Finding time to paint is a challenge.
Even the time I do spend painting is rarely long enough,
so after 10 years of juggling my art, my art business
and my family life I decided there's no shame in taking
shortcuts. As a result, photographs have become one
of my most valuable painting tools. Although I love
painting outdoors, the camera allows me to capture those
wonderful scenes that I don't have time to linger over
or that move too quickly for me to sketch.
In effect, my camera has become my sketchbook.
It's a means of expanding and improving my everyday
vision and giving me reference material for future paintings.
But there's a lot to learn about taking the photos that
make good paintings, and even the best photos won't
guarantee good painting results. So here's my method
of using photo references for my watercolors, and maybe
it can help you make the . time you need to be the artist
you've always wanted to be.
Getting the Goods
I have an easy-to-use 35rnm single-lens reflex camera that offers both automatic and manual features, and
it's all I need to capture the action. But each time
I look through the camera's view finder, I think about
the composition of a potential painting by searching
for the area that has the most contrast of lights and
darks. Then I move round to ensure that the focal point
is in a dynamic spot and that there's a path for the
eye to follow through the entire image. Also, taking
pictures at several different angles and depths of field
greatly increases my chances for success. Sometimes
only one print out of a roll will convey the excitement
I feel toward the subject, but I'd rather have one good
shot out of 36 bad photos than one good painting out
of 15 or so bad ones.
When I get my film developed, I have 5x7 prints made.
This size helps me see the print clearly, and I use
tiny matts from the photo package to frame each print
to determine whether it can be worked into a painting.
This is the time to choose the shapes that should be
kept or eliminated. If you keep in mind that whites
come forward and darks recede, you'll be better able
to re determine the focal point if necessary. To me,
it's important to pull the viewers in and hold their
attention as long as possible. Having a high contrast
of light and dark areas helps to put that kind of punch
into a painting.
Seeing a Painting
Next I pull out my old Autograph AG 100
opaque projector; tape a 22x30-inch white paper to the
wall and project the image directly onto the paper:
From this I determine what image site would bring the
most impact to my painting, and whether the format will
be vertical or horizontal. Making the image larger or
smaller at this stage is just a matter of pulling the
projector back or pushing it forward, respectively.
The more the size is increased, however; the blurrier
the lines become, and because the images are diffused
you may have a hard time getting accurate lines if you
go too big.
Here I have two options: I can simply draw the image
freehand onto a piece of watercolor paper; or I can
trace the projected image onto the paper on the wall.
If you choose the latter; there are a few important
things to remember. First, the projector should be level
and perpendicular to the wall. If the photo is larger
than the glass on the projectO1; be sure to move the
projector as you move the print in order to keep the
traced image whole, and each time the projector is moved
its distance to the wall must be rechecked. I recommend
using a piece of transparent tracing paper and just
a No.2 pencil for the tracing option.
Fixing the Holes
Cameras will flatten out perspective,
causing the vertical lines in a picture to curve in
or out, called "curvature of field." If you
like playing with these distortions then the projector
will enhance them for you, but if your goal is realism
they can be a hindrance. When photographing people,
try to direct the camera straight on, for an odd angle
causes distortion of the figure. Sometimes the photos
are such that the faces are blurred and unrecognizable,
as in the photographs I used for Midlife Syncopation
(below). In this case I had to search my other reference
shots for images I could use to complete the drawing.
Using multiple sources like this prevents you from wasting
precious drawing time.
When tracing, once I get the right composition I redraw
every line and frequently use a T square and ruler to
check perspective. I never use this contour drawing
as my final drawing, but only to determine the size
and placement of the shapes. If I get the sense that
something is wrong, I immediately start checking the
drawing because the solution is usually found there
and any corrections can still be made easily.
As the last stage before I begin painting, I tape the
tracing paper over my Arches 140-lb cold-pressed paper
with transfer carbon paper sandwiched in between. Using
a fine ballpoint pen, I lightly trace over my drawing,
being careful not to press so hard as to make deep grooves
in the watercolor paper. I recheck all my lines for
accuracy, comparing them to the original drawing, and
use a soft white eraser to lighten up any dark lines
and make necessary corrections. By this time I've mentally
planned out everything, including the colors, where
to start, and what painting techniques I'll incorporate.
Now I'm ready to simply enjoy the act of transparent
Feeling the Joy
I start the painting process by masking
any elements that need to be protected, and usually
around the edges of the figures. To choose my background
colors I pull out a test sheet of groups of three colors
that shows the interaction of the pigments in each group.
I also have a test strip of all my colors, which makes
my choice much easier. Instead of mixing large puddles
of paint on my palette, I mix three separate background
colors to a fluid consistency, each in a small plastic
container with a lid. I give each color its own brush
to keep the color pure, and my brush sizes depend on
the size of the painting.
I like to spray water lightly on the
background to create both wet and dry areas, and while
keeping each brush filled with paint I allow the colors
to overlap and mix on the paper. Where there's water,
the paint will be softer and more varied in the background.
I'll let the area dry completely before removing the
masking and redrawing any lines if necessary. When I
move on to painting figures I incorporate the background
colors so the shapes won't look like cutouts.
Clean water is a must for keeping colors
transparent, and I generally let layers of color dry
thoroughly before adding new color. If I need to return
to the background, I'll add. water by stroking once
on the dried paper with a soft brush over the entire
shape, and before this is absorbed I'll add paint with
one stroke, trying not to disturb the undercoat. When
I try to skip the stroke of water and paint directly
over a dry area of paint, the results look dead compared
to the vibrancy of other areas. Standing back from the
picture, viewing it in the mirror, turning the paper
upside down, and having friends view it helps me catch
the areas that need work.
I love watercolors, but it's the great
colors and subjects of life that really excite me, motivating
me to paint. So I don't like to waste too much of my
precious time, and I've found that photographs are immensely
helpful in this effort. I always keep in mind that the
camera and the projector art; tools to help me get to
the painting process, where I can breathe life into
an image On paper and share my excitement with the world.