Comparing photo reference paintings with sketch reference paintings

Left: painting from series of sketches. Right: painting from one photograph.

There is definitely a visual difference between the paintings I have done from sketches, and the paintings done from photographs. 

Paintings from photographs I think look far more confident in brushwork, colour palette and paint application. 

But I think the paintings done from sketches are also a lot more mysterious somehow. They seem more ephemeral, whilst the paintings from photograph are quite literal. By this I mean the photo ref. paintings, although they have conceptual meaning behind them, appear to have less of a process behind the making of them. And this is true! 
When painting from sketches I apply so many layers of paint; it is a process of trail and error. 
When painting from a photograph I apply the paint with far more purpose. There are hardly any mistakes covered up or layers painted over. The photograph gives me one perspective which I follow. I just paint and complete it.

This is something to explore further with my practice. I want the movement and, I don’t know, something there that I can’t put into words yet, from the sketch based experiments. But I also want the confidence and impact of the paintings done with a photograph. 
How do I achieve both in one work? That is something to keep in mind and experiment with. 

Finished duvet painting

I took what I had learnt from the test painting to complete this painting. 

The finished painting 

What Works

Two shades of white – blue tone and ochre tone 
Adds subtle dimension and light to the piece. 

I applied white without any Liquin so it was a much thick application than my tester or previous paintings. I did this because I thought there was something missing from the tester – it looks too flat and washy. Making the highlighting paint thicker has solved this issue. 
The thickness of the paint in contrast to the underpainting and shadows gives the highlights a luminosity that makes the painting striking. 

The way I painted the sheets in the bottom right of the painting – letting the shadows be the underpainting, instead of a dark brown I applied. Painting the sheets like this works well because it helps to differentiate between where the duvet stops and the sheets start. The shadows are softer on the sheets than they are on the duvet so it makes sense to not use the dark brown shadow in areas such as this. I want to use this technique on all of the sheets for future paintings. 

The size and frequency of the flower pattern. I followed the photograph roughly, and then added more flowers on top. I looked at what the painting needed more than following the photograph and this worked in the paintings favour. 

I decided not to add a mid-tone grey. I thought with the tester it complicated things, and add more tonal variation where it wasn’t needed. It makes this painting starker. The two different shades of white make up for not having the mid-tone grey. 

I was unsure about how to paint the top part where, in the photograph, the wall is. I liked the idea of leaving the underpainting there, the texture and colour worked well. But I didn’t want that part of the painting to look ignored and unfinished. So I add a wash of warm off-white, thinned with turpentine. Leaving the canvas bare where the shadows of the pillows are.
This works well because it is subtle and doesn’t draw attention from the rest of the piece. I didn’t want to apply thick paint which would create a high contrast area, because that would have drawn the eye too much. 

Hiding the face of the figure and just having her hair and wrist showing works really well. The focus is very much on the materiality of the duvet, and the shape the fabric is creasing in that follows the position of the body underneath it. 

As a viewer of the finished piece, with the pattern on the duvet being so bold and colourful,  I try to find some meaning in it that reflect the person under the covers. The blooming flowers seem a reflection of the character of the person – whether that is how the artist perceives the person, or something else. I know this is a self portrait, and the flowers are just what I had on my bed that day. But it’s interesting that even knowing that, my mind tries to find narrative in the pattern. <<This is something I could work with moving forward! 

What doesn’t work 

Areas of the sheets where I added this dark brown as the shadow. The contrast is too high considering the sheets have a softer shadows than the duvet. It makes it tricky to see where the duvet ends and the sheet begins. 

I think generally, the sheets need more experimentation. I am unsure what would look best with them – but I think the direction is to use more of the underpainting and remove the shadows. 

Conclusion and moving forward

Overall I’m happy with the outcome of this piece. It felt like quite a stylistic experiment, but the painting does have conceptual implications. 

