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.