Photo references

I often work on commission–that is, I paint what someone asks me to paint. This is different from painting what I want to paint. Fortunately, rarely do I find that what I want to paint is at odds with what a client wants.

I normally don’t like to publicly a reference photo beside the painting I made from it, because people will inevitably compare and judge the accuracy of my work. But this post is all about photo references. So don’t dwell on comparing photos with paintings!

Boxed Set: Isabel and William

A good reference photo affects my attitude toward a painting, which in turn affects the work’s success. This one, which I like to call “Boxed Set,” was not a commission, but I wanted to paint it because the photo, taken by the cats’ human, Glenn Court, was excellent. The light is warm and the colours are rich, the shadows and highlights are in high contrast, the details are sharp. The photo is taken at the cats’ level, not their human’s level. And the concept is appealing.

I loved painting this, partly because there was no pressure to please a client. But I love to paint something beautiful, and there was so much to work with from the reference photo.


Another recent example is the painting of Abby, a Jack Russell terrier. This was a commission for someone who wanted to give the painting to her friends, Abby’s humans, as a surprise. But she had only one photo, which, we both agreed, was not a good photo. I wasn’t sure I could discern enough detail to represent a recognizable version of Abby.

I struggled with it, and I felt deflated as I worked. I spent a lot of time on it, anxious to get it right. This is when a commission can feel like a burden. But I learned something as I proceeded and I ended up loving this painting.

The painting succeeds because the photo was taken at the dog’s level; the eyes are clear, with a highlight visible in each eye; the light is good enough that the dog’s nose and collar cast shadows; and the photo captures this little dog’s very sweet personality–not just a typical Jack Russell but something a bit more individual to this dog.

So I focused on getting the shapes as correct as possible, achieving high contrast, and adding extra liveliness through the colour and brushwork of the background. To my surprise, it works (even if it may not be completely accurate–stop comparing!!).

Choosing a good reference photo

A good reference photo:

  • Captures the personality of the subject (which is not necessarily the same as a photo that captures a good memory of the subject)
  • Shows main features clearly, especially eyes and nose
  • Shows highlights in at least one eye
  • Is taken at the subject’s level
  • Is taken in a light that creates both bright highlights and shadow, maybe cast by nose, ears, etc. (Poor light means all the features are similar in tone.)
  • Is appropriate to the size of canvas. A big dog doesn’t work very well on a small canvas, though it is possible.
Alexander, Memory Eternal. 30x40".

Capturing Essence: II

Through my craft I resist the commodification of art, of the sensational realism—“it looks like a photograph!”—because I paint human intimacy: both the subject matter and my act of making. I sustain attention through observing and presenting something the viewer responds to. Portraits are not what the market wants but rather what I want to do, because observing what is true, honest, and real about people makes connections with people. Looking closely at the form of a person, particularly their face, is also observing what makes them an individual in the visible world. Because the visible is what we deal with.

Yet the inner life is just as real. Can a portrait capture that? If I have a connection to the subject, that inner life speaks through my brush. It is my inner life, my movement guided by my vision and understanding and skill. I thus connect to my subject, and I feel the act of painting a portrait as a sort of love. I caress the subject’s shape, learn intimately the folds and shapes of the eyes, the turn of the mouth, the height of the forehead, the way the hair emerges from the skin, the depth and sharpness of the shadows at cheekbones and neck. This is truth; no falsehood, no screen of protection between me and my observation. No deliberate mediation—no commodified way to appeal to the viewer, other than my own ability to observe and translate what I see into paint on canvas.

But the subject is not in front of me; observing the subject only as a photograph (in my method) is surely a form of mediation. The subject and I do not actually engage in any sort of connection. It is only I who experience that intimacy of observing the subject’s form, yet how can there be intimacy if it is only I who experience it? In fact, there are two people: me, the artist, and not the subject but the viewer. My observation and craft mediate between the subject and those who see my portraits. I say I don’t care what people think, but I do.

The viewer can participate in a portrait. Even though I paint alone, in isolation, I often stand back and look at what I’m painting. I do that to judge the effect, to see where to go next. When the viewer looks, they are sharing in my love of painting, my energy in the brushstroke and my choice of colour and line. To return to Haslett, the purpose of art, he says, is “to bridge the divide of our intractable separateness by using our experience to create something that can be shared in common. Artists remove themselves in order to return.” I create portraits of people to be shared with people—there is beauty in the sharing and in the creating.

That process of creation also elates me, quite simply. I revel in painting what I see, removing the need to label, the urge to paint what I think rather than what I see. I love to work on a canvas that is upside down and paint shapes and lines and colours for hours at a time. It is a completely different thing to turn the painting back upright and to see the result. I feel no relationship between the technique of observing and painting form and colour and the effective portrait that is the result of the technique. And yet the portrait is the result is my work.

There is no filter of meaning to extract, no aha moment of understanding, no need to study my history or context. My portraits present people—real people, and if I can find the photographs I like, real people doing real things. They are artifacts of life, vivid, imbued with energy of the act of seeing and painting, telling a story about the subject and the painter at the same time.

Capturing essence. A blog about portrait painting.

I like to paint portraits. I always have. I’ve tried to paint other subjects—landscape, flowers, nudes—but I always return to the portrait. I like the rigour of the craft: my ability to see shape and form and line and to translate that into paint on canvas. But that craft is today “outside the sphere of the market,” according to Adam Haslett (The Perpetual Solitude of the Writer, ”

Future posts will address the creative process and its connection to portraiture. Stay tuned!

Fran. 24x30".

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