Do you have any tips for working from photographs?

10 opal evening.jpg
Although I’ve been concentrating on plein air tips for the most part on this blog, I do often use photographic material as a reference when painting in my studio or in a classroom. It’s a useful tool and has allowed me to record details of many places and things. There are three basic ways a photograph differs from our perception. Understanding them will allow us to better work from photographic reference.
[left] photo reference for Opal Evening
[below] Opal Evening (pastel on pumice grit board, 16×20) by Ricahrd McKinley

First, value ranges will be exaggerated. Film—and now digital formats—have limitations on their ability to record the full range of light and dark visible to the human eye. Digital is getting better and future advances will make it more accurate, but for the time being, it’s still limited. Most photographs are exposed for the light, allowing for more detail to be recorded in those areas. This leaves the shadows underexposed and lacking reportable texture. If we exposed for the darker areas, the lights would blow out and show too little detail. For this reason, it’s often wisest to shoot one exposure for the shadows and another for the lights. By using both photos as reference, it  becomes easier to relate natural variations within the darks and lights, and comes closer to what we see.
Second, color is easily misrepresented. Films are made for certain lighting conditions and, used outside those close parameters, can shift toward a warm or cool bias. With digital, the white balance (or color bias) is the key to accurate color representation. Don’t forget, the camera doesn’t know what you’re taking a picture of. It just averages everything unless you manually override it to respond to the situation. A little reading of your owner’s manual section on white balance can help you adjust your digital camera for more accurate images.
Third, focal-plane manipulation, referred to as the “depth of field,” can alter the focus by allowing only one upright plane to be in sharp focus. Everything in front, as well as behind, that plane will be blurred. Depth of field may also be manipulated to produce sharp focus from the tip of your toes to the horizon. The human eye sees in a focused cone, and everything around our area of focused attention will become softer. So, don’t be fooled by the manipulated depth of field of the photograph.
It’s important to remember that nothing comes close to working directly from the source, one on one. Processing the visual information gathered through the eye, analyzed by the brain, and felt by the heart is an integral part of being a representational painter. The photograph is an artificial representation, easily manipulated and limited by its physical restraints. Don’t let it use you; learn to use it, and never accept it as fact.

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2 thoughts on “Do you have any tips for working from photographs?

  1. Annie Ryan

    Thanks for the information about using photographs. I have a question about what kind of support and/or grounds to use. What papers or supports do you recommend and how do I go about dry mounting paper I already have on something more sturdy – I don’t like the way the paper alone feels. I’ve been used to painting in oils on canvas and paper just doesn’t feel right. Thanks for considering this as a topic to discuss.