Working with Photographs

Five Elements to Consider When Selecting a Reference Photograph for Figurative Work

Sea Glass

Sea Glass

A photograph should be considered a “jumping off point” to create your own image.

Many artists work from photos collected over the years. Sources can include our own photographs (ideal), magazines, books, and the internet. I must emphasize that the intention is never to copy the photo directly, but to use it as inspiration to create our own work; important not only for copyright reasons, but also artistic integrity. Working from a photograph is always tricky because we tend to get into details and end up “copying” the photograph, which was not at all the original intention. The photograph that you work from can make a big difference in the process and there are some things to look for and also to avoid when selecting an image to work from.

1. A Good Gesture

A good gesture can make a painting.  A gesture that I respond to may be different than what you respond to, but it is important for the artist to “feel the pose.” You should feel yourself in that gesture and relate to it in a personal way. This doesn’t mean that you actually have to create the gesture yourself. There are plenty of dancers (for instance) that I couldn’t possibly emulate, but their pose may be perfect for my painting.

2. Visibility

Ideally, it’s nice if you can see the limbs of the figure in your photo, at least to some degree. In other words, if the figure (or parts of it) is in so much shadow that you can’t really see what the arms and legs are doing, it may make the process more difficult. All of this depends on what you are trying to say with your painting. If you want your figure all in shadow in your work, it may be fine. But if you just can’t see how she’s sitting on the chair, it may make your task a bit harder, depending on your skill level. (The better you can draw the figure, the easier it gets!)


In selecting your photo, are you responding to a sense of place surrounding the figure? Are you reacting to a romantic beach scene; a sunlit window? There are pros and cons to selecting a figure based on her surroundings. Let’s address the cons first. When a student uses a photograph containing a strong sense of place I see the greatest tendency to directly copy the photograph. If you intend to paint the figure strolling on the beach that the original photo portrays, then all is well. BUT if you intend to abstract the figure, interpret and place her in her own space you should use caution when selecting an image with a “pretty landscape” or “romantic interior.”

However, on the flip side, these “backgrounds” can give you just that “jumping off point” to explore your own work. A chair can be re-interpreted; blinds become vertical or horizontal patterns; a vase becomes a curved shape.

Final words on place: the figure is paramount. Make certain that you are selecting your photo for the figure and not the “background.”

4. Face

Are you selecting the figure because of the expression or emotion portrayed in the face? Is the pose or gesture ultimately about the face? Unless you want to become a portrait painter and want to paint the facial features, again, use caution here. In my figurative work, I want the painting to be about the figure-gesture, not about the face. The more detail applied to the face of a figure painting, the more the focal point (focus, attention) centers on the face as opposed to the figure as a whole. When choosing a photograph just be aware of how you want to handle the face.

5. Light

A sense of light on your figure in your original phototgraph can really give you a jump-start.  Even very abstracted figurative paintings often have a sense of light within the composition. The indication of light (the use of value and color temperature contrasts) can give your figure a sense of three dimensions (modeling) and give the painting depth. When learning to paint figures, however abstract, the manipulation of  “light” within your canvas is a very important skill to master. The more experienced painter will know how to manipulate the sense of light on the canvas, so light in the original photograph becomes less necessary. And since every rule is meant to be broken, I need to add that not every painting needs a sense of light, but if you are just beginning this process, it may make your life easier.

These are five elements to consider when selecting a photograph with a figure as reference material.  If any photo catches your eye, I recommend “collecting it” immediately and judging it later. Keep a constantly evolving stockpile of photographs to rummage through. An image may strike you today that you passed over yesterday.

Have Fun and Keep Painting!


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Paint What You See and Not What You Know Part II

Morning Cup O' 20 x 20

If you continue down the path of fine art for very long, there will come a time when just “accurately representing” the coffee cup is no longer of interest.  You will have painted so very many cups, pears, flowers, chairs, and eucalyptus trees that “accurately representing” them will no longer compel you. Abstract artists will find that “Expressionism”, or “Cubism” or other “ism’s” are just not fulfilling when imitated. You will want to actually “say” something about the objects you paint. You will want to “say” something with your paintings. You will want to truly OWN your work.

