Choosing a good reference photo

I’m having a really hard time choosing a photo. I want to use an older picture of my mom, but of course they’re all lo-res. Perhaps I could deal with that, but I find myself being picky about the composition of the photo. I don’t know if any of these are really quite right. I don’t know that any will make a good painting. I would love to get some feedback.

This one I  find interesting but the vertical lines from the kitchen appliances and the cabinet might make it an unappealing painting. I suppose I could zoom in, but I’m not sure how to compose this.

This one could work, it’s colorized (they all are) but that’s easy enough to deal with. But I’m concerned with the lack of resolution on the baby.

Again I’m concerned with lack of resolution here. Especially on the baby’s leg. I’ve posted this question before and some of you made some really good points about how shapes are really the most important thing. But there is some serious lack of resolution on that leg.

I’m having a difficult time deciding if I should tackle one of these, or keep looking for something better. Would love to hear what you all think about composition and how to deal with these issues.


  • @emaz
    This is where spending more time learning to draw would be helpful. You don't need hi-rez to draw from. Or paint from for that matter.If you focus on the form, relative proportions, simple perspective you can get a good foundation.
    Using proportional dividers will make it easier than gridding. 

    Before color printing artist had to work from black and white photo. That was ok because the drawing was the goal.
    I love the bottom photo. There's plenty of information to get a good drawing to paint over there.
  • Only the babies leg really scares me. Do I draw/paint it just as it is? Or do I try to add a little more definition where it’s lacking. I’m guessing just draw what I see?
  • @emaz
    You draw what is represented there. Proper anatomy as best you can. 

    Painting is creating the illusion of 3D on 2D. Painting from photos is curious because we paint from 2d somehow translating to 3d in our minds then back to 2d. When the information in the photo is 'incomplete' we have to rely on knowledge or research.
  • edited May 2021
    How would Sargent deal with the baby's leg? A couple of deft strokes of the right shape and value in just the right place and voila!

    The difficulty is not the lack of detail in the photo. Rather, it's avoiding fretting over detail that isn't there because we think it should be. When I first looked at the photo above I didn't notice the lack of detail in the babies leg. It looked right because the right values were in the right place. It's peripheral and I quickly passed over it to get back to the faces. So, the problem is not that we can't see enough detail but that we see too much, or worse, that we invent detail when it's not really visible.  Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that if you can't see a detail through a half squint then don't paint it. If each brushstroke you do paint is of the right value and shape and in the right place then the painting will work. The less fussing over detail the better. :)
  • Wow Tassieguy! I just learned a lot even from that reply. Very insightful. Guess I will learn a lot from attempting this painting. In my first portrait I got carried into the detail plus I over blended. It still came out OK, but I made very predictable mistakes, and I even heard Mark’s voice in my head as I made those very mistakes. And then I see some of the paintings posted here, not over blended, with the values and shapes spot on and that alone makes for a wonderful painting. This is why I am fascinated by painting. Accomplishing those two things is both the most simple and yet the hardest thing in the world at the same time. Also I’m a software engineer and very much an over thinker. So painting for me is like meditation. This one should be interesting! 
  • Many of your concerns are tied to your dependence on the photos.  IMO, You should spend at an least equal time painting from life as you do painting from photos.  The observational skills, perspective perception and color the eye sees when working from life is more complex than viewing photos or even high res screen/ video.
  • First one is a very useful photo as there is very little perspective distortion and is great as a subject. I prefer to use slightly blurry photos as I don't concentrate on details. But first one is really great. You may look to add a few framed photos (painted of course) on the refrigerator to make it more personal. 
  • edited May 2021
    But, @PBarrie, @emaz wants to paint one of these that show her mom. She can't do this from life. It's from a different era.

    It's a challenge to paint from low resolution photos like these but not an insurmountable one providing that one paints broadly and doesn't go looking for detail that is not there. Sure, it's best to paint from life but without time travel it's not always possible.
  • I went with #3, work is in progress. It’s quite a challenge. I’m curious how you all feel about the background architectural details with the fencing. Do you think it’s important for all of those slats to be perfectly straight, or does slight unintentional freehand wobble add character? I’m also considering giving that background a light brush blur - kind of like good photography, which draws more attention to the subject in the front. Is that a technique in painting?
  • I’m cheating too. I’m using a gridded canvas, and I’m not really doing all my darks first. So I guess I’m not really using Marks method? 🤣

  • This looks to be coming along very nicely. Using a grid is not cheating, @emaz. Painters have used them since time immemorial. I often do so when I've got a complex landscape subject.  :)
Sign In or Register to comment.