Transcending the Photo Reference

Truly, if a (painter) of genius should use the daguerreotype as it ought to be used, he will raise himself to heights unknown to us.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)

There are too many essential lessons to be drawn from direct observation of nature to rely solely on photographs. However, the photograph (and camera) does offer us some special benefits.

  • It offers access to subjects, which we may not be able to work from directly
  • It captures fleeting moments, which change too rapidly to draw (or paint)
  • It is a great study tool to use for your own educational purposes
  • It allows us to reference subject-specific detail

Photo reference images can be a great resource, if used well. Knowing how to use them properly is essential in order to create a convincing drawing or painting.

Delacroix requested many photographs of male and female models to use as references for his drawings and paintings.

The desire to rely on the photo reference can be strong. A photograph is clear, realistic, detailed, and makes a good visual statement. But when we rely too heavily on photographs or use them the wrong way, they can create problems for us and stifle our creativity. If we were to simply copy the photo reference, then what is the point in making a drawing or a painting from photo reference in the first place?

One of the important distinctions between photography and drawing / painting (and there are many differences), is that the latter requires a much deeper understanding of what we are looking at. Drawings and paintings are not objective depictions of a scene.

The Photo Format: JPEG vs. RAW

Digital cameras will capture an image in raw data, but most cameras will then automatically process and compress this visual information before converting it to JPEG (or jpg) format. Settings like white balance, colour saturation, sharpening, tone curve, and colour space are applied by the camera to create the final image. The file size is smaller too, making it easier to share quickly.

Shooting in RAW provides more of the original source data, for example, values, colours, and dynamic range. In terms of value, for instance, while a JPEG records 256 levels of brightness, a RAW file will record between 4,000 and 16,000 values.

Either way, the camera is making many choices for us and without our consideration.

Photo Reference Do’s …

Use to Capture Fleeting Moments

Photographs are great for capturing fleeting moments, but you have to treat them as raw material only.

Use the Photo for Composition and Drawing

Photo references can be very useful to help us diagram a composition and see how shapes and objects fit together.

Use More than One Photo Reference

Sometimes a pose or perspective can look natural in a photograph, but awkward and stiff in a drawing. It’s important to modify the reference to serve your drawing, not the other way around, and to have multiple reference images to serve your drawing.

Shoot Your Own Photographs

Using your own photographs gives you a lot more freedom and a greater degree of artistic integrity. It also bypasses any issues around copyright infringement. If your artistic vision is to be as original as possible, then you must reference what you have actually experienced with your own eyes. Taking your own photographs also allows you to consider the drawing or painting that they are intended for, and you will be more inclined to think as an artist rather than a photographer as you set the photographic composition, the lighting, and the shot itself.

Explore Options in Digital Post-Production

Adobe Photoshop is the standard digital editing software for professional and amateur image-makers and designers. There are many other basic editing applications that you can use as well. This software can be very helpful to deconstruct and explore an image, for example:

  • Adjusting shadow and highlight filters and thresholds
  • Simplifying or limiting shapes, values and colours
  • Discovering underlying abstract value patterns
Eugène Durieu

… And Don’t’s

Don’t Use Poor Quality Photos

Even though a photograph is very realistic, it still relies on the same visual cues that artists use when translating reality into a convincing two-dimensional image. If these elements are not present in the photograph, then the photograph will not translate well into an artwork.

Don’t Copy, Interpret

The worst mistake that you can make is to directly copy the photograph. The more you copy, the more you stop thinking like an artist.

The photograph is a fully-resolved image. It has already been converted into two dimensions, and the picture window, composition, colours and values, are defined. If we stick rigidly to the elements as defined by the photograph, then there is no room for creativity or interpretation.

Moreover, the photograph doesn’t suggest anything about form or subtle colour and value changes. Most importantly, it doesn’t ‘feel’ anything – it renders one thing as much as the next thing. In a drawing or painting, the artist is crafting the visual experience at very subtle levels by adjusting, omitting, heightening different elements. A drawing or painting is not just a depiction of a frozen scene, copied from nature; instead, it is the creation of an experience.

Don’t Trust Photographic Values

The most misleading type of information in a photograph is its value relationships. Usually, a camera will create too much contrast between the lights and the shadows, especially in bright daylight. It under-exposes the darks and over-exposes the lights. This conceals a lot of subtle information in image.

Don’t Rely on Photos for Value or Colour

Photographs are good for general information, including value and colour, but tend to pull us in a certain direction, which is usually less interesting than what we can create in a drawing or a painting. The best artistic decisions are made from either (a) direct observation from nature or (b) the artist’s imagination, intuition, and intellect.

Don’t Translate Photographic Effects into your Work

A drawing or a painting that looks like a photograph has a very undesirable aesthetic quality. The camera often produces a very shallow depth of field (i.e. a blurry background behind the subject). This is a photographic effect, and not one that should be translated into a drawing or a painting. Equally, the shadows in a photograph can often look too perfectly formed and too dark. If you map this too closely, your drawing will take on a photographic quality instead of being a reflection of your interpretation and style.

Don’t Let the Photo Become a Crutch

At a certain point in the drawing or painting process, the photograph needs to be put aside, and the artwork needs to evolve in its own direction, as you respond to the methods, techniques and materials, etc. that you are using. Sticking rigidly to the photo reference prevents this from happening.

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