Definitions and explanations here get a bit slippery. But see if any of the following sound familiar or ring true to you:

You want to:

•  Capture the essence of the object or place.

•  Indicate a feeling.

•  Create a Mood.

•  Show the “true” object.

•  Paint an emotion.

•  Paint any of the above with no object represented (abstract).

•  Make up your image (representational or abstract) entirely.

•  Paint something no one has ever seen.

•  Paint in a “style” that no one has ever seen.

You are ready to Paint What You Know and Not What You See. You are ready to put yourself into the work, to say, “ this is my view of a coffee cup, the tea pot, the world.”

Side Step:  OK I need to include a few points here, lest I hear grumbling…

1. You will always be creating your own view of the subject matter from day one. (Thus the class where everyone is painting the same thing but all of the paintings look different.) However, the difference here is that you are conscious of your work and its outcome.  You are paying more attention to your painting and your creation than to the original subject.

2. These are concepts for both realist and abstract artists.

3. As a matter of fact, these concepts apply to all creative forms. The pianist learns the scales to improvise. The knitter learns the stitches to create a design of her own. The photographer learns the correct F stop to then manipulate the image, etc. etc.

4. Art created this way can be painted, sculpted, written at any “level”.  You do not have to be an “advanced” artist. It just seems that often this approach to our art occurs after some time at it. After we have worked through “the scales” and they become part of us. Not always, there are always exceptions (Mozart), but often.

And once you travel down this new path, you will see your art (and other’s) in a whole new light. Originality and expression combined with the skills developed from “practice” (all those paintings, drawings, mounds of clay, that led you to this point) will become the true test of an artist’s ability. We know these works of art intuitively when we see them. We know them at the gut level and at an emotional level. Whether it is a Rothko abstract, a Mozart sonata, an Ansel Adams’ moonlit valley, a Rodin figure, or Haystacks and Water Lilies (you know the ones).

Both “Painting What You See and Not What You Know” and “Painting What You Know and Not What You See” are equally valid and necessary. If you feel that you are learning to “Paint What You See and Not What You Know” and that the reversal seems confusing at best, have no worries. Travel happily on your path and create away, experiment, play and create as much as you can. If you create long enough, you will find the other road (or it will find you).

If you have found that you are “Painting What you Know and Not What You See” (or are ready to), travel happily on your path and create away, experiment, play and create as much as you can.  Look to your work to tell you what direction to follow. What gives you the most pleasure? What do you want to create? Try not to edit your immediate answers, but instead, “paint (create) faster than you can think.”

Let me know where you are creatively!




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Paint What You See And Not What You Know Part I

Morning Coffee 3

For those of us working in two dimensions beginning artists are, typically, interested in realism; not always, but often.  (Abstract artists, bare with me.) Typically, most art classes for beginners teach painting by using still lives to “copy.”  There is nothing wrong with this approach. While we learn to use our medium, we can objectively gauge our progress by comparing our painting to the original image. This method measures both the development of drawing skills as well as the evolution of the knowledge of the medium.

In order to accurately “portray” a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional canvas we must learn to Paint What We See and Not What We Know. For any of you unfamiliar with that phrase, let me briefly explain.

If I tell you to draw a coffee cup from memory, you will create whatever image of a coffee cup that you have stored in your brain. (The cup may or may not be “realistic” depending on your drawing skills/experience). If I place a cup in front of you and tell you to draw it you will do one of three things:

1.  Look at the cup, but draw the image in your head anyway. (Painting What You Know and Not What You See).

2.  Actually look at the cup and draw the shapes that you see in front of you, ignoring the fact that these shapes and lines make a coffee cup. (Painting What You See and Not What You Know)

3.  A combination of 1 and 2.

Most people will do #3. When you are trying to draw something accurately and it doesn’t “look right” on your paper/canvas, you have not truly drawn what you see.  It often takes a teacher or someone with a “trained eye” to help you learn to see the true shapes as opposed to those shapes from your head.

