Painting from Photos in Watercolour at Arts on Adrian!

I’ve never been an advocate of painting from photographs although I have done it on occasion in the distant past. Let me clarify my thought. I have used photos as reference. My ‘Cubist’ watercolours have always been inspired by memory, imagination, sketches and, at times, some photo reference. My more traditional bird drawings and paintings, however, rely greatly on my own photographic reference. However, I don’t copy photos verbatim and I don’t understand why anyone does so. Technical virtuosity and rendering skills, no matter how sublime, do not necessarily equal art.

North Head, Grand Manan
by Barry Coombs

 

 

 

 

 

White-throated Sparrow
by Barry Coombs

Many artists do work from photographs, though, and many do it well. An artist is capable of transforming the photographic reference into something personal and beautiful.

I prefer the tradition of ‘en plein air’ and direct observation and it’s mostly what I teach. As a longtime instructor, it’s been impossible to avoid the preference many students hold for working from photographs. I decided to deal with the practice by offering a one-day workshop.

The participants sent me three photos each ahead of time. I created a PowerPoint presentation so that we could look at them all together and identify potential problems. We broke it down into three categories: composition, light and shadow and colour.

First of all, we looked at watercolours from masters of the medium that were all painted without the aid of photographs. Then, we looked at the photos sent by the students. Our goal was to find the essence of the subject. In order to do so, all of the images required some serious consideration.

We looked at this lovely snowy scene from Karen W. I made a few suggestions. Eliminate or move the two trees in the lower left corner. Remove the sign or whatever it is in the same area. Lose the wire seen across the roof. Re-design the foliage to show the viewer more of the building. Re-design the trees on the left to deepen the space and suggest a pathway. Karen had a great idea and shortened the roof so it wouldn’t run off the righthand edge of the painting.

Our next step was to decide on a format. Most of our pads and watercolour blocks are of a 3 x 4 proportion (9 x 12, 12 x 16). The format was drawn directly onto the photograph and a grid was created. Then, a smaller image, in exactly the same proportion, was drawn and a four-value study was completed. Have a look at what Karen W did. Later on, you’ll see her sustained watercolour in progress in the critique image.

Gridded Photo and Study
by Karen W

Once a small study was completed, the grid was used to transfer the image to a watercolour sheet, in exactly the same proportion! The rest of the afternoon, for the most part, was spent painting. I interrupted at one point for a brief discussion of copyright and ethical issues that often arise when working from photos. Of course, if you always use your own photo you don’t have to concern yourself with these issues.

The day went very well. Not everyone was able to finish their work but all went away with a better understanding of the potential problems and pitfalls of simply copying a photograph and the many creative benefits of interpreting their photographic image. Here are a few of the photos that were used.

And here are the paintings! Click on the critique image to view a larger version. Karen’s painting is on the upper left.

Painting from Photos Critique

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright and ethics

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6 Responses to “Painting from Photos in Watercolour at Arts on Adrian!”

  1. Carolyn Grand Says:

    great discussion Barry

  2. Ruth Bailey Says:

    Great way to approach painting from photos!

  3. weisserwatercolours Says:

    I’m with Ruth Bailey–‘great way to approach painting from photos!’ The grid, the elimination of distracting elements, the initial watercolour sketch for values, etc…..all so useful to all of us as students of this challenging medium, Barry.

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