Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Yes, I Do Use Photo References

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 pummel 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 clothes 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.  

Although I changed the clothing, I did refer to 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.

The woman's face being in shadow, and the man's entire head being in shadow, obscuring their identities, is intentional and an essential device in creating that sense of anonymity. I think the viewer can relate more to a painted figure if the figure's specific identity is not clearly defined. If you're familiar with my figurative work, you may have noticed that I do this a lot. Check it out.

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.


  1. Your painting is far more interesting than the image! :) I particularly love the obscure detail of her dangling shoe.
    I appreciate having a strong concept but knowing which questions to ask is where I struggle. You make it look so easy... :)

    1. Thanks Lori! Yes, I thought the shoe spoke volumes.

      Which questions to ask... hmmmm..... It sounds like a good topic for another post! :-D

  2. It is fascinating to see how you assemble the scene, using the gestural elements from the photo, but inventing all the rest. The mood and mystery from the dark interior add interest, and the richness of your color choices, as subtle as they are... amazing! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Mitch~! This is an example of taking a small usable element from an otherwise boring photo and building a painting. Sometimes I use enough of the reference so that the painting actually resembles the photo. Usually, it falls somewhere in the middle. Except color. The colors I use never look anything like the photo.

  3. great post Terry. You have a real knack of being able to explain your process in an easy to understand way. I'll bet you're a great teacher. Love the painting...so much more interesting than the photo resource. wonderful!

    1. Thank you Sally!~ I appreciate it very much!

    2. More than anything else, my illustration training was based on the assumption that some day I'll get an assignment where I won't be able to find the right reference material, and I'll be labeled as the guy who couldn't do the job! So in art school, I focused on learning how to make stuff up. Or at least, make stuff up using very bad reference photos :-D

    3. Great to read William Wray in this (great) blog.
      Do you guys - two of my very few 'art' bookmarks in my pc - know each other? That would be amazing...

    4. Yes, Bill and I know one another, and I'm a big fan of his work~

    5. Amazing it is, then!!!... It's a small world indeed - and, by the way, I'm writing from Italy...
      Keep up the good work, guys, 'cause a lot of us are loving what you do, and learning from it!