The Reference Photo
Since the car accident, I have been unable to go outside and do plein air. So I 've had to work from photo references. As much as I prefer painting from life, there is something that can be learned by using photos, though I still don't think its ever a substitute for "the real thing". It helps if you have been to a place before, and understand it - then you can bring some of your life experience to the painting above and beyond what is seen in a photo.
But photos can be traps. There are some definite pitfalls to avoid.
1. Some things that make nice photos do not make good paintings. That means you must look at a photo critically, with design and composition in mind. Just because it's a pretty scene does not mean it will translate to a good painting.
2. Just because something is IN the photo doesn't mean it should go in your painting! It might need to be eliminated, or moved, or reduced in size, or changed in any number of ways to make it work. Remember, just like in painting from life, you are not a camera, recording every detail that is there. You are an interpreter, pulling together various elements to make a statement that has poetry and beauty to it. Painting should be poetry, not a book report.3. Think of the overall shape of your painting... do you need to crop that photo?- make it vertical instead of horizontal, make it square? Again, look at your photo with design in mind.
4. Decide what it is about the photo that speaks to you. Whatever it is, make THAT the focus of your painting, and eliminate everything that doesn't aid in that focus.
So, with those few ideas to start with, here's how I interpreted the reference photo you see above. That is me, by the way, and this is a picture from the beautiful San Juan mountains of Southwest Colorado. I have been here many, many times, so I had a good idea what this place is really like.
This photo is nice overall...it has several planes to work with.. a foreground, a middle ground, a far middle ground, and a background. That is a good thing to look for in a painting. Try for at least 3 planes.
Here are the problems I saw with it.
1. I wanted the mountains to be the real focal point, so that big tree in the foreground takes away from that.
It should be smaller to reduce its importance in the scene.
2. the left treed slope sort of disappears behind the big tree, and the nice rock cliff section at its top is almost invisible. I decided I needed to move that inward, to make that middle ground more definite.
3. the trees in the foreground are all very similar... little conical triangles... They needed variety, and music!
4. There is no good visual "lead in"...so I knew that something was needed here to bring the viewer into the painting in the first place.
5. Lastly, that single solitary rock looks sort of lonely and out of place. Maybe a grouping of rocks would be nicer.
With those ideas in mind, here's the painting.
By the way, some of the natural lines of the mountains in the reference photo really creates a deep "V" shape visually... I didn't want that, so eliminated some of those ridges entirely, or otherwise altered them to
In white, I've outlined some of the major shapes. The grouping of rocks seems more natural than a single one, and I've kept the value down to keep them from overpowering the rest of the foreground mass. It's tempting to make them too bright - that would detract from the main objective.
Can you see how the tree shapes have been varied, and grouped together to form a mass? In addition, when you have a line of trees like this, remember to push some back behind the others.. don't line them up like soldiers in a row. As friend and mentor Johannes Vloothuis says, "think "front to back"...
I also intentionally added more sunlight to the peak, and very slightly altered the top outline of the mountain shapes to make them a bit more melodic. Avoid those "V" shapes that can so easily be found in mountains. Remember, it's your world,a nd you are the king of it. You can move mountains or change them with a flick of your wrist!
Here's the painting without the lines:
And, remember, you can also combine photos - say, a tree shape from one, and a sky from another, to incorporate into your painting. I keep a digital file of all kinds of shapes - trees, hills, rocks, water, skies, and sometimes can pull something from one of my references to put in a painting.