Digital photography is an economical way to capture a large volume of reference material, and it allows for accessible filing on a personal computer. As the cameras get more sophisticated (and affordable), it becomes easier to acquire quality reference material at very little expense. After the initial equipment purchases, there are no film or developing expenditures required.
A few years ago I decided to migrate to digital for my studio reference material. As the images started to accumulate, I considered the best way to organize them for easy access and decided to adopt a similar system to the one I’d been using for film. I created folders on my computer labeled “reference images”, and I created subfolders with specific dates and locations for each set of digital
images. It’s a good idea, in case of a computer malfunction, to have back-ups of all these valuable files. You can burn disks or acquire an external hard drive to save these image files. You only have to experience one computer meltdown to realize how important this step is! Opening these folders with a computer program that has a “contact sheet layout” makes it easy to quickly scan through hundreds of individual images. Almost all of the photographic programs available, even the inexpensive ones, have this capability.
After you select the image you want to paint, you can choose to print it on a standard home printer or take it to a photography lab for processing with professional equipment. To duplicate the experience of working from slides, many artists are investing in a studio computer and monitor, and forgoing the hassle and expense of printing altogether. Large flat-screen monitors have become very affordable and relegating an old computer to studio duty can create an economical setup. Flat screen monitors don’t suffer from image-burn the way older CTR (TV-like) monitors do, making them a better choice. My monitor sits next to my easel (see photo), replacing the Telex Caramate slide projector I had used for years. Since these are digital images, you can easily save a copy of a selected image in another folder for quick reference without disturbing the original file. This facilitates easy access of reference images without having to spend a lot of precious time hunting.
With a little knowledge of your photographic programs, you can make minor adjustments to the image creating a more useful reference. With a flick of my finger, I can zoom in and analyze a specific area or make the image black and white, allowing for study of the major value shapes. An added benefit is to set the monitor to go to screensaver after 20 minutes. When you see the swirling colors on the screen—take a break, step back and analyze the painting from a distance—
then move the mouse bringing the image back on the screen for another session. This has become an invaluable tool in stopping me from over working a painting.
Even though I will always crave the experience of working directly en plein air—I have found the use of an organized filing system and digital monitor a nice alternative when working in my studio.