The Ideal Reference Photo for a Painting

Are you trying to make a good painting from a poor photo reference? If so, it might be time to improve your photographic skills. 

Bill Gekas can inspire you. He is an Australia-based photographer who has a real knack for portrait photos. And we can learn a lot about photos by looking carefully at his work.

His work is an homage to many Old Masters of classic paintings, including artists like Vemeer and Rembrandt.

Gekas recreates many mid-18th century settings that are inspired by the painted portraits of the Old Masters.

 He uses props and costume to fit the time period and duplicates the single source of lightthat the Old Masters used. (In other words, there are no cross-shadows from light coming from different directions.)

The self-taught photographer learned on 35mm film camera and has since turned to digital techniques. 

He uses "post-processing" (Photoshop) to put the final touches on each of his photographs.

These photographs are the result of hard work, experimentation, and a grand vision. 

His style is unique and is based on the Old Masters.

Bill Gekas has some sage advice: 

"Don’t be scared of taking certain elements from different works and molding them into something to call your own. You might like the lighting from a photo you saw somewhere, a prop from another photo, colors from another."

"The key is not to limit yourself with the excuse, ‘It’s all been done before.’ Yes, many things have been done before, but with some careful thought you can adjust a concept to give it your signature. Experiment!”

I think that any painter who wants to do portraits, really needs to experiment with photography. They need to learn how to produce a beautiful photo using a single source of light (by far the most important element in this entire post).

I know that so many artists claim "that you must paint from life." 

I say, "baloney to that and it isn't practical - or sane." For Pete's sake, Vermeer used the Camera Obscura? (One wonders if these folks want the beginner to fail?)

So, you have my permission to use a photograph for reference and you can quote me on my hotly contested advice. 

Not only do I photograph people for paintings, I photograph my still life. 

Because, for example, a peach left in a warm studio for a couple of days will attract flies - yuck. I say it's better to take the photo and eat the peach while it is still fresh.

Could you imagine any model sitting or standing still long enough for you to paint a portrait that is as detailed as an Old Master painting? 

It would be difficult for an adult - but for a child? Never ~ it might be considered abuse.

I'd predict that the expression of a sitter would quickly reflect boredom or annoyance in a very short period of time. 

Just look at the alert expression in these photos. It only takes a second to capture with a camera ~ but it is what you want for a portrait.

Drapes and folds that change each time the model moves would drive me insane.

Shadows are important design elements in a painting and need to be carefully and thoughtfully.

Often, I combine bits and pieces from multiple photos shot at one sitting. I seldom "get it right" in one shot - although the more I shoot, the better I tend to get. 

 Bill Gekas' beautiful 5-year-old daughter stars in his Old Masters' painting-like photos. I found them online here.

And before you ask~ NO ~ you cannot make paintings from another person's photo without his or her express permission. But you can study the process and work on making your own unique photos of people and still life to use as reference.

Happy shooting!

Art begs you to notice it. Why?

"Art begs you to notice it." 

"Why? Because art is God's way of saying hello. So pay attention to poetry. Pay attention to music. Pay attention to paintings and sculptures and photo exhibits and ballets and plays. Don't let all this go unnoticed." 

 "Your world is shouting out to you, revealing something intrinsically glorious about itself. Listen carefully. Love art, the way art loves Life."

~ excerpt from the writings of Neale Donald Walsch

The paintings above are: 
"Madame Mette Gauguin" by Paul Gauguin 
and "Mary Simone" by Mary Cassatt

An Old Art Lesson

Way back in 1958, four Disney artists demonstrate their various painting techniques through a nature study. 

 We can still learn a lot from this.

I found the approach of these working artists, and their methods and materials (oil paint and lighter fluid? yikes!) to be most interesting. 

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri is a classic and most working artists I know have read it at one time or another.

This book invites reading time and time again. It brings us back to the principles. The value of things. Right thinking. Relationships. Some things never change.

PSA Spoof: "Talk to your Kids about Art School"

There is always a bit of truth in humor - which is why these spoof ads are so darn funny. 

