-By Dan dos Santos

Helping my model get a more dynamic pose.

For me, one of the most important parts of any job is the photo shoot. Fortunately, I think it’s also the most fun!

When I work digitally, revisions and experimentation are so easy that I often find myself making up most things. But oil paints are a bit different. Revisions are really time consuming, and when a tight deadline looms overhead, experimentation is a luxury I usually can not afford.

Because of this, I tend to place a lot of emphasis on my photo shoots. Getting a killer photograph makes the painting process SO much easier, and so much faster. Instead of playing an anatomical guessing game the whole time, I can just look at my reference, and improvise as needed. Why spend days repainting the light source in your painting, when you can move an actual light in just a few seconds and see what it really looks like before you even start?

Typically, I’ll spend a full day prepping and shooting reference. Sometimes it’s really simple, and just a few snapshots will do. Other times, I build elaborate models, costumes and dioramas… whatever it takes to get the shot I need. For me, much of the design phase of my painting happens in the photo shoot. The lighting, the costume details, the silhouette… all these things are carefully designed in ‘real time’ through the lens.

(Above: The model shoot for Kalimpura, and the supplemental reference I took to make a more convincing environment.)

A lot of young artists view a dependence on photo reference to be an artistic weakness, and that just is not so. If you constantly rely on your imagination, you are always pulling from the same limited visual vocabulary that you did the last time. Acquiring reference lets you learn about things, and expand your understanding of the way your model and light truly interact. Further more, great accidents happen! I can’t tell you how many times something cool happened in a photo shoot (be it an unusual pose, or an interesting shadow), that I NEVER would have thought of otherwise. Sometimes, it’s those happy accidents that end up really making the painting great!

Drapery is one of those things that really makes the shoots worth it for me. I’ve seen many a great painting go awry because of poorly rendered drapery. Conversely, good drapery can really sell an image, especially when it comes to action shots.

(Above: Punching, and getting punched… My friend helps me get some great action shots!)

Get creative with your reference! You don’t need to buy the exact stuff you’re trying to imitate. You can achieve some spectacular results with common stuff you can find around your house. I’ve made surprisingly convincing birds from aluminum foil and spray paint, and even leather outfits from black garbage bags. Or, if you have the time, hit up a Thrift store, and buy some old clothes and accessories to cut up and repurpose.

(Above: Don’t own a wolf? It’s amazing what you can make out of a fleece blanket and some craft paper!)

(Above: Here, a cheap floor lamp stands in for a magic flute)

(Above: Sometimes the reference shoots go SO well, that the painting practically paints itself.)

So the next time you start an intimidating composition, give yourself a fighting chance. Spend the time to do some research, go to the fabric shop, take some preliminary poses yourself, build a model, and see what happens! You’d be really surprised at the subtle, and unexpected, things you fall in love with along the way.