"Clouds at the Peak" 30 x 40 inch Oil on Canvas.
I want to use this painting as an opportunity to share my process for using photo reference. A painting this size in such a remote location for me requires that I use photo reference. In a perfect world I would love to paint this entirely from life, but it's just not possible. I've learned a lot about taking my own photos for the purpose of taking them back to the studio and creating a painting from them. I'll share some tips with you about it.
- Paint only from photos that YOU have taken. Especially if it's a place you've never painted at before. There's just so much you gain from actually experiencing the area. Also there will be a point you get to where you will want more information about the scene that a single photo won't give you.
- Do a study of the scene whenever possible. This will set you up for the painting that you want to end up with. You'll anticipate where you will need more information to draw from, which leads into the next thing:
- Take A LOT of photos. You can never have too much reference! Take a lot of photos of not only the scene itself, but of other interesting parts of the scene around you that might work as an element of your composition.
- Get as good of a camera that you can afford. A digital SLR is super-helpful for 2 main reasons: you can get good lenses that will greatly increase the quality of the shots, and you get a huge amount of editing capability in camera RAW mode with Photoshop.
- Shoot in RAW mode rather than JPG if your camera can do it. If you're afraid of running out of space on your card, buy more cards.
- Shoot at a few different exposures: One at balanced exposure, and a couple at +1/-1. One will give you better color in the highlights and the other will give you better definition in the shadows.
After importing the photos into my computer, I open the RAW files in Photoshop. Using the sliders on the side you can do some awesome things like change the color temperature, up the exposure, bring more light into the shadows, increase the color saturation, change the contrast, among other things. Those are the main things I use them for. You can drastically alter the same photo and get different pictures out of it.
I try to approximate what I remember the scene actually looking like. When you are painting outdoors you get to see into the areas that you are observing. In a photo you have a limited resolution, color info, etc. Take for instance the clouds I shot. For the most part they are over-exposed in the light areas. Exposing for the clouds makes everything else super-dark, though. You can up the "fill light" slider to compensate, but the color fidelity and sharpness is compromised, and you will get more noise. No matter what you do, you will always come up short, so that's why you need to make studies of the area. The more time you spend there, the better you can approximate it from memory afterwards.
I shot these two pictures at the same in-camera settings, but I used the sliders to change what the end result will look like.
A cool thing you can also do in Photoshop that I use a lot is the Photomerge option. Since I don't have a super wide angle lens, I take a lot of photos of the view then stitch them together to make a panorama.
As you'll see, the process will sort of distort the edges of the pictures. Be careful of that.
I did a study of the painting that was proportioned to the same size as the final painting was going to be. This shows me where all of the compositional shortcomings will be and also what type of reference I might still need.
Breaking Away From The Limits Of Photography
Even taking a photo of my painting degrades the quality of the color somewhat, but you can see what I did to enhance the color of the painting versus the photo in order to show the true feeling of the area better. Using color intelligently will do magical things to your painting.
As I did my study, I was trying to be conscious of what type of color I was going to go for. I basically came to the realization that this was going to be a double-complementary color scheme of red-green/orange-violet. Since it's very toned down this may not be apparent to everyone who first views the painting.
There's something I heard in art school a lot, which was, "as long as you get the values right, it doesn't matter what color you use." Well, yes and no. It's a good way to help students not get overwhelmed, but if you don't try to make your color have some order, the color will feel garish or false.
Something I really enjoy when I look at the California Impressionists is how they handled these incredibly complex color schemes and kept the overall harmony together. You can take a painting, slice it up into a bunch of small parts, and you will see a "painting within a painting" that has its own composition and color scheme within the whole piece. Elmer Wachtel and Franz Bischoff are two painters who come to mind who were particularly good at it. I tried to bring some of it into this painting.
Stroke by stroke, I would consider the color I was laying down. For every stroke that leaned towards violet, I would make sure it was offset by another stroke that leaned toward yellow-orange. Not in equal parts necessarily, but enough to differentiate between strokes.
Also, for every part that was a "collection" of orange/violet strokes, I tried to balance it by interweaving it with red/green strokes. An interesting thing happens when you keep this balance going. You can put down a super-saturated stroke and it won't feel out of place as long as it is tempered with opposing color. You can get away with painting with bolder color without it feeling gaudy.
Although it feels like you're painting at an unnatural amount of saturation if you're not used to it, the overall effect seems to hold together with a certain harmony as long as you are mindful of keeping things looking realistic. So yea, keep everything else you know about painting in mind, such as values, edges, brushwork, etc.
It is very easy to let it get out of hand, as I learned while painting this, so I did tone it back down as I was finishing the painting.
I hope this explanation of the process helps you out in your own painting as well as enhances your recognition and appreciation of the concepts when you look at other paintings.
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