I am currently working on a painting of a cold day at South Bay, Lake Muskoka from some photographs I shot on Wednesday. (I have attached one photo below) Over the next few posts, we will look at the process of why and how I get my photographs and how I use my them in the studio. The completed painting is being donated to Art at the Cottage, a fundraiser supporting the Cottage Dreams program that helps families recover from Cancer.
As much as I love the cold, I am not into painting in -12C windchill. What’s more, is that the most beautiful opportunities can arise in less than inviting conditions. I am not a plein air painter, per se, I do paint outside on occasion, but few of my studio paintings are from plein air sketches. I rely on photographs quite a bit. I even take a photograph when painting on site, that way, if I do decide to make a larger painting of a sketch – I have another reference. I want to share some quick tips with you about working with photographs, as well as how to take a good reference photo.
I have a great camera – an Nikon D80 digital with a lens that leans to the wide angle. I only use my own reference photos and there are a couple of reasons for this:
- You need to see a place in three dimensions, get the feeling of it in order to bring it to life in a painting. Paintings from photos of places an artist has never been, or from photos they didn’t take, can sometimes end up flat and without emotion. There are the lucky few whose imaginations can transcend this, but they are often highly experienced painters, and not often realists.
- Copyright. This is a big one. I like to own the original copyright of all of my images. I don’t want to have to worry about what goes to the public and if I ‘changed’ it enough to make it mine. Why walk a fine line? If you do use a photo taken by someone else, you need their written permission and they may be able to limit, commercially, what you can do with the work when it is done. Copyright laws vary from country to country, so it is best to avoid getting entangled at all, IMO.
- Like writers, we can have the greatest success with what we know. We can bring places to life with our love of them. I have said before that we as a people can be defined by our landscape (or cityscape). Its feels good to express that and the person looking at a work can feel it too when it gets on canvas.
Here in Muskoka, the lakes are almost frozen over. I wouldn’t walk on the ice yet, but there is a decent skin of ice over most of the lakes and only a few of the biggest areas of water remain open. One of those places is South Bay, Lake Muskoka. The good ice goes out a hundred feet or so and there is a translucent skin that goes for twice that distance again. After that, the water is open. On Wednesday, the wind was blowing hard and that water was choppy! (There seems to be a theme here…??) The sun was out and at a good angle for the mid-afternoon and there were big fluffy clouds tinged with warm pink and orange floating by at a good clip.
I was wrapped up in layers of thermals and that wind was still taking a bite out of me! I brought out the camera and took some twenty shots just of South Bay:
- Landscape shots and portrait shots
- Sunlit and shadowed
- Long foreground and short foreground
- High horizon and low horizon
- Several different shutter speeds – to burn out the highlights in order to pull out detail in the shadows and others to swallow the shadows and bring out detail in the highlights. In photographic terms, this is called ‘bracketing’.
I am sure to get several options for a few paintings of this place as a result.
After a couple of hours of marching around in the snow, I collected nearly 100 photographs in late afternoon light. Rich blues and purples in the shadows and bright orange and gold highlights on barns, trees, you name it. Winter is wonderful for the variety of colours. Snow is rarely ‘white’.
The next step is to take the photos into Photoshop. This is where you can play with cropping the photos, to get the right balance of objects and elements, and colour correct or enhance.
Next time, I’ll share a few tips on how to use some of the Photoshop tools to work with your photographs and prepare them for use in the studio….. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll be happy to answer them if I can! Painting from Photographs – II