Photography for Painting

For many years I have taken photos for reference for making paintings or drawings. At this point I have thousands of images from which I can pull clouds and waves, mountains and trees, cities and boats, animals and people. Sometimes I use a photo (or series of photos taken of the same scene) and do a painting fairly directly from it. Other times I may need to reference the way a wave breaks, or a certain kind of light on a certain kind of cloud, or what a cat looks like when it is grooming. Having those handy and filed in a way that I can find it saves me a lot of time looking on the internet for reference. I use iPhoto to keep my photos grouped according to event; because I have a good memory for scenes in conjunction with where and when they happened, this works for me. I also have albums within iPhoto of subjects that I use a lot. But that’s just me — whatever works for you for a filing system is the best way to do it!

Last weekend I made a trip north on Vancouver Island to Port Alberni from Victoria with my friends Tania and Mike, who are touring musicians (here’s their website, check them out!). We visited the beautiful Stamp River Provincial Park and despite it being a cloudy and sometimes rainy day, I took about a hundred photos in about an hour — it would have been more but sometimes it was too wet to have the camera out. Everywhere I looked were beautiful compositions, or details that I thought might be ideal for a painting or as background in an illustration or a comic — inspiring!

Here’s a sample of some of the pictures I took; the only alterations I’ve made on these was to reduce the file size. If I were to make paintings directly from them, I would crop and adjust lighting and details directly in the painting. As a whole, the collection gives me great reference for rocks and trees and white water.

My intent was to take a picture of the path without anyone on it; but as I was focusing, some people walked around me and continued on down. I was going to wait, then I thought I would include them for scale! Also my mom is always telling me I should put more people in my pictures.

My intent was to take a picture of the path without anyone on it; but as I was focusing, some people walked around me and continued on down. I was going to wait, then I thought I would include them for scale! Also my mom is always telling me I should put more people in my pictures.

The river's level at this point is beginning the steep drop toward the falls. The power of the water was impossible to capture in a still photo, but I took several anyway — I don't have much reference of rivers in my collection, and here I particularly wanted the way it breaks over the rocks and flows around them. There's also a section in the foreground of underwater rocks, which I always find difficult to visualize.

The river’s level at this point is beginning the steep drop toward the falls. The power of the water was impossible to capture in a still photo, but I took several anyway — I don’t have much reference of rivers in my collection, and here I particularly wanted the way it breaks over the rocks and flows around them. There’s also a section in the foreground of underwater rocks, which I always find difficult to visualize, so it’s nice to have some reference.

This is partly natural rocks and man-made concrete; it's a fish ladder built to help the salmon past the falls so that more of them will make it to the spawning ground. I am dubious about the value of this to the survival of the species, since only the very strongest would make it otherwise, but there were salmon still spurning the easy way and leaping the falls. I thought this made a striking composition with the contrast between straight and organic lines.

This is partly natural rocks and man-made concrete; it’s a fish ladder built to help the salmon past the falls so that more of them will make it to the spawning ground. I am dubious about the value of this to the survival of the species, since only the very strongest would make it otherwise, but there were salmon still spurning the easy way and leaping the falls. I thought this made a striking composition with the contrast between straight and organic lines.

The vines cascading down the cliff opposite me drew my eye; when I looked at the photo later I realized why: all the lines converged in just the right way. The rocks and even the other vegetation seems to be pointing at those trailing tendrils!

The vines cascading down the cliff opposite me drew my eye; when I looked at the photo later I realized why: all the lines converged in just the right way. The rocks and even the other vegetation seems to be pointing at those trailing tendrils!

These mossy ledges seem to be the perfect spot to spy a fairy or an enchanted frog. Definitely a photo for my "magical settings" folder!

These mossy ledges seem to be the perfect spot to spy a fairy or an enchanted frog. Definitely a photo for my “magical settings” folder!

My friend Tania said that this looked like a sleeping giant; the upright one is his face, and the one extending forward is his hand. I'm going to try something new and Photoshop some features into this photo (fodder for a later blog)!

My friend Tania said that this looked like a sleeping giant; the upright one is his face, and the one extending forward is his hand. I’m going to try something new and Photoshop some features into this photo (fodder for a later blog)!

The colour of the water downstream from the falls was a beautiful blue-green that contrasted nicely with the autumn leaves. I took a lot of pictures and had trouble picking just one!

The colour of the water downstream from the falls was a beautiful blue-green that contrasted nicely with the autumn leaves. I took a lot of pictures and had trouble picking just one!

This is a true rainforest; there is moss everywhere — so many different kinds, mixed with lichens, all over everything. I love painting moss in watercolours, and usually do layers of colours printed with a fine sponge to get the soft, fuzzy texture.

This is a true rainforest; there is moss everywhere — so many different kinds, mixed with lichens, all over everything. I love painting moss in watercolours, and usually do layers of colours printed with a fine sponge to get the soft, fuzzy texture.

These mossy rocks also lured me into taking a lot of pictures. I picked two that I liked, this one with the horizontal format and the next one in a vertical format. Both have strong diagonals and the bold graphic element of the trees; both would make interesting subjects for paintings just as they are with some minor adjustments of compositional details. For this one in particular, I'd probably crop the top a bit to emphasize the river, and possibly rearrange the spacing of the trees to make the rhythm more irregular.

These mossy rocks also lured me into taking a lot of pictures. I picked two that I liked, this one with the horizontal format and the next one in a vertical format. Both have strong diagonals and the bold graphic element of the trees; both would make interesting subjects for paintings just as they are with some minor adjustments of compositional details. For this one in particular, I’d probably crop the top a bit to emphasize the river, and possibly rearrange the spacing of the trees to make the rhythm more irregular.

