I use photo reference all the time. I try to put them away and work from imagination but then I get insecure and I start searching in books or on the internet for things looking like the stuff I am painting. Most time it creates a fake security and I continue painting what is needed for the image anyway without using the ref. But finding it, helped me in overcoming the insecurity anyway. I still think that reference is, by large, the killer of creativity. Here is 2 things I noticed: When I paint without reference the image becomes more dynamic and spontaneous and also more personal. When I paint from reference they become more realistic and believable, seems more precise but loose a bit of the personality.
I talked to Paul Bonner one day, perhaps 10 years ago, when he was working on a painting involving a huge area of march flowers. And he had no reference? I asked if he could paint those from memory, but he showed me a book with the pictures facing downward. “Jesper; I took a long look at the flowers in the book and put it away. That way I am not tempted to paint directly from the reference but only paint what is needed for the picture”.
“Wow Paul”, I answered, but in my mind I thought, that´s stupid old man, and slow and not very effective. I am NOT gonna do that. But with most things for me, it takes some time to sink in. What I really love about what Paul said was the idea of doing what the image needed. Beyond what the reference has or say is real.
Well, I have given this a lot of thought since then and have repentantly joined a discord group with a bunch of other artist where we share process photos and works in progress. The group has opened my eyes a lot. Just by seeing how somebody else, work from sketch to final has made me very self critical of my own way of working. Its not easy to look at your own process because its often something that you do and have done a special way for years and years, but suddenly somebody ask to a specific step, or you see that another artist is starting out a completely different way than you, and you start questioning everything. By questioning you also get to answer some of them and you get to think about whats important and right for yourself.
What I want in my paintings, is in the end, what dictates the process. I want to paint dynamic believable fantasy figures. I have come to the conclusion that the dynamic part comes solely from my own imagination and ability to twist and distort composition – the ability to work with the illusion of depth. The inevitability is where I need the reference. Some people likes to make Marquette and some like to photo collage model shoots and tone them according to the the painting they are doing. I have tried both. And I just have acknowledge it doesn’t fit very well with me. I wish it would, because when I see how much information you get from a Marquette that you have photographed in the right light I can see how much credibility and truth that it lends to the final painting. But I also have to realize one important thing. It bores me to have everything laid out and solved beforehand. When you have a perfect collage of your illustration already bashed together and color adjusted in Photoshop to paint from, it reduces you to a rendering machine rather than a painter. If I have a Marquette or even a photo of a model posing like my figure in the painting, I am afraid of accepting things in my image that seems right because it was on the model or the figurine. I will often refrain from questioning things that I can see is right there on the ref, but that might not help the narrative in my painting. It can be small things like light being captured on a shoulder or a hand that could have been excluded for a tighter focus. It can be lots of things, but you might ask: “Jesper, why don´t you just ignore the ref then when they do not suit you? “, and that would be totally right to do, but it is so hard, when you have the ref starring you down next to your half painted surface, You have something that is real and realistic next to your painting that is half done, So for you to be the bigger person and go above and beyond the ref at this stage is super hard. So, like Paul, I should put the ref away.
But on the other hand. If I am painting a flowing river or a Gothic tower or the wings of an angel. I need reference to see how it looks in real life ( eagle wings replace angel wings in this case, because real angel wings a so very hard to find photos of ) I need the ref to add that extra 15% of realness and trustworthy details that my mind cannot conjure up by itself. So I have found a solution that is something in between the 2 worlds one being All-referenced-out the other being Painting-from-Memory. I create mood boards. I select a bunch of references that somehow captures the mood, color poses faces or light reference that I think will do will in the painting. I layout them evenly on a piece of paper and print it out. They are not, one-to-one usable, but they give me information so that I can add details and realistically observations to my stylized drawings and design that came from my mind. This way of using reference is for me a mix between the Paul Bonner-master level, and the total referenced out collages that solves all problems before the painting begins. And it suits my temperament and style best, I think.
Also; it does not keep me from solving problems very specifically, when they arrive. When I painted the Piper of the Swarm painting I had problems when I was sketching out my very stylized figure from my comp sketch: So I had my friend Claus, pose and took a photo with my phone. I ended up realizing what was wrong with my sketch was the way the nose and the rest of the face were not in the same perspective. I took some details from Claus´s face and added them to my drawing and all of a sudden it seemed more right. For me it works better to find the ref when I run into trouble rather than having the ref beforehand and by that having my option reduced to whats in front of me. It allows me to dynamically solve issues rather than being dictated by a photo or a figurine in whats right and wrong.
This way of thinking in the process has also had an extra change for me. I try to avoid details until the end. I make very dynamic thumbs and compositions, and if I can I refrain from rendering the sketch out in detail. Not until I have transferred the sketch to the board I am painting on do I add the details and the expression and the background. It removes a step and keep the drawing fresh. If I sketched a completely fine and detailed pencil, and then transferred it to board and then worked over it again before I started to paint it would die just a bit every time. It might be that having also painted digitally for a while now has finally made me believe in my own skills enough to allow me to skip a sketch stage.
But the main reason I like it this way is it keeps me in the mountainous mode for longer. I am working more playful and less restricted for a longer part of the process. Only when the narrative and the dynamic and the composition is solved do I make use of the references and adds the details.
I hope my personal journey can help. If not directly then by reassuring yourself in that what you do is right for you. By asking the questions to you r own process you can start thinking about the right answer. By not asking, you are just doing the same thing you are used to.
Ask questions, evolve, and make sure that joy is the main focus of your process.