Sunday, March 16, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part II

First things first. Thank you first of all to Ginger, who only peed in the house twice in the last week and who posted on my blog to inform the world of my illness. Thanks second to everyone who wished me well in the comments and by e-mail -- I think it helped, because I'm definitely human again today.

Second of all, I wanted to point out that the Apple Tree in Springfield, Virginia, is hosting another two day colored pencil workshop with me on April 5-6 and there are a still a few slots left. Last month we had a full house, so book early if you can. We'll be getting 3-4 colored pencil pieces done from start to finish in those two days and it's a lot of fun.

Third of all, I won first place in the drawing category at the Fredericksburg Fine Arts Exhibit with my drawing, "Victoria in Spring" (at left). Not to brag . . . um, but yes. To brag.

So I wanted to follow up on my photographic post from last week. The one on making art from photos and how to fix said photos that was so rudely interrupted by my throat and sinuses being torn out by small elves and used for target practice.

As I mentioned in the last post, there are seven major items I expect to be missing most photographs. Every photograph I use as a reference will be missing at least one of these components and I'll need to make up for it in another way.

  • Good lighting
  • Interesting composition
  • Appropriate background
  • Accurate Color
  • High level of detail
  • Needs to be combined with the subject of another photo
  • My unique artistic vision
And I'll add one more, which was pointed out both in a comment and in an e-mail and is very true, especially for equestrian artists or artists that do a lot buildings or tall items

  • Lack of distortion
If I addressed how to fix all of these with nice Maggic examples, the post would become roughly the length of the movie Hidalgo and we would all be here all night. Much as I know that you enjoy my company, I think that would be a bit excessive, so I'm going to break it into three posts and hope I don't come down with chicken pox or something before the next one.

So tonight I'm going to write about how I adjust for lighting and composition. We'll hit the rest of the list on Wednesday and Friday. And questions, I think, on Friday, because I've got quite a backlog now.


First, let's talk about what counts as "bad lighting." There's all sorts of terrible lighting that one can encounter in the world of photography, but for me, there is only one unforgivable curse (hey! Harry Potter reference! I'm socially aware!) in lighting.

Flash. I cannot say this enough: Flash is a tool of the devil. Don't do it. It gets rid of every contour in every face in every person ever. Did you ever wonder why your driver's license photo never looked like you? Hello! Flash. Now, if you go to a nice posh portrait studio, they'll use flash -- but you better believe they'll have lit the $%^& out of one side of you so that you still have one side of your face lightly shadowed.

To demonstrate the evils of flash, I've taken the liberty of using two photos from my dear friend Helene, who is also a talented artist and possessor of Ginger's very spoiled sister. Photo on left? Flashed. See the way that it flattens everything? There's a weird ghost shadow behind her caused by the flash that would only happen in real life if she was watching a nuclear explosion. There's some interest in the photo because she's got fun colors . . . but can you imagine doing a portrait from that if she was all white? Most. Boring. Portrait. Ever.

Okay. Photo on right. No flash. Strong natural light from left of photo. Look at those lovely contours and imagine what you could do with a portrait of that if you decreased the contrast of those shadows slightly and threw color into them. Say it with me: ahhhhhhh.

Long story short: I would never do a portrait from a flashed photo. Ever.

Problem: Flash
Solution: a) Secure a non-flashed photo from the client or take them yourself. b) find a photograph of a similar animal/ person/ setting with good lighting and apply that lighting to your original image when you work it yourself. (If you do preliminary sketches, which I highly recommend, you can combine the two things in that sketch). Notice the pic of Ginger above. Different color, but similar facial structure and hair pattern. She'd work fine as a lighting pattern for a portrait of Helene's dog if all I had was the flashed photo.


This is actually a fun one, because for every image, there are ton of different ways to approach composing it. There are many, many composition rules and guidelines that you can follow to give you a more subconsciously appealing piece of art, but when it comes down to it, I only follow three reliably.


Composition rules are meant to be broken. Just learn them first, okay, before you break them? So now, Maggie's three quick and dirty rules to composition.

  • I never center anything. So that means no subject dead center in the middle of the composition (notice how Victoria in Spring is weighted to the left) and I never chop a painting in half by putting the horizon line in the center. Centering an image instantly makes it more static -- dead. Check out this photo I took of the breathtakingly eerie marshes near Tapphannock, Virginia. The one on the left has the horizon line perfectly centered. Blech. Looks like something my 3 year old drew. Good for a 3 year old. Bad for someone who has conquered puberty. Now take gander at the one on the right. Same photo, cropped to allow for more sky and putting that landscape line on the lower third. See how much more impressive that is?
  • I put the focal point on one of the "sweet spots." What, pray tell, you ask, is a sweet spot? Imagine dividing your image into thirds horizontally and then again, vertically. What, you can't? Not to worry, I've already done it for you on my painting "The Horses of Roan." Every place where two of the lines intersect is a "sweet spot." Put your focal point (that would be your subject's eyes, dummy) and you'll make magic. Experiment with this rule and you'll see what I mean -- it'll make a huge difference to your work if you don't already use it.
  • No kissing. I don't mean the clients. Though I don't kiss them, either. And I try not to hug, if I can help it, as I've noted before. I'm talking about kissing edges. I take great pains to never have the edge of a major object touching the side or touching another object. Far better to overlap. Otherwise, it's just . . . weird. It creates a sharp angle that instantly draws the eye, and that's not a good thing. You want to draw attention to your focal point, not to the edge of your piece. Check out my photo of oranges, for instance. The pretty one on the left sits in a sweet spot away from the edge. Now check out the version on the left, cropped so that the edges kiss. Ick! Disconcerting and unprofessional looking.

Problem: Uncropped photo/ bad composition.
Solution: Crop in a photo editing program or in your sketch book according to composition rules until you find a crop that you like.

Okay. Thus ends post 1! Whoo, I told you it would be long! Questions? Comments? More next post!


hbedrosian said...

Extremely valuable advice, Maggie. And I love "Victoria in Spring" - your award was well deserved.

Tani said...

Glad you're feeling better, Maggie. Congrats on the win with "Victoria in Spring" it's lovely and well-deserving of an award.

Barbara Pask said...

Hi Maggie, I'm glad you're feeling better. This is wonderful information. It's really great about your award, you sure deserve it. Barb

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Holly, Tani, Barb, thanks! Victoria is still very smug about that drawing. She likes to inform everyone that it's her -- as if they couldn't tell already, since she's always running in exactly that same pose!

Lynette said...

I thought 'Victoria in Spring' was a photo at first, what a beautiful piece and I can see why this won! Glad you're feeling better, great post!!