• Tag Archives realism
  • A Great Site for Artist Reference Photos

    Sometimes artists need a reference to look at.

    Real life is the best kind of reference.

    If I’m painting an abstract or whimsical impression of a subject, I might night need a reference at all.  However, if I am wanting to even approach realism, I need some kind of reference to look at.  In an ideal world, I would have real life references of everything I wanted to paint, so that I could actually look at the real item and always draw or paint from life.

    Real life, on scene references are the best! plein air painting,
    Real life, on scene references are the best!

    Photographs are petty good references too.

    The real world though, is far from ideal, and reality doesn’t always allow me easy access to subjects such as the Eiffel Tower, or a live bald eagle, or a lion.  In the case of the animals, even if I did have access to a live specimen of every species on the planet, they wouldn’t be likely to strike a pose and sit still for me while I drew or painted them.  This is where a photograph can really be an asset.  Photographs exist of almost every subject on the planet, and even some off the planet. Even fantastical creatures of myth and science fictions are based on real world creatures. Photographs don’t move, you can zoom in to see details, you can convert them to black and white, boost the contrast, or darken the shadows in order to see the values and shading better. Photographs can really be invaluable, and an artist doesn’t necessarily copy the whole photograph either, an artist might paint a landscape from life, but put in a deer or other animal from a photograph, only using the photograph to reference the correct proportions, makings, and colors of the animal.

    Sometimes, a photograph can be ideal references to paint from also!
    Sometimes, a photograph can be ideal references to paint from also!

    Photographs are not always available for use.

    The main drawback of photographs is that they are often works of art in themselves, and as such are automatically protected by copyright.  You see, an artist or photographer doesn’t have to do anything to own the copyright to their work, they own that copyright automatically.  In order to not own the copyright, the photographer or artist has to take action to release the copyright they automatically own. As an artist, I respect other artists and their work, and don’t wish to violate their rights to their work. I also don’t want any legal trouble that would come from using a photograph illegally. Many artists use photo references all the time and don’t worry about copyright because they figure that in making it into a painting or drawing they are transforming the original into something new, and there is no way a court would hold them guilty.  Courts though have been very inconsistent with rulings regarding copyright, sometimes coming after someone for  something that simply vaguely resembled another artists work, and other times allowing people to blatantly steal other people’s photos off of Instagram, apply a little editing, and call it their own artwork.  Who is to say how a court would rule if someone decided to sue a painter for using their photograph? I don’t think it is worth the risk though.

    A photograph isn't worth the risk of legal trouble!
    A photograph isn’t worth the risk of legal trouble!

    Some photographers are very generous though.

    Thankfully, there are some photographers out there who are generous with their photos.  They actually take the steps necessary to give permission, in advance, to whoever wants to use their photographs.  Sometimes they will put some conditions, such as saying that you can’t use the photo in a stand alone basis (you can just make prints on canvas or paper and sell the photo exactly as is), some say that you need to give attribution, which basically means to give them credit. There are all different levels of license and release available, from no attribution and no restrictions at all, up to only being able to use a photo for non-commercial use and only if you also share your version under the same license. Some of the licenses allow you to then change the license type on your adaptation, and others require that you share alike. For more information about the various levels of license, check out the Creative Commons Licenses.  Of course the best licenses for other creatives are the ones that are completely released, without condition, otherwise known as released to the public domain.  Because a painter can use them for a reference, and still claim copyright to his painting, or a book publisher can use the photo in a book and still copyright the book.

    Some very talented photographers, are willing to share their work with other creatives.
    Some very talented photographers, are willing to share their work with other creatives.

    So where do you find these public domain photos?

    There are several sites where you can find Public Domain photos.  Wikimedia has a lot, but they also have a lot that are not public domain, so make sure to check out the licenses attached to each one.  Morguefile.com is a photo sharing site where you usually are only asked to give attribution for a photo. The best site I’ve found so far though is Pixabay, with hundreds of thousands of images you can use however you want, for free.  The only caution I have to give about Pixabay is that whenever you search a subject, the first row of photos will say, “Sponsored images”, those are not free, they are stock photos being advertised for sale, the free images come below the sponsored ones.  When you click on a free image, it will open up and show you different free download options, from original high resolution, to website friendly, lower resolution, smaller file size, and various increments in between. Download what you need and then you can post it, publish it, transform it, paint from it, to your heart’s content.

    Pixabay is a great resource of free to use reference photos for artists Click To Tweet
    Pixabay is a great resource of free to use reference photos for artists, and even stand alone photos for publications and websites.
    Pixabay is a great resource of free to use reference photos for artists, and even stand alone photos for publications and websites.

    And we aren’t talking poor quality photos that photographers just couldn’t use for anything else either.  Some are great, artistic quality images.  Some are drawings, some are vectors.  All of the photos used in this blog post came from Pixabay.


