When looking at a reference photo, seeing all of the elements that make up the scene or subject can be difficult. There might be lots of colors, strong shadows, crowds of people, or a small forest of signs and light poles.
A great way to practice finding what’s important is to take a marker to a magazine. Open to a random photo, and start tracing out elements.
In this first image, I simply outlined the shapes in the model’s face. Rather than pick out features, I looked for transitions in light and shadow that marked the changing planes in her face and hands.
The second image was an attempt to find the common values linking the shapes. What I discovered is that one basic value extends from the blue labels on the left, through the pink cap and into the red label.
The goal of the third exercise was to define the light/dark pattern I would establish for a painting. The group at the table, as center of interest, would be the largest, lightest area. The rest of the lights should balance the composition and lead the eye to the table.
All of these concepts would be explored further prior to painting any of the subjects, but they’re very helpful in training the eye to make connections.