How Photography can help you create great portraits

The only upside for me to the current pandemic is that it has forced me to sort out my web site and write some new blog posts. So here goes…………………….

I adore painting and love to do so from real life but unfortunately this is not always possible. Commissioned work sometimes involves painting from photographs because the subject can’t sit still (a child or an animal) or it’s a landscape which constantly changes or it’s a busy person who hasn’t got the time to sit for a portrait.

So, because of the constraints of time and distance etc. I often end up using reference photos. Over the years I have had to develop some rules around the use of such photos whether taken by me or by one of my collectors.

Tips for taking portrait photos:

 If I have to use photos, then I prefer to take them myself or if that is just not possible, I explain to the collector how I would like the photos to be taken. When I want photos for portraits I always check:

  • Clothes:
    • what clothes will the subject wear?
    • are they an integral part of the portrait or secondary?
    • will they distract the viewer (their volume, too bright a colour, too strong a pattern)?
  • In order to ensure the light is diffuse and softer I try and ensure that the:
    • subject is near a north facing window
    • window is covered with netting during daylight hours
    • subject stands about 2 feet from the window
  • When I use my own camera, I ask myself:
    • does my camera need new batteries or power; is it working; do I have a backup; where are my lenses; is there space on the memory card or enough space!
    • have I taken enough photos? I need lots of shots of my subject looking in as many different directions as possible e.g. up, down, sideways etc. Hopefully I will end up with the “perfect” shot. It’s worth taking close ups of jewellery, clothes or hair in case you need to refer to them later for special effects or extra detail.
    • are my photos blurry – don’t laugh it’s easy to forget check!
    • have I maximised the number of pixels in the photos so that I can zoom in on detail when I’m in my studio?
    • is the light setting on my camera correct as I don’t want a photo that has too great a light contrast as it means that I sometimes lose detail?
    • do I understand what colour bias my camera has in case I need to correct for it later in Photoshop (easy to say a bit harder to do)?
    • am I standing 6 to 9 feet from the subject so that I reduce potential lens distortions?
    • be honest do I need some more lessons in how to take digital photos – probably!!
  • Colour references:
    • have I made a note of key colours in my sketch book so that I can refer to them later?
    • have I really “caught” the colours of the subject’s hair, skin, eyes, clothes etc?

Tips to think about back in the studio:

 Think about what you are seeing and not seeing in the photo. Work out what to leave out, or put into your photo before you start painting and remember less is more.

  • Remember the camera does not “see” like your eyes do when it comes to colour, accuracy, depth of field, the warms and cools of highlights and shadows and quite often the camera distorts the image. I always think noses can look too big in photos as they are just that bit nearer to the photographer than the rest of the face. (If you have the software then Photoshop can adjust for this.)
  • Create a preliminary sketch of your subject so that you can work out the technical issues that you might need to overcome
  • If you think you need to alter a colour or shape to get the effect you want then do it. After all you are an artist not a copyist!
  • Don’t copy every pixel in your photo onto your painting otherwise it can sometimes create a “dead look”
  • You will probably need to lighten up your lights and darken your darks to get the drama you want into your painting
  • Don’t paint your shadows with too much black or dark browns as you can create dead areas in your painting. Think about your light source:
    • if it is warm, paint your shadows using cool colours such as violet, blue or green or
    • if the lighting source is cool, then you may need to warm up the shadow a bit by adding some warmth to the shadows with reds and oranges.
  • Remember that photos tend to sharpen or harden edges so think about how you are going to deal with them (lost and found edges).

On completing the painting

 I find that it is always a good idea to ask a friend to look at my finished paintings and compare them to the reference photos as sometimes I can’t see faults for “looking”. I recently painted a portrait of a young boy and managed to paint him with dark brown eyes despite the photo showing they were pale green. Duh!

Do please Email me and let me know what other tips you would recommend when taking reference photos as I’m always keen to learn new ways of working.

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