Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Picking an Image to Paint

I started my "Forgotten Memories" series at the beginning of 2009. In the past three years that I have been painting from old photographs, I have had some pieces turn out nice and others that have turned out not as nice. It has taken me two and a half years to finally figure out which photographs will translate as a good painting and which won't.

Most of this process was trial and error. I would pick an image that looked great on the photo, but for some reason, the painting looked flat and the person looked "cartoony". There were other images that I thought just wouldn't work; I didn't like the pose, the image seemed too weird, etc. Sometimes I was right and the painting looked horrible. Other times, the painting would unexpectedly be one of my best pieces. As I said, it took me a long time to figure out what would work and why. Here is what I have found:

This image didn't have much contrast
and because of it, her face looks flat.
1. Contrast: Since I don't work in color, subtlities are lost, especially in the face. I find that if a face does not have much contrast, the person ends up looking flat and "cartoony". The same is true for the rest of the body. High contrast is very important when working in black (or in my case, raw umber) and white.

This image had great contrast and shadows.
 It's one of my favorite paintings that I have done.
2. Shadows: Good, strong shadows make for a more interesting painting. As I said previously, contrast is important and nothing says contrast better than some good shadows. If part of the face or body is covered in shadow or if there are cast shadows from limbs or the background, then the image has more of a narrative. The people look more realistic in these cases. The more realistic the image, the greater chance of a viewer connecting with the work.

This image is a good one for a couple
of reason: it's not a generic pose and the
girl on top is partially cropped out
of the photo.
3. Interest: Posed photos are less interesting than snapshots when the subject is unaware of the camera. There are a TON of posed, generic photos but when you find one that is a random snapshot AND has contrast with shadow, then you've hit the jackpot. These aren't as easy to find though.

Also, interesting crops, which I can contribute to when I compose my painting, give way to better negative space. The negative space is just as important as the image itself and can make or break a composition. Sometimes it's hard to image the figures without the background, especially if it is a busy one.

These are the basics of what makes a good painting. Now sometimes it's hard to tell, even with all three components, if the painting will be a "winner". Case in point: my current painting. I didn't think it would make a good piece although it had all the requirements for one. I just couldn't "see" what the painting would look like, mostly because the background seemed to be getting in the way. I drew the image and then let it sit in my studio for awhile before I even attempted to paint it. Turns out, I LOVE this piece. I was so inspired by it that the underpainting only took 4 hours to finish. I am still working on it but I think when it's done, it will probably be one of my better paintings.

This is where I left it after working on it today...

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