There's an Arrogant Worms song that talks about how Canada has lots of trees and rocks, and rocks and trees. And water. I kept humming the chorus the whole time. If you haven't heard the song, treat yourself right now and give it a listen. Then come back and look at the rest of my pictures!

There’s an Arrogant Worms song that talks about how Canada has lots of trees and rocks, and rocks and trees. And water. I kept humming the chorus the whole time. If you haven’t heard the song, treat yourself right now and give it a listen. Then come back and look at the rest of my pictures!

Something about the arrangement of the little tree growing from the rocks above the falls appealed to me. I took a bunch of pictures on the way down the trail, but coming back, the light had changed and brought the colours out more.

Something about the arrangement of the little tree growing from the rocks above the falls appealed to me. I took a bunch of pictures on the way down the trail, but coming back, the light had changed and brought the colours out more.

Don't forget to look up when you're hunting painting reference — and new desktop photos for your computer!

Don’t forget to look up when you’re hunting painting reference — and new desktop photos for your computer!

... and don't forget to look down, too, and do some closeups! These are liquorice ferns, which can be found growing out of the sides of rocks and trees and trees and rocks...

… and don’t forget to look down, too, and do some closeups! These are liquorice ferns, which can be found growing out of the sides of rocks and trees and trees and rocks…

The delicacy of this moss-and-lichen-covered bush appealed to me. I don't know that I would ever paint it as a composition in itself, but it would make a nice addition to a forest scene in, say, a comics rendition of Elfland!

The delicacy of this moss-and-lichen-covered bush appealed to me. I don’t know that I would ever paint it as a composition in itself, but it would make a nice addition to a forest scene in, say, a comics rendition of Elfland!

I caught a salmon! On camera of course. This is as close as my zoom would get me. It was tricky waiting for the salmon to leap and catch it before it fell back in. I have no idea how these creatures manage to get up the falls, but they do, every year, to spawn and then die of exhaustion. I was awestruck at the sheer tenacity of these fish.

I caught a salmon! On camera of course. This is as close as my zoom would get me. It was tricky waiting for the salmon to leap and catch it before it fell back in. I have no idea how these creatures manage to get up the falls, but they do, every year, to spawn and then die of exhaustion. I was awestruck at the sheer tenacity of these fish.

Here's the view looking back upstream above the falls where the salmon were jumping. I always try to take several pictures of an area that I am interested in, for context, in case I later want to do a painting and need to know what was around the thing that caught my interest in the first place.

Here’s the view looking back upstream above the falls where the salmon were jumping. I always try to take several pictures of an area that I am interested in, for context, in case I later want to do a painting and need to know what was around the thing that caught my interest in the first place.

The quiet waters downstream presented a chance for some dramatic contrast. The autumn colours on the right bank glow! There is some nice eye-leading stuff happening here that would take very little tinkering to make a nice painting. The upper and the lower sections of bright water point at the colourful foliage. I'd probably crop a little bit off of the left and add a bit to the right (I've got other photos for context), and make the tree on the edge of the cliff slant a bit more.

The quiet waters downstream presented a chance for some dramatic contrast. The autumn colours on the right bank glow! There is some nice eye-leading stuff happening here that would take very little tinkering to make a nice painting. The upper and the lower sections of bright water point at the colourful foliage. For a painting, I might crop a little bit off of the left and add a bit to the right (I’ve got other photos for context), and make the tree on the edge of the cliff slant a bit more. Or not.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into my reference picture files! Next up, a trip down the Alberni Inlet to Bamfield, on the outer coast of Vancouver Island — also destined to feature in some future art!

 

 

8 responses to “Photography for Painting

  1. Such beautiful shots. What a wonderful place to hike. The salmon jumping was priceless!
    As the weather is getting frightful. . I hope to be drawing more. Do you feel it is easier to draw from a photo or to draw from the actual 3D object? I’ve always worked from photos, however I think I need to try some 3D and see if my brain wraps around that.

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    • Hi Ilex, thanks! Yes, it was a lovely place — I’d like to go back there again and follow the trail to the end (we ran out of time, partly because I kept stopping to take photos). I’d like to go back at salmon season with a longer lens, too!

      In some ways it’s easier to draw from a photo. It holds still and you can take as long as you want, and don’t have to worry about changing light or weather, running out of time, bugs, or curious people, and you can have your whole studio full of stuff around you. On the other hand, all you have to work with is the photo, which can result in kind of stiff artwork unless you give yourself permission to take some liberties with the reference shot.

      One advantage of working on the spot (which, despite all my good intentions, didn’t do at all this summer!) is that it forces you to be decisive about what you put in and leave out. Generally you’re working with a limited palette of limited materials, and that helps with the decisiveness. Another is that you can get up and move around to get different angles, and you also have the context of what is happening all around you, which affects the mood you put into your painting or drawing.

      Taking your own reference photos can combine the advantages of both of these, because you remember how it looked when you were there (photos don’t always capture the depth or colours just right) and can adjust the scene to suit your memory.

      I highly recommend working from real objects if you can — it’s one reason I make the maquettes for my comic characters. It helps you understand depth of space and the complexity that colours and shadows can have. A good winter project is to draw your houseplants, and if you run out of those, buy yourself a vase full of flowers (it’s art supplies!). I had a studio mate who used to go out weekly and buy himself a vase of the most amazing, exotic looking flowers and then spend the week painting them in lush oil colours, doing multiple versions as they wilted.

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  2. Some of these shots remind me of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, the reason why there are so many trails, roads, not rivers for transportation in a few of her short stories, and books

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