UART Tip #47: “Free Yourself from the Photo Reference” with Christine Camilleri

Using reference materials is a necessary tool for the artist. On the other hand, if I am creating a painting then a photo is part of my journey not the end. This photo of a grizzly bear is from my brother in-law who went up to Knight Inlet in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia in the fall several years ago. His photos have inspired several paintings and I may have to get up there myself.

As you can see, I don’t copy the photo.  I use the license I received as an artist and changed the shapes, colors, values, the setting or whatever to suit my story. Here are some things I made decisions about.

To me the story is the bear’s focus.  I took his gaze of looking up in the photo, and instead directed it to the water as though the bear was looking for that elusive salmon. Also, the face is important, but that is not obvious from the photo. Warm tones, strong edges and that long shape of nose help draw attention to that area.

I played off warm and cool throughout and set up a color range that is strong and appealing. I want this bear noticed! The photo is pretty ho hum to me.

I also liked how the bear was moving over the rocks, not picking its way through them like a human would do. Bears are big and they are like ATV’s; they go over anything and their focus is food. So, I emphasized this by simplifying the rocks and making sure to elaborate the back foot on top of the rock.

I am also aware of those claws. In the photo they don’t really seem to make much of a statement, so I made sure they were noticed in the painting.

The strong sunlight has washed out the colors and made those areas in sun appear almost white. If you have painted outdoors (strongly recommended), you know this is the camera because being an electronic device it sees a lot of darks and lights — but not much in between.

I softened the background instead of leaving in all the distracting vegetation. This brings the bear into view much more easily.

The sides and back of the bear melt into the background with softened edges. Otherwise, he would look like a cut out pasted on the background if those edges were hard (like in the photo).  This gives that bear depth.

Reference materials are wonderful, but as artists we can be overwhelmed by them. When you paint often you will notice yourself moving away from being tied to the photo and when that moment came for me, it was tremendously freeing. I could then more easily tap into the expressive artist part of me and get it to happen on the paper. Next time you use a photo reference, change it to suit the story you are telling.

Christine Camilleri, AFCA, MPAC EP, IAPS M/C


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