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

These “mini-lessons” grew out of my blog. I love sharing my experience behind the easel, so these are free. I write a new one every two or three weeks, so please feel free to share with artist friends.

​These lessons are mostly written text with graphics…short but useful tidbits from the foundations of painting that touch on subjects such as aerial perspective, simultaneous contrast or using negative spaces. I guide you through different aspects of painting and art that will get you comfortable with using pastels. You’ll gain confidence to attempt work that you might have otherwise been timid about.

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