Rendezvous, 18 x 18 inches, oil on linen
Yes, I do use photo references. Hardly ever for landscapes, and usually not for in-studio figurative works. But I need structural references when I'm painting cityscapes and figures in environments outside of the studio - like this one I'm posting today.
The thing is, I'm not a very good photographer. I can take decent photos if I all the planets aligned at the point when I press the shutter, but that rarely happens. Consequently, if I'm out in the city taking reference photos, I'm not thinking too much about specific paintings. I'm just shooting (often while driving) anything that catches my eye. What I end up is a ton of crappy snapshots.
But that's OK, I always find a few that has potential. The thing is, these photos never result in good paintings if I just painted them as they are. They need to be altered, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, in order for a workable composition to emerge. If I were a really good photographer, this may not be the case, but like I said, I'm not.
Here's the reference photo I used to make the painting;
What do you think? Taking liberties? You bet. For me, photo references need to offer information without which I can't build a painting. In this case, I needed the reference for the gestures of the couple. I can't make that up. But everything else is supporting cast, you see. I simplified the environment to showcase the two figures.
Using the photo reference this way, it's important to be clear about what's essential and what's not. And in order to know what's essential, you need to first have an idea about what the painting is going to be about. This is the concept. Composition supports the concept, and visual elements are manipulated to make an effective composition. If you are very clear about the concept, the editing decisions shouldn't be too difficult or confusing.
Is it important that the girl be wearing a sweatshirt? It wasn't important for my concept, but depending on your concept, the answer may be yes. And if so, is it important that it be blue? Do her pants have to be red? Does he have to be wearing a whit t-shirt? Shorts? Does the cafe wall have to be green? Why?
In art school, the instructors in some classes would bombard us with questions like these in an attempt to get us students to think more deeply about the concept, and I think it's good practice even if you aren't in school.
My aim was to create a sense of narrative which hinted at, but not explain, what the story was between these two people. I didn't want to spell it out for the viewer. I wanted the viewer to come up with his own storyline.
I changed their clothed to suggest there was some kind of story beyond just two people hanging out. The dark color of the dress allowed me to create contrast there, so that the woman became the primary focus. One of the first decisions I made was to assign primary and secondary roles to the two figures, since I didn't want the two to have equal visual weight.
I used the photo to get the light/shadow pattern on the woman. The man ended up in a dark suit in the shadow, so that I may create more mystery, and also play with the design by losing a lot of the edges of his contour.
In order to for the guy's head to be in shadow, I included the awning at the top of the painting. The lettering gave me an opportunity to include sharp, carefully drawn marks, adding to the variety of paint application I used in the picture. I only showed a section of the words and the street number, because that was enough to accomplish what I wanted the lettering for, and I didn't want this to be a specific place.
Being faithful to reference photo works in some cases, but for me, copying a photo doesn't give me any pleasure at all. Because my photos are mere snapshots, often random, they are usually not based on ideas. Without an idea to drive the composition, I would just be going through the motions. (Even a study or an exercise has a purpose. Or should.) In that sense, my reference photos provide necessary information, but if I want to express an idea with my painting, making a painted version of a photograph will never work.