Except for capturing detail, which they are good at (better than us), cameras are remarkably limited. The sensitivity of photographic film is trifling compared to our human sensitivity; its color and value latitude is only a tiny fraction of what our eye-mind team sees.
The use of references in the world of painting is nothing new, from classical artists using the camera obscura to digital concept artists importing photos to use as background textures. There are a few steps one can take to avoid their painting from turning into a washed-out copy, or worse, a flat, over-saturated trip into the uncanny valley (my previous paintings have this problem). A camera is has a single lens to view the world, whereas we have bicameral vision. I’ll go over what cameras are good and bad at.
What cameras are good at.
-detail (as noted above)
-freezing spontaneous moments and otherwise inaccessible subjects
What cameras are bad at.
-detecting color at high and low values (a phenomenon known as clipping)
-establishing depth (hence why many photographers use a shallow depth of field to mimic human focus)
-detecting edges (cameras record everything that is in their field of view, they don’t find points of interest like the human brain does)
With that out of the way, here’s a demonstration on the use of a photographic reference (in my case a deceased writer, I can’t ask him to sit for me).
1. Use a small reference. The point of this is to keep your mind on the big picture and avoid obsessing over details (this is what prevents your painting from looking like an uncanny copy). The reference provides important features and the overall attitude of the subject. Remember, the reference is your servant, not your master.
2. Do a study beforehand (I wrote about the importance of studies in one of my previous posts). Yes, this means draw it; no tracing or projecting! Tracing photographs kills your ability to draw, it’s like hiring someone to go to the gym for you. Drawing warms you up and prepares you for future problematic areas. For instance, I noticed in the study he looked grumpy instead of empathetic.
3. Due to clipping, photographs have a tendency to reduce warm shadows (such as on the neck) to total darkness. To avoid this mix your dark areas instead of using black paint (in this case us used liberal amounts of Burnt Sienna). Keep your palette limited, in this case I only used French Ultramarine, Titanium White, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange, Alizarin Crimson, and Yellow Ochre. Limited palettes prevent over-saturation and unify the painting. Exaggerate color relationships, that does not mean over-saturate your painting as a whole but heighten the differences between tonal boundaries. For instance, cameras typically don’t detect the red areas at the edges of sclera (the white of the eyeball) and around the nostrils. I augmented those relationships by using increased amounts of Alizarin Crimson. The blue of the jacket was a flat grey in the photo, I brought it up slightly, but not to the point that it distracted from the focus on the face.
4. Finally, the color boundaries that are not part of the main area of focus (the face) are reduced. Notice how the edges of his hair, jawline, and jacket are “softer” than the face itself. Cameras don’t sense this, (even with shallow depth of field settings) but our brains unconsciously do, and this is what gives a painting a human touch instead of appearing as a printed copy.