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!


Candace X. Moore said...

Inspiring photos, Karin. Thanks for posting. Bill is multi-talented...a good photographer, has a gift for composition, and definitely knows his way around Photoshop. Many representational artists I know resist improving their photography skills, but I agree with you that it's important to know how to handle a camera in this digital age.

Virginia Mallon said...

Great post! I absolutely agree. When you are starting out as a painter or a photographer or any type of artist if you start listening to all the "rules" that are out there you will get so hung up on what not to do, will won't make any progress. Of course working from photographs, images, paintings is a fine way to start. One of the best advice I ever got from someone when starting to draw portraits was to practices drawing faces with tracing paper. It is good practical advice. One day you will fly, and just use the sources as just that a source and will branch out with your own imaginings. In painting class I had a wonderful mentor who made us work from the Masters as well as a massive photo collection he had on premises. It all works.

Kim Ayres said...

Great post. I'm a big fan of Bill's work :)

Theda said...


Jyoti said...

nice work! such a nice artist you are :)