Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part I

"Lawrence" - 11 x 14" colored pencil on board.
Copyright Maggie Stiefvater.
Contact Chasen Galleries for purchase info.

(My version on left and reference photo -- actual size -- on right)
There has always been a major debate raging about using photographs as reference for artwork and this post is not about that (it's also not about player pianos, flocks of sharpie markers, or swear words -- which are also post-worthy subjects that may get touched upon this week). The only thing I will say about the debate here is that I do think that there is a place for photographs as references, as long as you know their limitations and learn to take/ use your own, and as long as you’re also able to draw from life. Drawing from life has an immediacy and freshness that I think you’d be hard pressed to get from a photo. And drawing from someone else's photo will always be revising someone else's vision rather than starting from scratch by yourself.

Okay. That aside. Onto the actual craft of using photographs for references, or more specifically, changing them to make a better piece of art. The more photo-realistic your finished piece of art is meant to be, the more thoughtful you’re going to have to be about these changes.

There are a few different reasons to change a photo, always because it’s lacking. It could be lacking:

- good lighting
- good composition
- good background
- necessary elements from another reference (like if you’re putting additional subjects in a portrait or putting a subject in a different surrounding)
- good color
- good detail
- your artistic style

Unless the photograph is yours and is absolute perfection, you will be changing at least one of these things. This is the point where I usually get two big questions:

1) How do I analyze a photo to even know if it’s good or bad?


2) How do I change it so that the changes look natural and realistic?

And here is the disappointing bit . . . because all I'm going to say is that I'm tackling these questions this week (with photographic examples! don't be too sad!) on Wednesday and Friday. If you have any other questions that this post brought up that I should be tackling as well, leave 'em in the comments. I promise I do eventually get to them . . .


Clever said...

I, for one, am excited to read asll of the suggestions you have for altering your own photo references...mostly because I have a smokin' hot camera that I am sure is not getting the workout it deserves. Do you use any photo manipulation programs to do the altering or do you do sketch after sketch or some combination?

Anonymous said...

Just a dumb question... When you say colored pencil on board - what type of board do you mean?

Karen Thumm said...

Another reason to change a photo is that it contains distortions or awkward poses.

Jo Castillo said...

Hi Maggie, I'm at least ten days behind in my blog reading/commenting. Sorry. I just had to say that I love this horse. So descriptive. Are you sure it is from that photo. ;b

Hugs, hope you feel better.

Delofasht said...

So now you can see that I'm actually closely following your work and stuff. Wanted to stop in and say hello and that your my hero. Thanks for giving us these descriptions of your working style, always nice when someone shares their 'dao' with us.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Margaret - I have Photoshop and I love it -- I'll talk more about that in Part IV on Friday.

Anon - I use either masonite primed with Colorfix primer or Ambersand Pastelbord. Both the primer and the Pastelbord are available from Dick Blick's online.

Jo - Awww. Thanks. Lawrence is one of my personal favorites, largely because I remember what photo I did it from!

Del - Thanks! :D It means a lot to me.