    Pixabay has a huge variety of subjects, like this mandarinfish.
    Pixabay has a huge variety of subjects, like this mandarinfish.



  • The Hindrance to Realistic Painting

    Why Can’t I Paint Realistically?

    This is a common cry of would-be painters.  They want what they are painting to actually look like what they are painting, but it doesn’t come out that way.  It may come out looking like something completely different, or it may look like a childish version of what they are trying to portray, but realistic? No.

    Here I will insert a disclaimer, I am not the most realistic painter in the world either, but I do feel that if I paint a fox, no one is going to look at it and mistake it for a rat or a possum.  Its also unlikely they will think that a second grader painted the fox.  I am most certainly not photo-realistic, but my paintings, for the most part, also do not look like caricatures of the subject at hand.


    The biggest roadblock to realism in art.

    Regardless of my own abilities in realistic painting, I do posses the knowledge of what the biggest roadblock to it is, and it is something that some painters do not want to hear.

    The biggest roadblock to realistic painting is lack of skill development in drawing.  Yes, I said drawing.  With a pencil.  I also said skill not talent.   That is because, while certain parts of art are talent based, drawing is largely a skill developed through training and practice.

    Yes, virtually anybody who can see at all can improve their drawing skill.  We may not all posses the ability to become the next Dirk Dzimirsky, but we all can progress past stick figures and flat looking figures.

    We can all learn to draw better than we do on just natural instincts alone.  I would also say that probably 99% of us can learn to draw a more realistic fox than this:

    A cartoon-ish, childish fox I drew on MS Paint, in order to demonstrate my point.
    A cartoon-ish, childish fox I drew on MS Paint, in order to demonstrate my point.

    But I Want to Learn to Paint, Not Draw!

    If you made that objection, then I need to let you in a little secret.  While certain types of abstract painting can be done without learning to draw, realistic painting is drawing, for the most part.

    It is drawing with paint.  All the rules of regular drawing apply, composition, proportion, perspective, shading… if you want to paint realistically, you must study drawing.  Now by study I don’t mean you need to take a college class, there are many very good “learn to draw books” out there.  A really good one to begin with is also a pretty old one, it is titled Learn to Draw with Jon Gnagy.  As I said, it is a good starting point, after which you could probably learn the rest of what you need by practice and occasionally looking things up on the internet.

    Basically in that book you will begin by taking your basic shapes, and learning how to turn them into your basic forms instead.   In other words, if you are trying to draw a ball, you will how to go from this:

    Just a circle... not a ball
    Just a circle… not a ball

    To this:

    Not just a circle, a ball, or sphere.
    Not just a circle, a ball, or sphere.


    Then you learn how to take those basic forms (which are sphere, cone, cube, and cylinder) and find or “see” them in the objects around you.  For example, that ice cream the child is holding.  It is a sphere resting on top of an inverted cone, that dog’s head is basically a modified sphere, with a modified cone coming off of it, the ears are basically half cones… etc.

    In the book though, you take this step by step, you learn to turn the cylinder into a bucket, the sphere into an apple, the cube into a stack of books, the cone into a ti-pi.

    Then it moves on from there and teaches you the common mistakes in landscapes, you learn to draw a dog (great dane) using the basic forms and shapes already discussed, you learn to combine elements to make well composed drawings.

    I did all that, but I still can’t Paint!

    If you have learned the basics of drawing, but are having trouble translating them to the medium of paint, don’t despair.  Every new medium has a learning curve.

    Start out by going back through your drawing lessons again, this time using paint instead of pencil.  At first, just do them in black and white paint, then later start adding color, make sure premix your colors so that you have a least four or five different values of each color.  In other words, if you are going to be painting something blue, you want a nice dark blue, then one a little lighter, one medium tone, one just a little lighter than medium tone, and one that is almost white, just a slight hint of the blue in it.  You will use these different values to create the shading in your painting.

    Keep practicing your drawing skills, because it will translate into your painting in time.  Even after you are painting well, you should still grab your pencil on a regular basis and draw.

    Of course, after completing the Jon Gnagy book, and then repeating those lessons in paint,  you’ll still want to learn more.  Learning to draw complex things using a grid can really help you learn to draw what you see.   Instructions on that method can be found HERE.

    Of course there are also many other excellent drawing books besides the Jon Gnagy book, the main thing is to get one that will teach you to go from flat shapes to forms, and then turn those forms into realistic objects.

    But I don’t care about realism!

    If you don’t care to paint realistic objects, than you might not absolutely need to learn how to draw, but it is still good practice.  In drawing you will still learn how to add dimension, which can help in some abstract painting.   Of course, if you like to paint abstractly in a kind of “spatter” or “flow” pattern, and you have no interest in painting anything of a different style than that, you can probably skip the drawing lessons.