The importance of a good reference photo can’t be ignored when working representationally (even when working from life, most artists still take photos.) Once the painting is done, though, the reference photos may seem kinda useless. But, I’ve found new ways to make use of these photos by utilizing them for cyanotypes!
I’ve used some of my barbie pictures, to some cool results. I like how the cyanotype kind of blurs the sense of size and depth to the point that the final images almost look like human portraits. Well, not all of them…
I’ve also made use of my sheet mask reference photos (along with some experimenting with the plate):
I’m really loving exploring literally the exact same subject matter in two completely different mediums (photography and painting.) It gives me the chance to explore a subject in both a more labored process, as well as a very immediate one. After agonizing over one painting for 10 hours, sometimes being able to make 10 prints in one morning is the perfect palette cleanser.
Ah, Barbie. Love her or hate her, if you were a little girl sometime in the past 60 years, you probably had some sort of relationship (forced or otherwise) with the classic doll. I played with Barbies a lot as a kid- cutting their hair, dressing them up…
hanging them from the ceiling in my own “barbie gallows”…. So, it was only a matter of time before she showed up in my art. I mean, my work is about feminine beauty and it’s construction and commodification, so, who better to embody that than Barbie? Also, I needed a break from painting myself wearing sheet masks.
Here’s the first one that I painted. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it- its interesting how similar yet different it was to painting a human face. The major structure is actually there, just exaggerated in certain areas (EYES!)
I decided to be a tad creepier with this one:
I think this one was “Holiday Barbie,” thus the festive earrings. I photographed and lit real reference photos for this from my actual childhood barbies, so there was a real nostalgia in looking at these dolls that I actually used to play with.
Vincent Desiderio says something along the lines of all paintings are in some way self portraits of the artist. And I feel that that’s true – ultimately, we tend to paint what resonates with us- we can’t escape it. If you played with barbies as a young girl, it’s hard not to both project and draw your own notions and aspirations of femininity and womanhood onto her. In a way, Barbie becomes a self portrait or snapshot of a lot of us at a time when womanhood was so far off that the idea of “playing house” seemed exotic. Anyway, I think I’ll be painting more barbies!
Sheet Mask: Gel I | oil on canvas| 12×16″
I thought I’d show a little progression for one of my newer “Mask” pieces (I’m wearing a “gel” mask used for skincare.) I always find it interesting to look at any artists process like this- to see the little tweaks or even grand gestures gradually build up to eventually create a finished painting. This piece was actually one of those rare birds where things just went smoothly (for the most part.) Isn’t that awesome, when that happens? Certainly, there are those tortured paintings that really test you- where you’re pulling your hair out over how everything you do seems to look stupid and you don’t know how you’ll ever get it to not look terrible. And those moments are good to have, as it’s a reminder that we’re pushing and challenging ourselves as artists. And the struggle just makes it that much sweeter when we finally resolve the composition. But… it’s nice to get one of those slam dunks every once in a while, eh?
Now, I’m a firm believer that absolutely, any 2-d artist should be able to work from life, and should whenever they can (these skills are essential in simply being able to paint well. Full stop.) BUT, there are always going to be those situations where it just makes more sense to work from a photograph. Now, some artists (especially the more “old school” ones) take issue with working from photographs as opposed to direct observation. But I believe that one can work from a photograph while still making a great painting that isn’t a mere copy of the reference image.
For example, I did a painting of a grenade using a reference photo. I found it simpler to do this because of the placement (flat on a table) and lighting I wanted would be easier to reference from a photo rather than having to do a setup where I would somehow have to position my face directly parallel to a table while trying to paint.
The photo gave me the key information I needed- things like proportion, angles, major color/value changes. But as you can see, the finished painting isn’t an exact copy of my reference:
Grenade, oil on canvas, 12×12″, by Megan Koth
I think a good rule of thumb is to not spend too much time looking at the reference itself. Especially once you’ve got the key information down, you have to look at the painting that you’re making, and make decisions based on how to make your painting a successful one- not a mere copy of the reference photo. Basically, as I go, I look less and less at the reference (it helps that all my reference photos quickly become obscured with paint smudges anyway.) The camera can be the enemy of a great painter, but it can also be a great asset. Like most tools, it’s all in how you use it.