I think the pattern on the fabric has so much potential. I could be painting portraits of people under duvets and using the pattern on the fabric to reflect them, or get them to choose a pattern? There is a lot to be explored! This painting is a good start. 

Test painting for larger piece

I decided to do a small test piece before doing a larger painting of a person lying under the duvet. I wanted to see how I could translate this pattern onto the painting, and doing this test allows me to make improvements before working on a big scale. 

So I used very similar technique to the last painting I completed with the duvet -using a simplistic pattern and extreme shadows and highlights. 

I have been influenced by a painting I did for my painting module (LICA236) which tested the extreme light and dark idea:

This was painted from a photograph of the same bed and person, but I decided not to include the pattern of the duvet. 
The oils were applied wet-on-wet in one sitting with no medium to thin it down. This is a technique I am comfortable with and I think you can see this in the confidence of the strokes applied, compared to other paintings in my studio practice. I wanted to bring an element of this boldness into this new experiment. 

What works

High contrast between light and dark. Depth and abstraction come into play. From afar the piece reflects a duvet, then up close you can see the way I layered the paint and which parts I left unpainted and it appears as more of an abstract pattern.

The lighting looks really harsh with this high contrast and I love the effect! It goes against the association of a duvet being all soft and gentle; instead it’s harsh and edgy. 

What doesn’t work and what could be improved

In the last layer of painting I added a blue-ish grey midtone to the shadows to act as a middle ground. I think I added too much of this – especially in the blocks of shadow. It’s easy to get carried away with adding detail when I am painting from a photograph because I have all the visual information I could want, so like in this instance I lost myself in replicating the image and forgot to stand back and access the painting separate from the photograph. For the main painting I will check in with the overall painting more often and try and look to the photograph less when adding touches such as the midtone grey. 

In the previous large experiment of Devon in her room I put stripes on the fabric, and a linear spotted pattern which guided the eye and gave the duvet more form. With this painting the flowers don’t help show the shape of the duvet at all. There is also a lot of white space between flowers and the flowers are quite large, which means the duvet is perhaps too hard to pick out – it is too abstract. 
Perhaps making the flowers smaller and closer together and perhaps following more of a line

Leave more of underpainting to show through – which would be achieved if I made the flowers smaller and closer together. I think this will add the depth and more of an ephemeral feeling perhaps to the duvet. Instead of something rigid and painted as fixed and complete. 

I think it’s time to start the larger experiment with these things in mind! 

Finishing another experiment

I am pretty happy with the outcome of this painting! I have learnt so much from the process and it shows real potential. 

I applied what I learnt from the shadow test paintings towards the end of the painting, which really helped complete the piece.

What works 

The duvet
I chose to add pattern to the duvet. This choice was partly a reflection of the pattern on the bed I sketched from – which I had noted the colour and pattern. And the choice was partly due to the the artist Remnev, who paints intricate and realistic patterns in his fabric. I knew painting something realistic would never work for my own work, but this idea of putting a more painterly and abstract patter on the duvet seemed fun and full of potential. 
I mixed my paint with part Liquin to thin the paint slightly and make it dry faster. I waited until the stripes and the ochre dots had dried completely before applying the eggshell blue. This technique works extremely well. The colours – this eggshell blue vs the orangy-ochre are opposite each other on the colour wheel and so vibrate on the paper when put next to each other. The depth of the finished duvet also works so well – being able to see the underpainting through holes in the blue. I have been talking of the importance of the duvet and how I want it to represent everything it is conceiling from the viewer – so this painting technique that has so much depth and allows the viewer small looks into the surface below the blue is exactly the kind of technique I want to be using!
The extreme contrast between the eggshell blue and the bluey-grey shadow also works really well. I had two really descriptive sketches to work from so the folds of the duvet make sense. Keeping the contrast to just two shades – light and dark – give the viewer enough information about the form of the duvet without getting caught in unnecessary information. Finding this balance of what is needed and what is not in the information I give the viewer is important. 

