Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part III

portrait commission/ work in progress
16 x 20" colored pencil on pastelbord
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.

I am interrupting a fun filled evening of child-rearing and art-making to continue my series on altering photographic references for art. (Last part can be found here)

Anyway, so I just rolled over an Oreo with my desk chair (remind me to tell you guys tomorrow about buying a new desk chair) and I'm amazed at how large a splatter pattern one Oreo can make when faced with light-colored carpet. Really, the government should study this. I'm sure it has some use in the defense area.

All right, last post I covered lighting and composition in photo references. Tonight I'm going to write about how I approach photographs that are lacking good color or nice backgrounds, two things that are particularly important in simple portraits.


This one is sort of easy. It takes a bit of leg work, but it's not really hard. I get photos with poor color all the time -- flashed photos often are washed out, dark photos can be brightened for details but often lack good color, weird lighting situations can create technicolor creations of terrifying hue.

In this case, it's a matter of finding another photo, or photos, that fill in the information gap. Sometimes, this will be very easy. For instance, I love the pose on the tiger shot above, one I took at the National Zoo last year (appreciate that the tiger was 8,000 miles away when I took this shot if you will). I know what color this tiger was because I was there to take the photo. However, since I didn't have a sketchbook with me to record the colors, another ref would help fill in the gaps in my memory. It's a simple matter to hit the internet (google's image search is a nice function for this) to find another tiger photo with better color. I'll use my pose and the color from the other photo.

In this case, it's not really necessary to track down a copyright-free photo, since you're not using the likeness or copying the photo in any way, but if you do need to borrow majorly from a photo in anyway, there are several places to find photos that are copyright free, like the WetCanvas reference library, or with photos available under the Creative Commons License, like Flickr (notice that not all photos on Flickr are available under the Creative Commons License, you have to check that box on the advanced search page).

Sometimes, however, the task is harder because it's a commission and you've not met the subject. Say it's a flashed photo of a girl with what looks like dark brown hair. You're pretty sure that it's lighter than the photo, but you're not sure how light. This is not the time to pull out hair dye swatches and start guessing. This is where normally I would send the client an e-mail asking them to search through one of the photo sources for a girl with the same color hair. I've not yet had a client be bothered by such "homework." I find that usually, however, I can just ask the client if they have a photo that has good color and bad everything else. Usually there's a blurry photo with accurate colors that they can send.


Problem: Poor color in reference photos.
Solution: Fill in the gaps with other photos of similar subjects, with color sketches (if you made them), or with photos lacking in other elements but sporting true color.


This is a biggie. Now, you'll have to pardon my example photos here. In the great Computer Porno Fire of 2007, I lost many of my photo references, and then in the Great Hard Drive Malfunction of 2008 I lost many more (for those who may not remember either, the first was when Norton AntiVirus downloaded 3,000 porno videos onto my computer into hidden folders - thanks, Norton! and the second was when Life decided it Hated Me), so I'm kind of running short of examples here. I'll have better ones on Friday, promise.

Okay. So what do you do when you need to change backgrounds? Let's say you're doing a portrait of your charming daughter and the background is either boring or shows something really unartistic behind her, like your neighbor's dog making love to a sofa pillow or the such. The simplest way to change this is to do a studio background, just a single color, either flat or in gradient. But I hate studio portraits with a passion (my apologies to those who love them) so for me, I need all of the image to be doing something.

So let's imagine that I have consumed an ungodly amount of sweet tea and I want to do a portrait of my daughter as if she is in the middle of this lovely field near Warsaw, Virginia. I have two real options for references.

When I was first starting out, I'd use option A -- I'd digitally combine the two photos in Adobe Photoshop. This is problematic for a few reasons. While it gave me a reference instantly and beautifully combined, it didn't require me to use my artistic brain. So if I'd just thoughtlessly combined the two photos above, I would've been making a major lighting error (note the direction of lighting in each) and I would've been forced to make all my position and sizing changes dependent on how well I knew how to use the program. Any color changes I thought I'd needed I'd have to tweak individually. There are entire college degrees based around this stuff, folks.

So, as I got better and starting using my sketchbook for quick 2 minute preliminary sketches, I started using option B: sketching the various options in quick 2 minute sketches. This is the option I still use today. It's much faster for me than Photoshop, and it also sorts out a ton of problems a lot more effectively. I'm not so worried about details or likeness in these little quick sketches -- more about how values and shapes affect each other.

So enter my ugly two minute sketch. Is it great art? No. Did it work out a lot of problems in my head for this piece? Yes. Notice a couple things about it.

  • Light source is identified.
  • Possible color conflicts (similarity between sky and shirt color) are identified and a possible solution (intensifying saturation on shirt) is tried out
  • Two different crops are tried out. If I was really doing a piece like this, I'd probably have three or four little sketches like this, the others in black and white, trying out landscape versus portrait formats, having her standing in the grass versus up close, more of her face versus more of her body, etc.
  • Another advantage? A lot of times, portrait clients are very happy to get these sketches along with their portraits, if you're willing to give them up. People are fascinated by the process.
Now there is a compromise between a flat studio background and a fully detailed one -- it is possibly to just simplify and blur the background of photo you already have. In this case, there's a great exercise you can do to figure how to blur elements. Focus on something -- like my interesting blog post on your computer screen -- but make yourself away of the way you're perceiving things outside of your direct focus area. See how uncontrasty and blurred they are? That's what you're going for.

Problem: Crummy background.
Solution: Eliminate the background, simplify the background, or sub another photograph.

Yikes. I just realized this blog post took me a stunning two hours to assemble, which means my portrait is going to be put on hold until tomorrow.

I should take the opportunity to plug myself, shouldn't I? If you're liking this series of blog posts I've been doing lately and feel like showing your support, please head onto cafepress and buy a t-shirt or mug with my art on it, sign up for a workshop, or e-mail my editor at Flux and tell him how brilliant I am. Okay, I'm kidding about the last one.

Next post will finish up photo alterations -- remember to post questions in the comments section. Next week's series topic will be one which is very important to me!


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Marsha Robinett said...

This has been a wonderful series...extremely informative from all aspects. I look forward to the next edition. So glad you're feeling better

connie said...

An outstanding have an uncanny ability to cut to the chase. Looking forward to the next installment. Connie Snipes

Judy said...

I am really enjoying this!!! Very informative!

christine said...

hi maggie! this is my first post to you, but i couldn't resist any longer! i am grateful to you for taking time to do this blog series, its the best one yet! one question tho...when you do those prelim. sketches, how do you pick the best one?? i do them, find that i have a dreadful time then picking just one. seems there would be a few that would 'work', how to go about picking the *best* one? thanks in advance (that is assuming you plan to respond to me!)

Jo Castillo said...

Great advice. Thanks, Maggie. You are a great tutor and artist.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Nice one Maggie - this'll be highlighted again in my 'who's made a mark this week?' post. Well it's only fair as #1 and #2 were!