One of the reasons I don’t do plein air painting is my concern that I’d never be able to accurately paint the scene before me. When I made a remark to that effect at an art club meeting one evening I was assured that it didn’t matter, really. “Your painting isn’t supposed to look exactly like the scene,” several artists pointed out. I nodded in understanding, but my concerns go far beyond simply painting a scene that looks a little different. I’ve been known to start out painting a rocky ledge and end up with a seascape. Or I might try painting a seascape and end up with a rocky ledge! And that’s when I’m working from reference photos. This is why I save myself the embarrassment of trying to paint plein air, especially with other artists around.
So, for me, reference photos are an important part of my studio work. While truly I have been known to end up with scenes that are far, far different from the image I’m working from, I am getting better. When possible I enjoy taking my own reference photos. At other times, I turn to one of the online sites for artist reference photos.
But whether I use a personal photograph or one from an online source, one of the most important things to keep in mind, I’ve learned, is that not all reference photos are created equal. I’ve learned to look for specific qualities before I select a photo.
- Effective compositions should have three or four distinct masses and/or “value areas”.
- A good reference photo should have a well-defined focal point.
- Directional elements in a reference can add interest.
- An aspect of harmony should be suggested.
- Principles of asymmetry and balance should both be present. If not, we’ll need to make adjustments.
- Shapes should be simple and easy to identify.
Following these criteria, I found this landscape reference photo at Pixabay:
Using a photo-editing program, I removed all color from the image. Here you can see that there are several distinct “value areas.”
Now, about that focal point. I think we’d probably all agree that the oak tree is quite an attention-getter. Definitely that will be my focal point when I paint this “beautiful rolling landscape.”
Directional elements? Yes. Notice the pathway leading toward the focal point. The gentle slope of the hills on either side help guide the eye toward the tree. The burst of white clouds does the same.
A “unifying device” I see present in this scene is the “rolling” aspect. I see a lot of curved lines throughout the photo.
And simple shapes? I think the reference photo passes the “shapes test”, too. I could take a Sharpie and outline several distinct shapes on the picture.
So, with these thoughts in mind, I’ve grabbed a canvas and have started laying in the basic shapes. You’ll see how it turns out in an upcoming post. Until then, I hope these ideas and suggestions for choosing reference photos will be helpful to you in your art.