Covering up the face of the person – the scene was too much about the face before I covered her eyes. It’s a shame because I really liked the way I had painted the face. But without her face shown the scenes becomes about what we can’t see and what we want to know, instead of what the girl is thinking etc. 

Perspective – having the viewer feel part of the room, and sat maybe on the edge of the bed is more suggestive and involved than compositions I have painted in the past, and it really works. We are drawn in here by the walls on both sides and that there is an empty space next to the girl. The lower perspective creates an expectation of intimacy that I want to create. And then the narrative and identity of the girl that is more strongly felt because the perspective suggests something else. 

What doesn’t work 

The shadows and colours on the walls I never could get quite right. The lighting doesn’t have a clear direction (although this flat lighting does work for the duvet so..?). And for fear of overworking the piece even more and ruining what I had I thought it was better to stop. 

The shutters in the top centre of the piece. Is brown is a good colour choice? The thin streaks of light are two high contrast and attract two much attention? I couldn’t figure out a better way of painting this section so I left it at that. Experience with these rooms and more direction with lighting will reveal what would work better for the scene. 

What next 

Push forward the technique I used for the duvets. As I have said elsewhere the duvet and what it hides etc is an important part of these paintings and this technique has the potential to achieve this importance in the paintings. So focus on that (more detailed planning notes in sketchbook do). 

Covering the face works, but covering it with the duvet would work better than with an eye mask I think. Since I want the fabric to be the thing that conceals and it would look like a more cohesive painting. 

More painting! 

Experiment finally finished

This painting took me weeks to finish. This is due to the lack of reference images (- no photographs and quite vague sketches) so I had to make choices based on instinct and habit and intention, instead of following what was there in real life. 

I took lots of time between painting sessions to give myself time to find what needed changing. I’ve learnt a lot from this process so although I’m not happy with the finish product, the lessons I learnt whilst painting is what makes this piece a valuable part of this project. 

In the last post I did on this piece I said I wanted to simplify the shapes and colours, and keep this style of applying thin layers of paint. I tried that and this was the result: 

So the orange was removed and I added a little more texture to the fabric. In retrospect this wad the best this painting looked. But at the time, I had started a painting with lots of ruffles and detail in the fabric so I thought I would try adding more definition to the duvet: 

And this is the finished painting. It has a lot more ttexture, after adding the creases of the duvet. This texture was created with the application of thicker paint and with the contrasting folds in the fabric. Since I was making up the folds of the fabric I don’t think this works well, and it would have been better to keep the plain dark red shadow. 

What works 

The variation in thickness of paint. There are parts where I have not thinned it at all, and parts where Liquin mixed with the paint to create a semitransparent wash. This contrast exaggerates the differences in paint application and makes for a painting that celebrates painterly texture, keeping in the viewer’s mind the process that was involved in making the piece. 

The texture of the canvas and the creases in the canvas surprisingly suit the focus on fabric in the painting. This was something multiple people said to me whilst looking around my studio, and it’s something I wouldn’t have considered myself. That the material painted on could reflect the textures in the painting is an idea I hadn’t considered before, but it would have some potential? – seems like that path would lead to crossing the line into more installation and sculptural work..

I always thought the blue background was the light of a TV since that was what was in the room with the figure I sketched from. But looking at the finished painting, the way I have layered the blue makes it look like a cloudy sky, with the sun revealing itself just off the left hand corner. This may be subjective and the potential of making a painting that can be interpreted to that unrealistic extreme is interesting! 

What doesn’t work and what I struggled with 

I think the main thing I struggled with in making this painting, and the cause of what doesn’t work in the painting, is my painting style. I was heavily influenced by the artist Felicia Forte when painting this, hence the bold colours and the thin washes of paint. I think the more I worked on this piece the less I was influenced by her. I hadn’t found a visual language to convey these bedroom scenes (and still haven’t) when painting this, so this is piece is one big trial and error, and you can tell my hesitation in the finished painting.

