Saturday, March 22, 2008

Maggie on Photographic References, Part IV

Okay, onto the last part of my changing photographic references for art series. I'm gonna answer all questions in a separate post tomorrow. Folks just joining can see the earlier parts here:

Part I
Part II
Part III

Tonight we're coming to my last two in depth mini-topics, both of which are actually massive enough to justify their own weekly series: combining two subjects into one piece of art and altering a photo to suit your own personal artistic style. I'm going to touch on these two items very lightly in the relative scheme of things, so if you have a specific question, be sure to ask it in the comments so I can get to it tomorrow.

So tonight I'm actually cheating and using the same example to illustrate both points.


I'm asked to do this a lot in my commission portrait work, and I'm sure it's pretty obvious why. Dog A and Dog B don't get along, but client would like photo of them snuggling like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Or Dog A and Dog B don't hold still long on their own, much less in each other's presence, and a nice photo of them together is about as likely as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston getting back together. Anyway, whatever the reason, suffice to say that if you do portraits, you're going to eventually be asked to do a multi-subject piece. And you want to be able to say "yes." (Unless it's a portrait of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston).

So let's pretend that these two pretty bad photos of Moose and Peanut need to be combined in some artistic fashion. We can't really just smush them together in Photoshop and tell them to play nice -- it won't work. At least not without considerable thought. And why, you ask, is that? A couple reasons:

  • Lighting. Notice that the light is coming from two entirely different directions. Not only will we have to adjust for that, but if we're putting them close together, we'll have to adjust for one of them casting shadows onto the other one.
  • Size. We're going to need to know what size they are relative to each other and adjust for that as well. A cat and a Jack Russell might not be hard to guess, but what if it was two mutts of indeterminate size? Or a giant-headed child and a midget? You need this information before you combine two subjects or you can end up with a real disaster.
  • Markings. You can just move around bodies wherever you want them without having photos of both sides of their bodies. Ditto with a person's face. You can't just turn them the other direction by flipping the photo. People's faces aren't symmetrical and animals' markings aren't either.
  • Altering body positions. Photoshop can only do you so much. If you're doing major changes, you need something a bit more powerful, which would be . . .

Your sketchbook! You knew I was going to say that, weren't you? I start out with two very quick value sketches of each subject as they stand. Just to get my bearings. Those suckers are on the left here and as you can see, they are very quick, very sketchy, and only have three values: dark, midtone, and light.

To me, these little ugly creations are worth gold. Do you see what I've established with them in only 60 seconds? The major shapes, the light direction, and what I would do to correct the value patterns (note how I simplified the background on Peanut, the terrier). Anyway, now I have my base line. I know what I'm really working with.

So I move onto my mock-ups. I can do as many of these as I need to until I find the composition I like. Referring to my value sketches and the original photos, I put the two subjects together. First I try Moose on the left and Peanut on the right. Notice how I put them nice and close. Artsy. Snuggly. Cute. I reverse the shadowing on Moose's face and give him a shadow from Peanut's face. When I execute this piece (that means "finish it" not "line it up against a wall and shoot it"), I'll have to know what the markings are on Moose's other side, if I use this mock-up.

Okay, I like that, but I want to see what happens if I swap their positions. Out comes the sketchbook and another value sketch appears. Again, quick. Painless. Just the three values and major shapes. Here's Moose on the right. I still need to adjust his lighting, but I don't have to play with his body shape and I can probably get away without too much shadowing on Peanut's face if I pretend my lighting is coming from a high right angle. I like this one. Looking at it now, I think I'd definitely make sure to knock back Peanut's big body shape there on the left back to midtone, because it's distracting as it is.

So you see how simple that was? Not at all painful.

Problem: Need to combine two photos.
Solution: Three Value Mockups, correcting for lighting and size discrepancies.


This goes back to the conversation we had earlier this month about not slavishly copying photos but rather putting your own spin on them. For this reason, I get particular enjoyment from working from not so great photos, because that way I can take full credit for them turning out okay!

I thought a visual example would be easier than a written one for this. The two photographs you see of Peanut in this post were the basis for the two pieces of Peanut artwork also in this post. I think you can see how I took my style and pushed the envelope. Key points of my style are:

  • A lot deep darks.
  • Scattered hints of bright color
  • Intense saturation
The photos lacked all of those -- but I put them in anyway. Establish what you want the image to say and then let the photo work for you, not the other way around.

Problem: Copying a photo.
Solution: Use your sketchbook and your imagination to use the photo as just one piece of your artistic arsenal.

Next week's series, by the way, is on something important to me -- motivation, time-management, and artistic mentality.


Gillian McMurray said...

This post is invaluable for me right now. I have just accepted a commission that requires putting two animals together. Unfortunately one of the cats is deceased so I will be trying your tips. Many thanks.

Toni said...

Thanks for this series on photographs, Maggie. I look forward to next week's series, too!

Autumnwillow said...

Great tips, Maggie, thank you as always... do want to point out a teeny tiny typo that makes a HUGE difference though (sorry sorry I know you probably don't want it pointed out but it confused me until I THINK I figured out it was just a typo)... you said about flipping a pet that you "can" just flip them, but I think you meant you "can't" (because of markings, etc)... And an invaluable tip that is, btw, which I found out the hard way a time or two! If of course this is not the case, I will be waiting in front of the guillotine at sunrise... ;)

vivien said...

this was a great series :)

and I'm looking forward to the time management ...........something I'm baaaaad at :>(

Judy said...

You are a great teacher and I look forward to more. Thank you.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Autumn Willow - you're absolutely right! What a type -- I changed it ASAP! Thank you for pointing it out. *blush*

Serena said...

This series has been particularly helpful to me, Maggie. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and helping others to grow ~

Delofasht said...

This is a Maggie at her best, here we can see her skillfully instructing us in her usuage of Photographs. In next weeks' episodes, we get to be amused and entertained while learning about Time Management. . . Next time on Greywaren Art blog by Maggie Stiefvater. . . :p

Yes this is the effect you are having on your public. ;)

Thanks for the great information, organized much better than I could find in the WetCanvas library.

- Del