A Matter of Reference | Utilizing Reference Materials in the Studio


Pastel landscape demonstration painting by Richard McKinley

My “Pastel Pointers” column in the current issue of Pastel Journal discusses three methods that plein air pastelists can use to find inspiration in the studio when winter forces them indoors: subject matter variation, a different perspective on how to portray familiar subjects, and new ways of approaching painting techniques.

These methods create an artistic challenge that may prove useful in keeping creativity alive. However, the landscape artist still faces the challenge of being denied access to the literal scene, something the still life and portrait/figurative painter doesn’t have to contend with forced indoors. There are two approaches I use to deal with this situation:

A Digital Monitor: Instead of relying on printed photographic material for reference, a large digital monitor placed next to your easel will better replicate the effects of light. When we look into a scene, we are seeing light reflected off of a surface. This produces a three-way interaction: light, object and you. While there is nothing that can totally replace this relationship, the ability to view an artificial representation of reality on a digital monitor, which has us looking into light, definitely comes closer than printed photography, which relies on light reflecting off a surface. Back in the day, many artists utilized daylight photographic slide projection systems. Today, digital has advanced the possibilities with affordable external monitors, laptop computers and digital tablets (like the iPad). These tools make it easy to store, organize and transport thousands of reference images.

Discover more great advice from Richard in a special e-mag collection called, “Painting Pastels en Plein Air,” available to download for only $2.99!

Field Sketch Work: My favorite reference material in the studio is previous field painting works. These consist of sketchbook drawings and small field sketch paintings. The purpose of thumbnail sketches is to work out the compositional elements of shape and value in advance of committing product to surface. The intent of the field sketch painting, which is generally small and painterly, is to capture what the camera is incapable of representing. These plein air works represent the essence of the scene and make it easier to be transported back to how it felt when standing there. While the primary purpose of a field sketch painting may be for reference, many ultimately end up being framed and sold. I have been able to retain them as reference material in the studio by making prints. My intent when using these works as reference is not to accurately reproduce them on a larger scale. Instead, I want to be catapulted back to the scene where I did them. Frequently, major artistic adjustments are made and multiple variations of them explored in studio.



I looked to thumbnail sketches, a field sketch painting and a photograph displayed on my iPad as references for my finished demonstration painting, above.


It is important to remember that reference material is just that: a point of reference. It is a catalyst to memory and intent. Our goal is to use it, not be dependent upon it.


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