Moving forward 

I have been doing a lot of work alongside the completion of this painting so I there isn’t really a black and white conclusion to experiments like this one.

Finding my own visual language that successfully paints these bedroom scenes is what this painting shows I need to do. 

Using a very bright colour palette, with highlights in cool and shadows in warm, is interesting and could have potential that I can follow later. 

Maybe paint on canvas again? Or try painting on board: see what the possibilities are of different surfaces. 

Painting shadows in rooms

For the first experiment, I used a process that I thought made sense for the scene:
Underpainting with darker lines for edges of walls etc in thinned oil paint.
Then apply colour to everything and shadows.
Then add shadow colour (cadmium red + french ultramarine + burnt umber), thinned slightly with Liquin and buffed in with dry brush. 

The end result is an overworked, dull, unrealistic representation of the scene.
It’s interesting that the more I looked at the walls to scrutinise for painting, the more the shadows and highlights revealed themselves, especially in relation to each other. What I mean by this is at first I might assume that one side of a wall is pretty dark, so I filled that in with the shadow wash accordingly. But then when I look at the wall next to it, I realise the wall I just painted is much lighter than the one next to it, and so I need to lighten the original wall to compensate. 
I think these suprises came because I have never looked at shadows in such detail before, and it takes practice to train the eye to see tone etc. 

For my next experiment, I realised less layers of paint is better. So I didn’t apply any off-white paint to the surface before going in with my shadows. I also thinned the shadow mix, with a higher ratio of Liquin to paint. This makes the brushstrokes more obvious (which I like, and wouldn’t be able to achieve if I thinned the paint with Turpentine) and the mix more transparent. 
This corner of the room had quite a lot of colour in it, compared to the first piece. I could see cool yellows, and some blue and browns. I also didn’t worry too much about rendering detail in this test, since it is only a test to focus on shadows. 

It is clear I struggled with the colours in the shadows. I made the colours too saturated, and the contrast between each plane, in colour and tone is too extreme. I realised I needed to tone down the colour to make it realistic – I have a tendency to exaggerate colour. 

For this third experiment I applied what I had learnt from the last two:
I applied the shadow colour (slightly different ratios of cad.red + french ultramarine + burnt umber depending on coolness of shadow) straight onto the paper, with no underpainting. The shadow was also extremely thin, with generous amount of Liquin to a tiny bit of paint. 
I like how ‘brushy’ this ratio is, it gives the flat planes texture and energy. 
This was by the far the quickest test and also the most successful! Although there are some perspective issues when compared with the room I was working from, the result independent from that is very successful. It creates a sense of light and the illusion of depth. 

Next I can apply this technique to larger works. The question will be do I out the underpainting for the walls of a room? Or can I apply this technique over patterns/other painting?…

Carving Wax Sculpture Workshop

I did these two wax sculptures as part of a sculpture workshop. I worked from a sketch for each sculpture. I’m not happy with the results, I think you can hardly tell what they are, especially since the wax is so light. However it is still worth recording, and could prompt some more three dimensional work if relevant. 

Since I am working from sketches I found working three dimensionally a good way to think about the space in my paintings; like the space between the shoulder and the face, the way an arm can rest anatomically or how the head rests on a pillow – the weightiness also of the body on a bed. 

It was very hard to do! I think because my mind is so used to working on a flat surface, I ended up doing more of an engraving than a 360 sculpture. But that is also down to the shape of the wax mould I made. It was also tricky because the act of removing unwanted wax means if I made a mistake and removed too much wax it couldn’t be undone. 

Perhaps sculpture could be useful for thinking about bodies in beds and in relation to surroundings. Working with a material that is more tactile and malleable, where I build up the form on a larger scale.

I have worked with clay in the past and it worked well for sculpting the creases of pillows and duvets – it’s funny that when working with clay in the past I was working with the same subject -beds – that I am now. Huh. 

This is something to keep in mind :).