Painting practice with reference photos

Remember I said I was going to fight my frustrations by doing watercolor technique practice? I also remembered I have a big file of reference photos, pulled from magazines, that I wanted to work with before we leave. So I’ve been practicing with those, and I must say I’m so pleased with the results that I could almost imagine I’ll never be frustrated again (hah!).

I can’t remember how long any of these took me, but I can tell you that they are very, very small. The tallest of the portraits is less than three inches; the shortest, an inch and a half.

Practice heads 1

Whenever my paintings from photos come out well, I always feel a little like I’m cheating, because I know that much of the credit is due the photographer, for the compelling angles and good lighting. But until I’m confident enough in my abilities to ask friends to sit for me, photos and self-portraits will have to suffice.

Practice heads 2

This is the one I’m most pleased with: a little figure, a mere six and a quarter inches high. One of the things I love about her is that the model in the photo looked blasé and knowing, but in my version she came out looking much more interested. Maybe someday in the future I’ll look at this and see all kinds of flaws with it, but for the moment, I adore it.

Practice figure

By the way, when I say “reference photos,” I mean just that: I use them for reference. I don’t trace them; I draw freehand, but refer to them for proportions, shading, etc. I’m not as concerned with getting a likeness as with creating a realistic depiction.

At first when I was doing these pictures, I got antsy because I didn’t know how to reconcile photo-reproducing skills with drawings from my imagination — but I’ve decided not to worry about it. It’ll work itself out. And it’s such fun doing this practice.


13 responses to “Painting practice with reference photos

  1. Oh, gosh, Lisa, these are all so good!!! I have a question: why do you paint small? It must be very difficult to get the details in such a tiny space.

    • Thank you so much, Sherry! You know, I don’t know why I paint so small. Partly I’m used to it (why that is, I don’t know). Partly it’s easier when my desk is cluttered. Partly it just feels natural. It probably is difficult to work small, but I’ve always done it so it doesn’t bother me at all, and I have a decently steady hand for tiny details. I actually really want to learn to work bigger, but that feels more daunting to me!

  2. Of course it’ll work itself out. I love that last one, too. She’s got attitude.

    I’m with Sherry, wondering about the smallness your paintings. When I draw I seem to draw small, but I would think painting required more space. From the looks of these paintings, I guess it doesn’t.

    • Thank you, Ré! I think painting does require a leeetle more space than drawing, but I still seem to gravitate towards working small, or at least I feel I do better work that way. Also, I’m still not very good at controlling the amount of liquid I’m using with the paints, so working big means more risk of an area drying too quickly or slowly. Maybe as I gain control over the medium I’ll feel more empowered to try bigger pieces. 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Walter! Me too. My biggest complaint about my last self-portrait attempt was that it felt muddy and dark, so I’m really happy these feel lighter and more radiant.

  3. ooohhh her nails must be very tiny! nice paintings. I haven’t tried that idea of copying photos. I too would need bigger paper just because I wouldn’t have the skill to paint so small. What do they say ? either paint big or paint small. Some say small is in right now.

    • Haha, they are tiny! You might notice the top one looks a little too long — I realized after doing that one first that I was going to have to limit each nail to a single brushstroke! (Hardly a stroke. A dab!)

      Twyla Tharp says in The Creative Habit that artists naturally tend either toward the epic or the miniature. 🙂

  4. Wow, I would never will paint any potraits because i just cant seem to get it right and even to know that you paint it small in size, i would absolutely think that this is brilliant and tedious! Great achievement! 🙂

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