May 2024: Using Reference Photos

May 2024: Using Reference Photos
"drawing horses from memory. The more I drew the more I couldn't picture a horse. It was like trying to remember a dream & scaring it away."

I use photos to remind myself what things look like. I am not someone who can easily "draw what you see in your mind," because I can't picture much. Danielle and I have been spending all our time together for over thirteen years, but right now she is upstairs and I am down here trying to picture her face and barely can. The parts I have memorized – the fold and shadow of her eyelid, the way her glasses are slightly wider than her temples – I've dedicated to mind by drawing her, from photos and from life, dozens of times. But I can't conjure a lively, 3D kind of image of her. And the same is true for my imagination: I rarely see what I want to paint in my mind. It's not until I make several versions on paper and look at them that I'm able to know exactly what my idea even is.

It wasn't until the past couple of years when I learned about aphantasia – a spectrum of abilities to visualize and recall visual memories – that I realized that so many other people could see things in their minds. But even for folks with incredible visual memories and visualization abilities, the way that light bounces around on everything is so complex, asking it all to hold still for a moment so we can get a good look as we paint is always helpful. Doing this is real life is nice, but photos work great too.

Last month I shared a big folder of my own photos that you are welcome to use as references for your own art. This month we're going to be exploring ways to use reference photos, because sitting down to replicate or closely reinterpret that photo is only one of many ways to use it as a starting point for your art. We can look for, notice and draw on so many different aspects of the image.

As an example, let's play with this image from the Plants & Flowers folder (img_3716). I'll show you some ways that I use this piece to get me started.

coral bells