Friday, June 24, 2011

Reference Photos and Life Sketches

Even if you don't have a good digital SLR, it's possible to take your own reference photos and get usable ones. There are times when I think the low resolution photos I get with my phone are among the most useful.

I don't get lost in a lot of detail with them. I get the proportions and shape of the subject, get to compose the shot, can take many photos of it and store them easily. Then coming back to them, I don't get tempted into drawing it in hard-edged photorealism right to the edge of the painting.

The photo isn't a good painting in itself.

The photo is a reminder of some things that are easy to get wrong without a lot of practice. This photo is of some orange lilies my daughter picked on the day that we moved out of Kansas to leave for Arkansas. I had them in the car, took some photos of the house we left in Kansas and got some good shots of the flowers because I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep them alive that long to do a good painting of them.

I did get out my oil pastels from the satchel at my feet and do a quick color study of the lily in my sketchbook too.

The camera records some things very well, like details. Others it distorts horribly, like values and colors. So the best combination is to take some reference photos from as many different angles and lighting conditions as you can with what you have in hand - and then do some color studies and life sketches too.

Those don't have to be accurate. They don't have to be good drawings. You could draw just one petal of the lily in detail to get all its subtle color shifts and its structure right, or distort the shape and just get down the colors. It doesn't matter - your eye is much better at seeing color and value than any camera in existence.

Your color notes might even be swatches and a shading bar, not even a drawing. If you're sketching in a moving vehicle that might be a very good idea! Looking at something real though, you'll be able to judge values and colors much better.

That's part of learning to see.

The old saying that "to learn to draw you need to learn to see" is absolutely true. It's like learning to read. Your eyes will take in far more information than your mind can process, it gets filtered or you'd go insane. When you learn to see like an artist, you are in effect learning a new language.

Instead of looking at it and seeing "orange lily" tagging it with the words, an artist will see it as a series of interesting abstract shapes.

The shapes associated with the words Orange Lily might be a distorted, flattened icon of a lily in flat orange. The actual, unique living flower at exactly each angle it's turned in the sunlight of that Kansas day is something else - a moment in time that an artist can capture on paper or canvas with pigments. The more often you draw things from life and try to be true to what you see, the easier it is to see past the filter.

Especially if you draw the same type of subject over and over again.

All beginners make the same natural mistakes in learning how to draw. I think they must come in culturally. Some of them even get taught, like Stick Figures. Remember learning how to do Stick Figures and the square house with triangular pitched roof in kindergarten? You'd seen those icons already in kids' books and then in kindergarten the teacher expects you to be able to draw them - in that very common style, the one everyone knows. That's like learning to form letters.

The symbol is not the thing.

The artist creates a different type of symbol. When you draw from life, you're reinvanting the alphabet. Instead of the letter O starting "orange lily" or a six sided symmetrical flower shape with pointed petals, you choose the angle it's at its most unique and beautiful. Personal esthetic choices are there in every step of the process - that's why people talk about "the freedom of art."

It's not just that you can draw anything you want to. Of course you can. But in the process of drawing anything you want to, you're deciding moment to moment how to symbolize it for people who aren't holding it in their hands and smelling its scent, feeling the sticky bulb of the stamen and the texture of the petals.

You decide what's important, the flowers or the background. You turn it so that as a whole it's an interesting abstract shape, not symmetrical, not exactly like every other orange lily ever drawn. You can easily forget what it is and just think of it as an orange shape with various other orange and pale cream shapes jigsawed into it.

You can use dozens of tricks to create the illusion of a three dimensional object on a two dimensional piece of paper, many of which are themselves exaggerations, and you've invented a symbol that's like the Chinese character of someone's individual name. It's readable - very readable. No one needs to understand art to tell that you did an orange lily or to think that one's beautiful, because you staged it perfectly.

You set it up with the light falling on it in a way that the shadows define the form and make it look 3D. You set it up with the light at an angle to it so it looks warm and real. You shifted the colors in the shadows the way they shift in life and maybe exaggerated a little of the reflected color, so the light seems real and intense.

You also got the outlines accurate for that unusual unique shape because the phone camera shot captured those for you.

Think of your camera as a type of sketching tool. It has its limits and its benefits, it's very good at what it does. Like other forms of sketching it can become finished art in its own right - photography is an art. But for reference, it doesn't need to be a good photo that would win awards.

It needs to capture the weird little shapes of each petal on the orange lily accurately, so that your left brain doesn't flatten those out into perfect diamond shaped symmetry and destroy the 3D illusion, turn the portrait into a common icon.

So go ahead and take lots of reference photos. Read articles on photography to understand how your camera works. The great thing about digital cameras is that you can take so darn many photos and by trial and error, get the hundred bad photos per good image that professional photographers do.

Just always sketch from life too. That's the most powerful combination.

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