Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

If you’ve ever been stumped in choosing reference photos, I know you’d love a few tips from another artist.

John Ursillo has been painting and drawing for many years, so he’s the ideal person to help us all choose better reference photos.

Please welcome John Ursillo back to the blog.

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

by John Ursillo, CPSA

I am a strong advocate for any artist who decides to take on a realist piece to:

First, become familiar with why the objects and overall “look” of an attracting reference looks as it does; and,

Second, acquire knowledge about the subject, the light it was taken under, and surrounding surfaces that can contribute to reflected light shining into shadows, etc.

True, an adept artist may get by with directly copying a reference without this knowledge, but IMHO it will show.  Snapshot photographs are notorious for deceiving the eye. Shadows are often too dark and light areas overexposed, or the reverse. Calendar photos with blown out supersaturated sunsets  are the worst examples to follow.

That’s also why copies of portraits of people or pets taken with an indoor flash or outdoor, bright frontal sunlit photos often just do not look “right”. Viewers of the finished piece can see when something is “not quite right,” even if they cannot put their finger on just what the cause is.

A Compulsive Realist and Photographer

Enough philosophy! I confess to being a compulsive “Realist”. That was my training and still gives me and my clients satisfaction with my work. Thus, good reference material is essential to my creative process. After all, I was an engineer professionally and thus strongly “left” brained. I seldom use subjects drawn solely from my imagination. IDEAS, yes, of course, but always followed by real world reference materials that give substance to these “bolts of inspiration.”

I am also a compulsive photographer when I travel (even about the yard). That tendency adds body to my store of references which dates back into the 1980’s – the days of something we actually called “film”.

In my art I use only images I capture myself – never the work of anyone else without permission, giving attribution to the giver. And that rarely.

Digital photography has been a boon to me, especially the cameras now built into our cell phones. These have opened documentation of worlds of subjects in numbers (regarding storage, retrieval, quality and internal image manipulation) that were far less practical before.

Keys for Choosing which Reference to Use:

Interesting

A “good” idea – something that grabs my attention and will not let go until fed. I do not access images on the internet as a source of ideas – public domain notwithstanding. Those are someone else’s ideas, not mine.

Realist, detailed, with a strong potential focal point and lines, value forms, etc. that contribute, with some effort, to making a good composition.

Close to the Originating Idea

Must come close to what my mental concept is. An exact match is often not possible but close enough is good. Sometimes this may take several references if specific details are missing or other subject elements are required. The rest is supplied by imagination.

Researchable

If I need a specific atmospheric effect I don’t have a reference for: e.g. a fog bank or cloud effect.

I never use copyright protected material – ever!

I may, rarely, need to use the internet or my non-digital (paper) library to find exact information for a subject to flesh out the subject from an environmental or historical context. For example, when drawing a historical scene, I may need to see exactly the way a particular ship is rigged, constructed, etc.

The reference for my tutorial in Carrie’s magazine is a close-up from a digital photo of the movie ship “SS Venture”.

This is the original photo, taken in New Zealand.

This is the composition I cropped from the original photo.

As with many references captured during a trip, the snapshot collecting is quick but the resulting photographs often throw the balance between light and dark off kilter. Should one follow this image literally the shadows would be too dark, losing most of the detail within, and the highlights too light, ditto.

If you have access to a computer you can push the values so that the shadows become full of detail and the highlights likewise. That’s what I usually do, (either digitally or by careful observation) because it’s necessary

Now You Know John’s Method for Choosing Reference Photos

Are you more confident is choosing the reference for your next piece? I hope so!

My thanks to John for sharing his experiences with using canvas with colored pencils.

John is the featured artist in the May issue of CP Magic. Get your copy here and read more about his unique technique and his artistic journey.

One Reply to “Tips for Choosing Reference Photos”

  1. Thank you Carrie and John. Good to know how to pick a photo and what to do with it when you get it…like changing the look of the shadows etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *