Eight years ago when I started my professional art career, I did not have the experience or wealth of acquired knowledge to really understand both the pitfalls and the true potential of reference photos. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way, and I am still learning as I go.
My little brother got married last summer, and as a wedding gift to the newlyweds, I promised them a portrait of the beautiful bride. In the chaos and craziness of their wedding day, I only got a few minutes with the bride to take reference shots. I already knew I wouldn't be using their wedding photographer's photos, because I wanted this portrait to be one-of-a-kind and not just a painted copy of someone else's point of view. Unfortunately, that meant I had to work with what I had: some less than ideal, underexposed photos taken on the fly.
My first mistake was that I originally tried making the portrait too large. I started with a 30x40" canves and after several painting sessions on it, gave up. I just didn't have enough information to work with. Lesson learned: only make the painting as large as the reference photos will allow!
I took quite a few months off from the project as life and work got in the way. Several portrait commissions and dozens of life sketches later, I felt ready to try again.
This time, I was able to complete the portrait within about a week and a half, and I was actually very happy with it. My secret to success: returning to life figure drawing sessions. I attended two of them at the Art Students League of Denver during the time that this painting was on my easel, and not surprisingly, I found that the sessions were incredibly helpful!
Alternating between studio work and alla prima painting from life keeps the work fresh. Alla prima painting forces a certain amount of intuition, with greater focus and intensity. Studio work allows you to pay more attention to detail, but you have to be so much more careful that the painting doesn't fall into the area of slavish copying. In the case of this portrait, I benefited most from observing areas of overlap on the form. I could observe the model from all sides, under different lighting conditions, and truly see how things relate. I took the memory of this experience back to the studio with me, and even though 4 or 5 photos are no substitute for a 360-degree view, I was able to use that memory to accurately sculpt passages like the arms and collarbones.
Another issue I had with my photo references was the lighting. Cassie was seated indoors under a hot overhead light, which made her spotless white gown look yellow. I did take a look at some of her other wedding photos to see how the dress flowed, and what kinds of colors it picked up from different environments. I ended up using a lot of warms and cools in the gown, layering as I went to mimic the layers of the dress.
It's too bad I didn't put Cassie's cute red shoes in there. But I'm happy with this painting and can't wait to present it to the newlyweds.
|"Cassie on Her Wedding Day" - 30x24" - oil on linen|