Night Ride, 12 x 12 inches, oil on linen
Unfaithful... to photo references, that is.
One of the most often asked questions is "do you use photo references?" And the answer is I do, for cityscapes.
My landscapes are often done en plein air, or if it's a studio piece, I use plein air sketches as references, or I paint from memory (which might be more accurately describe as inventing a view. Also known as making stuff up).
For figurative work, I either paint using a model, or use drawings (5 - 15 minutes done from life) as references.
That is to say, I usually don't use photo references for landscapes or figurative work. But for cityscapes, I almost always do because often I can't set up my easel where I want, and there's not enough time to put down all the information I need, if I were to do it en plein air. (Which doesn't stop me from trying from time to time but usually I fail)
The thing that surprises a lot of people is how much I deviate from the reference. Check it out;
This is the reference I used for the painting. As you can see, I completely changed it. To be sure, this one goes a little further away from the original photo than most, but it's not at all unusual for me to change this and move that to make the painting completely different from the photo.
I think one of the reasons is that my reference photos are usually just snapshots and not the highest quality - I don't even pretend to be a competent photographer - so I can hardly rely on my references being good compositions to begin with. That mindset liberates me and allows me to compose my pictures, using the photo only as a starting point, and to provide some structural information.
Also true is the fact that when I was at art school, I was studying to become an illustrator and my great fear was that out there in the real world, I might at some point get an assignment that I couldn't do, because I lacked the ability to create a mood, or lighting, or an environment or a situation without those perfect references photos. So I worked really, really hard at understanding how visual reality worked, so that hopefully, I'd at least be able to fake any situation that a client threw at me.
What that did, basically, is to put me in a habit of using any crappy photo and trying to make something out of it. Or make multiple variations addressing different issues from a single reference photo. That habit has become a core part of how I make paintings nowadays, and I'm kind of glad about that.
This photo is actually a crop of a larger view; a shot that I've made into another painting earlier. This was a nice view, and the painting was OK, but it's been done so many times by other artists that I found it difficult to make it into something uniquely mine. Iconic subject matter have that problem sometimes. Especially if it's a tourist destination.
Cityscapes are difficult enough to paint without having to think about expressions of one's identity. I mean, there's all these interesting visual elements, any number of which could make a compelling focal point. In trying to make a single statement, we have to cherry pick what's important and what isn't, and create a clear hierarchy of visual importance on our canvases. Photo references don't have that subjective hierarchy because it shows everything with equal strength and importance, especially if the photo was taken by an amateur like me.
As I painted a study for this painting, I started out fairly literally, and kept taking out information which I thought were not part of the main story. In frustration, sometimes I would paint out a whole section with broad, violent strokes of black, and in doing so, the painting became darker and darker.
Soon it started to look like a night view. A-ha! Darkness is a wonderful device for simplification and creating mystery. Although I wasn't going for a nocturnal piece at first, I recognized a good thing when I stumbled upon it.
Who cares if it looks nothing like the photo? Unless it's a commission piece where expectations are clearly spelled out, or if I'm trying to create a specific type of imagery, I leave myself wide open to accidents and meandering processes. I believe that it's very important to be able to paint what you initially envision, but I also believe, when appropriate, that getting lost in the process and allowing accidents and discovery to lead the way, is a great way to work.