Morning Coffee 1

A coffee cup is a simple example, but imagine an intricate landscape or a portrait where the shapes become more complicated. In order to re-create an “accurate representation” of “things” on the canvas, we must learn to see accurately. We must break down our subject matter into shapes and possibly line, and actually learn to ignore the “thing” of the subject itself. (Yikes, that’s a mouthful!)

How about: forget that you are painting a coffee cup. You are painting an oval, a teardrop, a triangle with a rounded/flattened bottom., an arched rectangle, etc. With practice we learn to actually ignore the subject matter as a “thing”, and look at shapes, both positive and negative shapes, as equals.

The more we look, the more we learn to truly see. Numerous additional skills are developed over time, including accurate value and color judgement, perspective, etc.(which I won’t go into here).

Abstract artists need to learn most of these skills as well, even if their work is not “object oriented” (which means painting a “realistic object”).  In an abstract piece, both shapes and color theory play an extremely important role as you might imagine.

An important note here is that every individual learns these skills at a different rate. For some, perspective will come easily, and for others it may be a continual challenge. Some artists see color values right away and others work on seeing values for a lifetime. You may understand the concept of shapes right away, but find it difficult to apply. How we SEE is part of our own unique self! It may seem frustrating at times, but everyone will have her own challenge in creating.

So here’s the kicker….

Just when you thought you had it down, you nailed the “Paint What I See and Not What I Know”, you perfected the values, colors and shapes. The cup looks like you could pluck it off the page and chug the latte… you discover the next truth: now you have to learn to do the exact opposite,  “Paint What You Know and Not What You See.”

What the Frank is she talking about?   Stay tuned for Part II….

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Workshop Daze or How Three Days of Intensive Painting Can Really Make a Difference

Day 1, Playground

I just completed teaching a three-day painting workshop with my good friend, fabulous painter, and wonderful teacher, William Rushton. The focus of the class was “The Figure in the Landscape,” which included a model in outdoor settings. So the students had all of the delights of plein air painting (wind, on-lookers, wet grass, sun, uncooperative easels, etc.) along with the challenges of painting the figure – A workshop not for the faint at heart.

The concept of the class was to take the figure and her surroundings as starting points for the painting; to use the information around us to create an interesting painting, but not necessarily to be literal. A fence may turn into a vertical pattern of stripes. A tree may become a cool dark shape in the background. For three days in a row, 5 1/2 hours each day, our stalwart students worked incredibly hard, responding to all of our challenges. They created paintings using many of the following concepts (not all at the same time, of course):

Paint two paintings at the same time.

Paint with your left hand.

Paint no local color.

Paint with a paper towel (yup you got that right…oil paint using a paper towel, not a brush, try it!).

Use a really big bad (i.e. uncontrollable) brush.

Exaggerate a feature of the model. Distort proportions on purpose.

On the first day we commandeered a swing-set at our local park. Imagine a dozen painters, with hats, easels, et al., scattered in a playground facing a model posing on a swing. You’ve got the picture. (Yes, we had to persuade a handful of children that the slide was much more fun on that particular day!)

Day 2

The second class was held in downtown Redwood City, and “urban setting.” The model posed in front of a retro-movie theatre.  The third day was a café scene, again a very public setting, with so much to paint we hardly needed a model.

The results of the class were truly outstanding. What we, as teachers, encouraged was for the artists to really experiment and play; to search for accidents on the canvas; to create surprises and most importantly to RESPOND TO THE PAINT ON THE CANVAS not just the original subject matter.  By the third day every artist was doing just that.

Day 3

Immersion in your art can bring big jumps in your creative awareness and skills. I encourage you to take a workshop, or an intensive class, and if you can’t do that, try giving yourself the gift of three days in a row of creating. Whatever your medium, immerse yourself in creating with no distractions for three days. Give yourself permission to play, experiment, make “crappy” paintings. The goal here isn’t a masterpiece (definitely not a masterpiece), it’s to allow yourself time to do what you love.

Be sure to let me know your results!


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Why do you LOVE that painting?

