How to Organize Photo Reference Material: Part 1

I’m going to address the issue of working with and organizing photos and slides in two parts.

I’m never happier than when I’m out painting directly from nature, but that’s not always possible—especially living as I do in Oregon. So, decades ago, I began to photograph subject matter for reference and started building an extensive library of material. At that time print and slide photography was the norm. Since I often work on many paintings at once—in different stages—you
can imagine how difficult t would have been to keep organized without a
system in place. I started a filing system in which I mark my slides and prints by subject and date, giving each a code. My code is simple: a letter for each subject matter category, followed by a number representing its sequence in the film roll, and a date for when the image was shot or developed. A landscape image that was the 7th image developed on December 3rd, 1985, would have this code: L7 (12-3-85). It definitely takes time to mark each print and slide but certainly pays off when returning the reference to the file. I keep the negatives for the print photographs in the envelope in which they arrived, marked with the same code on the back of the prints. This allows me to find a negative quickly when I need a reprint or enlargement.
To facilitate quick access to subject matter, I keep a logbook with a brief description of what is in each file. My log has been invaluable in helping me remember what was on a specific roll of film. Let’s say I’m looking for high desert reference material containing structures; instead of leafing through thousands of images, I quickly scan the logbook.
15-Caramate-image.jpgWhen painting from slides, many artists utilize a daylight projection setup, allowing them to work in a brightly illuminated studio. You can project these using a rear-projection box made out of cardboard and frosted glass, using an existing slide projector. Or, you can purchase a unit like the “Telex Caramate” daylight projector screen (see photo at left). These sit near the easel, working much like a television screen. The advantage of slide projection is that you’re looking at light versus printed images — which just reflect the light. Another benefit of these slide projection units is that I can begin the painting with the image slightly out of focus; this allows me to recognize big value and color shapes without focusing on detail. The image is then brought back into sharp focus to complete the final touches.
Although I continue to use my photographic archives, I did eventually embrace the digital age and make use of a computer and monitor as well. In next week’s blog, I’ll share my digital reference system and explain how it has enhanced my studio painting experience.

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One thought on “How to Organize Photo Reference Material: Part 1

  1. Katherine

    I like that idea of having the image out of focus first – something which isn’t quite so easy when viewing images on a computer screen!

    I’ll be interested to see your digital filing sytem – I find that mine is one that continues to be refined and developed.