A while back, I wrote a blog about why I prefer to use black and white reference photos when painting commissioned portraits. Today, I’d like to explain how I go about using reference photos in order to get the information that I need when working on a portrait.

Once I’ve decided on which reference photos to use for a painting, I will then get an 8×10 enlargement which has been converted to black and white, along with a small 4×6 color print.

The 8×10 is the primary photo that I’ll use when painting but I also like having the color print, especially when dealing with difficult lighting situations, in case I need more help in determining whether or not a light source is warm or cool. The color print is also helpful when wanting to find out the general color of an intricate pattern in a sitter’s clothing. Other than that, I rarely use the color print. The reason for this is because, most often, the color is not correct. It’s not an accurate record of how we see color in nature. The camera and the printing process are no match for the human eye when it comes to seeing subtleties in nature. Because of this fact, it’s so important to make time to paint from life in order to recognize the differences when working from photos.

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I have the color photo printed off in black and white to use as a reference photo.

There are different opinions as to whether an artist should or shouldn’t work from photos but, for me, I don’t have a problem in using them. More importantly, it’s how you use them. I look at my photo references the same way as I would look at a live model. I will also squint at my photos in order to determine value relationships, just as I would when working from life. Whether you’re painting from life or from photos, it’s the artist’s job to interpret the subject in his own unique way, not to merely copy every fact verbatim.

What I don’t recommend is projecting a photo on to your canvas and then tracing it off. This may help you to get something down quickly, but it’s not going to help you to become a better artist. In fact, it’s going to stunt your artistic growth. I say this for the following reasons:

1. You’re not training your eye to see specific shapes that are found within your subject.

2. You’re not training your mind to simplify and “edit” all of those facts that you are seeing in your subject.

3. You’re not training your hand to accurately record those filtered facts on to your canvas.

By simply tracing a photograph, you end up bypassing the drawing process altogether. When it comes to representational art, drawing is the foundation upon which every other principle is built. If you don’t have an understanding of drawing, you’re going to have a difficult time when it comes to learning about value, color and edges. Everything hinges on the principle of drawing because every decision in painting is really a drawing decision.

In addition to having the black and white photo taped on to my easel next to the canvas, I will also have the same photo pulled up on my laptop computer next to the easel. The reason for doing this is so that I can have an instant photo lab whenever I need it. Before digital photography, I used to get three black and white prints made in order to work from. One print was an overexposure, one was an underexposure and the third was one that fell somewhere in between the two.

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Example of three different exposures that I would use when painting a portrait.

The reason for doing this was to be able to see more information in extremely light or dark values that couldn’t be seen when just working from the standard print (the one in between the overexposure and underexposure). There are times when I need to see the drawing that occurs within a shadow area, so I’ll use the overexposure.

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Example of an overexposure to see drawing in the shadow areas.

Other times, I may need to see the drawing that takes place within a very light value, so I’ll use the underexposure.

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Example of an underexposure to see more information in the lightest areas.

When working this way, I’m only interested in the drawing within these areas, not the value. I use the standard B&W print for determining my overall value relationships. Once I know the value, it’s just a matter of staying within that particular range. There’s a lot of information available in a photo, but not all of it can be seen in just one print. Because of this, I can instantly make a photo lighter or darker in certain areas and zoom in if needed through the use of the computer.

Another benefit of using the computer is that it allows me to draw plumb lines on the digital image without having to do so on the print. So, if I need to see where the side of the mouth lines up in comparison to the side of the nose, eyes, etc., I can quickly place these plumb lines without having to go back and constantly re-measure the same area on my print.

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Example of using plumb lines on the computer image.

Although there are many benefits from using technology, it’s not a replacement for the skills and study that are required in order to become a better painter. You still have to train your eye, mind and hands just as artists did a century ago. There are no shortcuts to excellence.