Working With Photographs

Five Elements to Consider When Selecting a Reference Photograph for Figurative Work

A photograph should be considered a “jumping off point” to create your own image.

Many artists work from photos collected over the years. Sources can include our own photographs (ideal), magazines, books, and the internet. I must emphasize that the intention is never to copy the photo directly, but to use it as inspiration to create our own work; important not only for copyright reasons, but also artistic integrity (when working with someone else’s photo). Working from a photograph is always tricky because we tend to get into details and end up “copying” the photograph, which was not at all the original intention. The photograph that you work from can make a big difference in the process and there are some things to look for, and also to avoid, when selecting an image to work from.

1. A Good Gesture

A good gesture can make a painting.  A gesture that I respond to may be different than what you respond to, but it is important for the artist to “feel the pose.” You should feel yourself in that gesture and relate to it in a personal way. This doesn’t mean that you actually have to create the gesture yourself. There are plenty of dancers (for instance) that I couldn’t possibly emulate, but their pose may be perfect for my painting.

2. Visibility

Ideally, it’s nice if you can see the limbs of the figure in your photo, at least to some degree. In other words, if the figure (or parts of it) is in so much shadow that you can’t really see what the arms and legs are doing, it may make the process more difficult. All of this depends on what you are trying to say with your painting. If you want your figure all in shadow in your work, it may be fine. But if you just can’t see how she’s sitting on the chair, it may make your task a bit harder, depending on your skill level. (The better you can draw the figure, the easier it gets!)

3. Place

In selecting your photo, are you responding to a sense of place surrounding the figure? Are you reacting to a romantic beach scene; a sunlit window? There are pros and cons to selecting a figure based on her surroundings. Let’s address the cons first. When a student uses a photograph containing a strong sense of place I see the greatest tendency to directly copy the photograph. If you intend to paint the figure strolling on the beach that the original photo portrays, then all is well. BUT if you intend to abstract the figure, interpret and place her in her own space you should use caution when selecting an image with a “pretty landscape” or “romantic interior.”

However, on the flip side, these “backgrounds” can give you just that “jumping off point” to explore your own work. A chair can be re-interpreted; blinds become vertical or horizontal patterns; a vase becomes a curved shape.

Final words on place: the figure is paramount. Make certain that you are selecting your photo for the figure and not the “background.”

4. Face

Are you selecting the figure because of the expression or emotion portrayed in the face? Is the pose or gesture ultimately about the face? Unless you want to become a portrait painter and want to paint the facial features, again, use caution here. In my figurative work, I want the painting to be about the figure-gesture, not about the face. The more detail applied to the face of a figure painting, the more the focal point (focus, attention) centers on the face as opposed to the figure as a whole. When choosing a photograph just be aware of how you want to handle the face.

5. Light

A sense of light on your figure in your original photograph can really give you a jump-start.  Even very abstracted figurative paintings often have a sense of light within the composition. The indication of light (strong value contrasts) can give your figure a sense of three dimensions (modeling) and give the painting depth. When learning to paint figures, however abstract, the manipulation of“light” within your canvas is a very important skill to master. The more experienced painter will know how to manipulate the sense of light on the canvas, so light in the original photograph becomes less necessary. And since every rule is meant to be broken, I need to add that not every painting needs a sense of light, but if you are just beginning this process, it will make your life easier to have a good light source (lights and shadows) in your photograph.

These are five elements to consider when selecting a photograph with a figure as reference material.  If any photo catches your eye, I recommend “collecting it” immediately and judging it later. Keep a constantly evolving stockpile of photographs to rummage through. An image may strike you today that you passed over yesterday.

Have Fun and Keep Painting!