Young artists are addicted, they spend hours and hours perfecting their craft. They can’t help 

Their parents are generally less enthused with their child’s artistic aspirations, wishing they’d go to school to become a doctor or a lawyer instead.

The College for Creative Studies “Talk to your kids about art school” campaign plays up the duality of this relationship by mimicking anti-drug PSA’s.

"Ads for College Creative Studies" - found online here.

KOO SCHADLER: "Creating Compelling Images"

The April/May 2013 issue of  "International Artist" Magazine has an in-depth interview with my friend Koo Schadler. She is a master of the egg tempera medium. She and I both share the same teachers, Numael and Shirley Pulido of Hancock, New Hampshire. 

Koo gives workshops in Egg Tempera and has written an excellent book that explains this medium and her techniques in great detail.

Whatever the medium - oil, pastel, egg tempera - the principles of Old Master Painting are the same.

I found this article to be well worth reading (click page to enlarge).


One of the sections left out of this article was small but, to Koo, relevant because it described 
(in brief - there was a word limit) 
how her working methods in tempera differ from the usual ways people work in tempera:

Question by Lauren Mills: 
"How would you describe your working method in tempera?"

Koo Schadler: 
"Two ways of working in egg tempera are generally taught: the Italian method as described by Cennini, and the Greek method used by icon painters. Each is a systematic, logical working method that produces excellent results.  However there are other ways to work in tempera.

I begin with a carefully considered drawing to arrange the values, colors, shapes, lines, etc. into a visually strong image.  Once I’ve decided upon the design I dive into the painting.  I use a variety of techniques - thick paint, thin paint, brushwork, sponges, glazes, scumbles, splatters, stencils, rubber stamps, and more.  

I don’t apply these techniques in a strictly premeditated way, but instead use whichever is needed to achieve the intended goal, as outlined in my design.  It is a direct and improvisational way to paint.  It suits my nature and goals."

A Most Unique Portrait

I have seen a lot of portraits in my lifetime ~ but never one quite like this.

And I love it!

I found the photo on facebook - but do not know the artist ~ nor the origin. If you know, please tell me as I would like to give him or her credit and perhaps see some more of their work.

Note: Ann-Marie Duhem said the artist is Kumi Yamashita.
Thanks Ann-Marie!

THE MCDONALDS OF THE ART WORLD: A Peek Inside a Chinese Oil Painting Factory

Southern China is the world's leading center for mass-produced works of art.


Dafen Village is the biggest oil painting base in the world. There are over 10,000 artists who toil in their factories. 

Dafen is now the center of the world's reproduction-art market, with factories of artists churning out tens of thousands of fake Picassos, Rembrandts, Van Goghs and Da Vincis each year .

One village of artists exports about five million paintings every year - most of them copies of famous masterpieces.

The fastest workers can paint up to 30 paintings a day.

Each painter specializes in just one thing.

These Chinese factories account for 60% of the world's oil-painting market.

PHOTOSHOP: How I Enlarge a Small Reference Photo

So you want to make a large painting~ and all you have is a little a tiny little reference photo? 

In the old days, artists often enlarged a small photo using an "artograph" or a projector. But unfortunately the lens distorted the image near the edges. And for a portrait ~ this is a no-no.

Using Photoshop makes it easy to resize a photo. 

To illustrate I have taken a small photo of Granny that measures approximately 4" x 7" and I want to make a painting that is 20" x 30"

Here's how I do it:

I enlarge the photo to 16" wide. This will fit nicely onto a  20" x 30" canvas and give the figure some "breathing room" (and make a nicer composition).

I select the narrow line and make a contrasting vertical line at the 8" mark.

I created a grid of 8"x10" rectangles.

I use a brush tool to add "lineup" marks.

I crop each section and print it with my inkjet printer. Each 8"x10" section will fit on one piece of 8.5"x11" printer paper paper.

I cut out each piece and then tape all the pieces together using those "lineup" marks as necessary.

I position the enlarged photo on my canvas and add or subtract as necessary.

NOTE: when you have a photograph, there is nothing wrong with cropping it close to the top of the head (as in this original photograph). However, when you make a painting, it somehow becomes "claustrophobic" if you don't leave enough room at the top.

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