Sway, oil painting, figurative







The Meaning Of Paint.

What gives a painting soul? What makes one painting of a chair just a rendering and another an expression of the artist? Why do I like my painting of this apple but not that one?

Clearly these are ongoing questions that all artists face. Each of us has to discover the answers that resonate in tune with our own sense of life and art. This may sound a little overwhelming, too serious or too esoteric, but actually, you’ve probably already started on this path.

Along with the emotional, gut-reaction to a painting like, “Oh my gosh, I LOVE this!!!” there are actual concrete concepts for helping you make “learned” decisions and choices. (These are really basic, about three years of art history courses wouldn’t hurt either…next lifetime). It may go without saying that the following is my personal bias on the subject. You may (or may not) agree, and you may add some concepts of your own, but hopefully you will begin to see and understand what YOU respond to in art.

Composition: Even in abstract paintings, composition is important. Think of it as balance. A painting needs balance to stand up to years of scrutiny and to keep singing its song.

Light: I believe that a painting needs a sense of light, even if it says, “I am about an absence of light.” (OK, now if that isn’t an artist talking?) But really…just think of a really dark, depressing Rothko. He was creating a mood with color, or lack thereof in this case, and value; thus a sense of light. Light is much easier to see and understand in realist paintings. Watch for light and how it affects you in a painting.

Color: Actually I think that color may be a subset of light. There are some pretty emotional, gut wrenching paintings with very little color, and mostly value, thus the light thing. But I do know that color hits the emotions faster than just about anything else when looking at a painting.

Value: You guys know all about value by now. (And if you don’t, it’s a topic for another blog!) I’m putting grouping value under light, for the same reasons as color. After all, what is light but value?

Texture: The longer I look at art, the more I react to oil paintings that “show the paint,” thick, juicy paint. Without a doubt, thousands of paintings express their souls and the hearts of their makers with very thin glazed paint. Vermeer’s work “glows” (that light thing); Rembrandt, Goya, and traditional Masters old and new painted layers upon layers to achieve a rich depth. Both thin-traditional and thick-more-modern layering techniques are an expression of paint and soul.  Which do you respond to more, thick goopy paint, or glazed layers?

Artist Intent: Probably the most important concept of all, the artist must be saying something with his work. This concept is the hardest to critique. The artist’s idea does not have to be political or maudlin. The expression can be something as simple as the quality of the light that day, or a mood, or the curve of a model’s back. As a viewer, however, you will feel it in the work. Ultimately this quality gives the painting soul. A great example of “Artist Intent” could be seen at our classes in October. One exercise required the students to express a mood with their simple paintings of a chair. When they concentrated only on color (eg. a cool chair) the paintings became renderings. When I pushed them to focus on a feeling or mood, the paintings came alive. It was not at all important that the chair was drawn in perfect perspective, the feeling was what counted.

Composition, Light, Texture and Artist Intentfour concepts to stir those creative juices and to get you to understand why Grandma Moses can be the cat’s pajamas, a good Kinkade is only that, and why your own masterpiece is just around the corner.



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What’s a Webinar?


Melinda, Beckett and Toaster

If you’ve never participated in a Webinar, let me tell you they are really quite fun. Once you register for one, you get a link emailed to you. A few minutes before the webinar begins, click on the link and you will be led through a series of steps to join the event. At the designated time you will hear the host start talking and a screen, typically some kind of slide show, will appear on your computer!


This week I am hosting my Webinar about Open Studios on June 28th at 4 pm pdt and July 2nd at 9 am pdt.  I have lots of colorful slides with great visuals to both entertain and educate you about the ins and outs of hosting an Open Studios Event. (OK, this is kind of a shameless plug, which I promise not to do too often.)

Everyone who has taken this class has been truly happy with the information. I have something for everyone, beginners to experienced participants. I hope that you’ll join me, as I’d welcome your questions and input.

The link to the registration page is over on the right-hand column. I hope to “see” at the webinar!


p.s. Don’t worry, I can’t really see you, so it’s ok to participate in your jammies!  :-)











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