am I glad I did!

My initial thought was to use a dark, sedimentary color like Hematite or Sepia. Nope, both turned too brown. Surprisingly, Van Dyck Brown (VDB) mixed with French Ultramarine into a deep, rich dark that didn’t leave a brown edge. Payne’s Blue Gray (PBG) came into the mix, along with Cobalt Blue. Verditer Blue and Lunar Blue were tried and rejected, but Burnt Sienna made the cut.

Along with color, technique was a big part of the puzzle. Different attempts at wet-into-wet, wet-into-dry, spattering, and blurring edges all got a tryout.

In the end, I’ll use Cobalt and Burnt Sienna as a gray base, with VDB dropped in and French Ultramarine lightly splattered, then lifted for a random splotch. When nearly dry, VDB, PBG, French Ultramarine and a touch of Green Apatite Genuine will form the dark central spot. (The green will echo colors in the background.) Some of the edges will get pulled or blurred to add variety.

This was a great lesson in experimenting with materials before going straight to the painting. I definitely would have been unhappy with the results of the first 10 options, and probably would have given up on the painting in frustration!

“Hardened” revisited

Sometimes, “finished” means “done painting for now.” That turned out to be the case with this painting of a weathered padlock on a rusty gate. In the before painting at left, the colors are saturated and bright; the dirt and rust are nicely rendered, and the overall composition is pretty good. Do you see what it didn’t have? A shadow for the lock!

This piece had been signed, photographed and entered in two different shows – both of which it failed to be juried into. As I sat watching a slideshow of all of the pieces entered into one of those shows, the lack of shadow and contrast leaped off the (large) screen at me. So, back to the studio for a few relatively small adjustments.

With the addition of a darker value across the entire bottom third, including a shadow for the lock, the “floaty” feeling of the main subject has been fixed. I also darkened the shadow at the bottom right of the ring, so it ties into the deep shadow below the lock. The lesson? Don’t be afraid to look critically at a finished painting, and ask yourself if it is as strong as it could be. You may find yourself pulling the brushes out again…