Painting from Photographs 2

Q. My paintings don’t look anything like the beautiful photographs I try to paint from. Do you have any advice?

A. Working from photographs is tricky. My first question would be: Do you really want your paintings to look like photographs? To me, a painting is an opportunity to go beyond the technical perfection of a photo—a painting should speak as much about your feelings as about the subject. I’ve seen so many watercolors copied directly from photographs that are technically beautiful, yet lack soul or emotion—there’s no feeling in the painting. In fact, that’s the biggest danger in using photographs.

To keep yourself from making this kind of mistake, before you begin painting, be sure to ask yourself, “What is the feeling I want to convey?” Write your goal down at the bottom of your paper and never lose sight of it.

The photo must be a good one, and one you can put your whole heart into. What most paintings lack is feeling—it gets lost in the translation from photo to painting. You need to put a lot of you into the painting—it should reflect the way you feel about the subject, not how the photo actually looks. Take things out. Add things. You’re the creator.

For a good example of what I mean, take a look at the paintings I did of my dog Yuki. In the first painting (at top), she was a puppy with a leaf in her mouth. I didn’t even try to capture her spirit. Although everyone says, “Oh, how cute,” I know this baby, and that is not her at all. The painting looks just like the photo. There’s no life in it.

I thought I’d try another approach. One day, while out walking my dogs, I noticed the sun backlit on Yuki’s beautiful white coat. I knew getting her to pose would be impossible. This dog is quite the character, and has a wonderful spirit. To get her to “come” is like pulling teeth. Nevertheless, I thought I’d try, so I could get some action into the photo. How I got her to come to me without getting a snapshot of just her nose as she ran me over, I’ll never know—I somehow got lucky. Yes, I definitely got the action I wanted in the photo—and the lighting. Now, to capture it in a painting was going to be tricky.

Once I got going, I couldn’t stop—you can see the result at right. It helps when you know a subject well. I captured that always—wagging tongue of hers and that incredible sparkle in her eyes. I didn’t copy the photo. There’s a little me and a lot of her in the painting now. Much better, don’t you think?

Catherine Anderson is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society.

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