View Full Version : reinterpreting a photo

06-22-2012, 04:46 AM
Here is a link to Terry Miura's excellent blog. This week he shows a photo, and a painting done from the photo. It is really a very good lesson in how to be a creative artist, not just someone who simply makes copies from photos - he and I sing from the same song sheet!

I love what he says:

Composition, or design, is something the artists articulates with intention, and is rarely just "found" in nature or a snapshot. If you're copying a photo, you're not designing. And if you're not designing, what the heck are you doing? Exercising your hand-eye coordination? May be.

Of course, editing and altering elements that we see in the photo reference or out there in the field doesn't necessarily mean improvement. Sometimes it's far, far worse. But to me, trying to make your own statement and failing, is preferable to succeeding at making a mindless copy of a photograph. The former teaches you something; it counts towards your canvas mileage. The latter doesn't.


06-22-2012, 06:28 AM
Thanks Jackie! Yes that is a great example of using a reference photo to assist the creative process, rather than painting a photo!

06-22-2012, 11:59 AM
Thanks Jackie, great blog I enjoyed it very much

06-22-2012, 12:29 PM
This is the same instruction you were imparting in your C&C to me and this adds additional insight to those comments. Sigh...it's been 30 years since my studio degree which, strange enough, did not ever include working from photos! Now, decades away from that immersion, with a full-time job and regular life/demands - but a burning desire to finally get back to color and painting now that the kids are older - photos seem the best option for me (available when I have the time). They help direct my currently rudderless sailing back into creative thinking. However, it's true...I feel insecurely attached to replicating the photo as I build/make the painting...I suppose it feels like a training exercise. I'm hanging onto that photo like gospel...but that thinking is holding me back! I have found, to my astonishment, that my mind doesn't 'see' in the way it used to--quite a disappointing discovery! Not blurred vision, etc...but the inability to see the patterns and shapes that used to help bring a three dimensional down to a two dimensional. But, I have hopes I can learn anew! Time for a regular class or open studio is not possible now (though would be great), but this online community has already been instructive!

Okay, this weekend's assignment: -- lots of sketches to rework/improve the composition of a chosen photo. Rev up the values and shadows to improve the colors. It's a place from which to start! I must be brave :D
Thanks for the lightbulb moment~

Donna T
06-22-2012, 01:06 PM
Very helpful information; thank you Jackie. I think it was Richard McKinley who wrote about "giving ourselves permission" to make changes to a scene, whether it is plein air or a photo. I really struggle with that and it's great to see how an artist like Terry Miura made so many changes for the better.

06-22-2012, 01:40 PM
Glad some of you have found this to be useful info, and thought-provoking too.
Kendal....I wish you luck with your weekend assignment. I reckon it helps TONS to do several sketches from a photo. Somehow, you become more familiar with the skeleton, rather than just find yourself seduced by the pretty clothes on top, if you see what I mean. Deliberately changing the shape so that you have to be more selective can also help. Or deliberately choosing only to use a part of a photo rather than the whole thing. Anything to get yourself into a creative zone, rather than just doing a simple (and fairly mindless) copy.

I reckon, tho, it helps enormously that Terry M has probably done lots of outdoor work - it feeds you with information about what is doable with light in a landscape. Guessing that kinda stuff is tricky.

06-22-2012, 04:30 PM
Yes, Jackie, great subject. Thank you, too, for the link to Terry M's blog. I was not previously familiar with his work and I really enjoy it.

One of the things that helps me not get too attached to a photo is to purposely not use my best photographs to paint from and when I consider subject matter for painting I run some of these questions through my filter:

what was it about this place/person/animal/thing that caught your attention?
what do you want others to notice about it?
what do you want as your focal point?
what feeling do you want to portray about it? warm/cold/happy/sad/other?
what do I know about this that I can impart on the painting? (i.e. how can I make it feel personal)?

How these questions translate into action is that by answering them, I can work on constructing a painting instead of being a slave to the photograph. By using thumbnail sketches to define the answers to my questions, I can determine the best way to tell the story I want to share. My photos truly become reference.

One example for this is an excerpt from one of my blog posts (3/11/10).

Symphony of Swans (18 x 24, pastel)

"...was inspired by a trip to Skagit Valley, Washington, a place where I often find inspiration for paintings. The swans spend several months there during the winter and show up by the thousands! It is an amazing sight to see them gathered in the fertile fields of the valley.

Below is one of the reference photos for my painting.


By the time I was done with the photo-shoot, the sun was starting to set and there was a beautiful warm glow on the birds and that was something I was anxious to capture in the painting. I created a bit more of that drama with the lighting than was actually there (in the photos) and it's having the ability to copy but the courage to create that I now find so enjoyable when painting."

After all, the creating is the fun of it all and taking chances only costs paper but may result in a masterpiece. :)

06-22-2012, 05:55 PM
Jackie- I love the quotes you posted. I think I will hang them in my studio. It is so true. it was like I woke up one morning and wondered what the use of copying photos. This was after I was moving past the beginner stages

What a joy it is to design....I just love doing that now....

Sandy-it's having the ability to copy but the courage to create that I now find so enjoyable when painting." Exactly!!!!

06-22-2012, 11:41 PM
I love Terry Miura's blog, and his art. Great stuff, thanks for posting this.

I paint with some friends once a week, and I've been working on a landscape using one of my photos as the reference. One of my friends took a look at it last week, and she commented that the painting doesn't look anything like the photo, she was quite surprised. She said she liked the painting much better, and I appreciated the compliment. It is very liberating to paint something using my sense of design and color, and not feel like such a slave to the photo. Terry's work is inspiring, and that painting he showed on his blog is brilliant.