Just completed a 24" x 36" oil on linen landscape painting
today and in the process realized it represented the best
and worst of using photo reference to paint from.
Had this painting been a smaller piece like a 12" x 16"
the problems of using photo reference would not have
been so significant. In a larger piece the problems are
compounded because there is so much more to say.
In a small painting a single stroke can represent an
entire tree. In a larger painting you have to more
clearly define that same tree. And it's not just the tree
but the ground around it and anything in front of or
behind it. Before I get too verbose, its time to show
images so I can better explain myself.
Let's start with my setup:
My palette is to the left of the easel. From where
I stand in front of the easel I can easily view my
reference on a 42" HD monitor. The monitor
is plugged into a laptop where I keep all of
my photo reference. I have Photoshop on the
laptop to manipulate photos (more about this later).
On the easel is the completed painting. Notice the still life
setup in the back on adjustable shelves so I can paint
at eye level or lower depending on what I'm painting.
WHEN TO USE PHOTO REFERENCE: The Good
This shot from Canyon De Chelly is the basis
for my painting. Without photo reference the opportunity
to produce this painting wouldn't exist. So this is the
good part of using photos to paint from.
WHEN NOT TO USE PHOTOS AS REFERENCE: The bad.
Here are the problems with painting from this photograph
and why you cannot rely on photographs to paint from.
First there are two lead-ins into the painting indicated by the
red arrows in the photo below. One of them will have
to be eliminated so I can control how the viewer enters
the painting. Next the cliff on the right is so dark on my
monitor I cannot make out any details so I will rely on
one of my sketches from the trip. This is why painting from
life is so important. Without the plein air pieces I did on
the trip, I would have no idea how the reflected lights look,
what colors and values are in the shadow side of the cliff or
how to portray the true character of the cliff.
I want to control how the viewer enters my painting
and how they travel through it, so I need to
replace the right side lead-in with something else.
Searching my Canyon De Chelly folder I find the
I decide to place this at the bottom right
of the canvas. Now I have eliminated one of the
lead-ins and feel in control of the design. Sometimes
I will take the time to take both photos into Photoshop
and splice them together, but today I'm ready
to paint and don't want to take the time. Instead I
just put both images up on the screen and draw them
together to start the painting. Notice that I
have made sure the light is coming from the
same direction in both images.
I decide to tackle the problem of the dark cliff and the
new lead-in reference first, figuring I'd better solve
these problems or this painting is going to be a
huge waste of time.
Here's a detail of the right cliff and
foreground element. Resolving this problem
was a two hour process. Satisfied I move
on to the distant cliffs.
Feeling confident that I have resolved all
design issues I paint the distant cliff and
ground in about an hour.
Time to wrap things up by putting in the dirt road
The completed painting (4 1/2 hours later).
I'll wait a few days for it to dry then go over
the entire painting with Liquin and touch up areas
that I feel need to changed...or not. All-in-all
a good day in the studio.