What makes a great photo reference for a painting? It isn’t always the monumental scene or the overtly beautiful one that I’m always attracted to. Sometimes it’s the dance of light and shadow across a pathway or the gesture of a branch that captivates me. There are a few things I’m looking for in reference material and there are a few things that I’m not interested in at all.

Here’s a short list of the things I want:

  • 3 to 5 Strong value groupings
  • A sense of atmosphere or space
  • Room for me in there

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • The perfect photo
  • Everything in it’s place
  • That I have to paint the whole thing

So let me explain a little more thoroughly! Three to five strong value masses (more or less) is something that I want. The photo should be one where I can easily group values that are similar together, so that I wind up with a nice variety of values of different proportions in the scene, so that there will be a dominant value story. I’d stay away from winding up with lots of little bits of similar size shapes all over the place. If my scene has a sense of atmosphere, that’s cool. I like a sense of aerial perspective in the landscape to help guide my viewer through the scene.

Looking for a photo that has room in it for me is what I would prefer. What I mean by this is, I’ve painted from lots of photos. Some paintings can wind up looking just like the photo. That’s not what I’m after. Just because it’s a pretty photo doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make a good painting. It could mean that, but not always. I want to be able to add something to it, so if it’s a great photo that is very complete, maybe that’s what it should be…a photo. It might not need me to paint it.

Let’s look at the example below. There’s a huge electrical tower smack in the middle and a cement barrier on the right, along with a railroad track…Yeah, but it’s got a lovely sense of aerial perspective on a bright sunny spring day. It’s got nice groups of values and some interesting soft color in the foreground. I’d scooch some elements around (not make things up), and edit the glaring things out.

This would be a photo I would definitely use!

Now let’s look at this one. It’s soooo beautiful! I took this in Telluride, CO on a beautiful morning. I don’t want to paint this. It doesn’t need me!

With Warmest Regards,

Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

My free online minilessons in art are a fantastic way to learn more about your craft, regardless of your skill level. There are lessons available on everything from basic drawing techniques to complex painting methods, and no matter what your interests are, you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Whether you’re a beginner who’s just starting out, or a seasoned artist who wants to brush up on your skills, these minilessons are a great resource. These lessons are available anytime, anywhere. So whether you’re looking for a quick refresher or want to explore something new, be sure to check out some of my minilessons at Painting Lessons with Marla.

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