Avoiding the trap of reference photos June 23, 2018 15:44

Some people use reference photos as a sort of sacred text for their painting. They will even project it onto their support and trace over it. For me, a reference photo can be a valuable aid for getting some interesting shapes, but if I start trying to copy the colors, it can easily turn into a trap and the resulting painting just looks dead somehow. So usually I morph my reference photos in some major way.

Weird white valleySeed wip 062318

For instance, the photo of the weird white sunken area in a green landscape is a reference photo I've had in my files for a while. I cadged it off the interwebz because I liked the shapes of the white things and the contrast between the green surroundings and the bone white cliffs. I took it out the other day, fully intending to give it a try as a landscape. But it quickly morphed into an abstract painting of a seed, which I am still working on. I'm only about halfway through, so the yellow area will be green and the pink area will be dark soil color. Probably will also add a white titanium glow to the center of the white area. At any rate, it does vaguely resemble the reference photo.

Today I decided to play with a small bit of a photo I took of some rocks in the water. I messed around with the colors in digital to get myself inspired. Started putting it on canvas and then just felt like NO. I wiped it off and used the wiping as a start of a painting of some clouds. Here's my reference photo:
reference photo of some rocks at beavertail

 And here's the painting I'm working on that's only sort of based on it--mainly the major shapes. I still have a lot more to do on this one, but you can see both the family resemblance and how much I've deviated from the original photo:

cloud painting by harold roth wip

Maybe someday I will actually paint the water and rocks. But not today.

For me, it's really important to avoid getting tangled up in the reference photo. As you can see, I'm pretty successful at not doing that, lol! I've learned by unhappy experience what happens when I don't let significant parts of a painting "arise," as I refer to it. Like something rising out of the sea that you can't recognize until it is above the water. Before that, it is at most just a murky blob. 

But that can be very scary to do, because what arises can be total crap. Or it can be something very derivative based on an image I saw recently. 

One of the great things about oil paint is the ability to wipe stuff off if you don't like it once you've put it on (at least, if it's within a day or so--or longer, depending on your pigments or how you paint). I take advantage of that regularly. I thought I would really miss being able to paint over things in acrylics, but the wiping away thing of oils is pretty much just as good--plus I can still paint over when it dries. 

To really just let go and allow images to arise is for me key to not getting paralyzed by a reference photo. It's something I learned from reading about Surrealism and that I try to make use of regularly.