Friday, July 25, 2008

Working from Photos

"Last Light on the Pass"
Oil on Panel

I really wish I could paint on location more often than I do, but having a toddler makes it necessary to work from photo references in the studio. The problem is that even a good camera can't see as well as the human eye, especially in the light conditions that tend to make for good paintings. I try to remedy this by spending a lot of time outdoors just observing things, and taking notes about scenes that I think might make good paintings.

This particular painting is one I just finished, and I worked from a pretty terrible photo so I thought it might be a good example. We were driving down from Rollins Pass at dusk last week when I saw these trees on the side of the road with alpenglow on the continental divide behind them. I didn't have my painting stuff with me, and Aspen needed to get home and go to bed, so I had to settle for snapping a bad photo from the window and driving home. Here's the photo:

It's blurry and washed out, and no amount of photoshopping would bring the colors back to how saturated they were in real life. When I shot the photo, I made some notes about the colors on the mountain and trees, and tried to make a mental picture of the mood of the scene. Then I made sure that I started the painting within a couple of days so that I wouldn't forget.

When I did the painting, I used the photo as reference mainly for the composition, but pushed the color based on my memory and my notes. I also defined the shape of the mountains in the background better, since they're fuzzy in the photo. I look at these particular hills every day, so I know every nook and cranny and could paint them from memory if I had to. I also took the liberty of adding some knots to the aspen tree to make it clearly the center of interest.

One risk I took here was putting the center of interest almost directly in the center of the painting. I wasn't sure about it, but I think it works?

On a totally unrelated note, I apologize in advance for the fact that my blog posts are probably going to be fewer and shorter for the next six months. I'm officially getting my butt whipped into shape with the mentorship program I'm doing, and keeping up the business and learning as much as I can in the next six months are my priority. I'll still post here, but I'll probably be less wordy (might be a good thing!). In the end, I'm hoping I'll have more to say, and that my paintings will be that much better - in the meantime, I've got my head down and it's time for hard work!


  1. I don't mind at all the lighter tree being almost center... I noticed and thought, "Gutsy!"
    It's a beautiful, beautiful painting and I love getting to hear about some of your process and thinking about it. Now I need to go back in your posts and see if I can find out about the mentorship program you're doing....

  2. I think that centering the subject can sometimes lead to a very static painting, but the strong diagonals that you have in the mountains more than make up for that. It's a beautiful painting and the composition works wonderfully!

  3. Wow, you have created a piece of art out of taht not so good snap. All the best for your program. You might have more things to say when you are going through it.

  4. Lovely painting Stacey. The composition definitely works- I often put an element just slightly off center- it tends to create a little visual tension and also keeps the eye in the painting if you have something like a strong diagonal that might pull it out- its a sign of confidence here I think!

  5. Great painting. There is a lot more going on in the composition than a centered focal point and diagonals. You have created a very nice rythm that almost reads like a musical score. One could study it and find many new pleasures from it.

    Stacy, I am interested in what you are doing In the mentoring program. Please tell us more when you catch a breath. Good luck. I am excited to see your progress.

  6. You captured a sense of how high the trees reach up in to the sky. What a great job you did using that photo.

  7. Consider me a novice in the field of painting. The idea of Photo on canvas seemed appealing to me and that was one of the main reason I stepped into this field. Though the one I am talking about also involves professional skills I guess the painting from photos demands even more out of the person and I see magic being created here.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone - I apologize for not responding to them all, but it's been an insanely busy week. I'll be better in the future!

  9. thanks for this side by side helped me a lot, as I am struggling with the same issue as I work from photos