What makes the best reference photograph for figure art?

Sometimes when I see a reference photograph I immediately want to create something. Others can be a little more difficult to work with. I am sure that each artist has their own preferences for what they look for in a good reference photograph. This weeks blog post is about what I think makes the perfect reference photograph for my figurative artwork.

I know that some artists can work from images that they imagine. Others prefer to work from live subjects. However, I most commonly work from a reference photograph. I find it much easier to create figurative artwork from photographs because they are already two dimensional, the lighting does not change over time and they do not move 😉

All photographs are not created equal when it comes to using them as a reference for artwork. Previously I have written about my tips for a successful aerial photoshoot. This post contains my tips for the kinds of reference photographs that I find easiest to work with.

High Contrast

I am always drawn to photographs that have strong lights and shadows. Whether that comes from the subject or the lighting. I tend to also go for images that have little to no background so that all of the contrast is between the highlights and the lowlights in the figure. This appeals to me because the artwork I work on is also often very high contrast. Contrasting areas are difficult to artificially create in a painting if there is no gradient of shadow in the reference image.

The two examples below were studio photographs taken by professional photographers. They both have strong light sources and stunning composition focused exclusively on the figures. These are two of the photographs that I immediately wanted to use for a portrait as soon as I saw them.

 

“‘Hanging by a Thread’: Portrait of Hannah Lawson in Belay” is locked ‘Hanging by a Thread’: Portrait of Hannah Lawson in Belay

Reference photograph by Sari Blum of Hannah in belay next to her portrait ‘Hanging by a Thread’

 

The first reference photograph shows Hannah in her blue costume and red silk belay against a stark white background. In this image the figure contrasts sharply with the white. Whilst the second example shows Maia in a backbend hand balance almost blending into the black background. Even though Maia does not stand out as much from the background, there are extremely strong shadows in the image which make her muscle anatomy more visible.

 

‘Bend Over Backwards’: Contortion portrait of Maia Adams in backbend

Reference photograph by RJ Muna of Maia in a backbend hand balance next to her portrait ‘Bend Over Backwards’

High Resolution

The resolution of a reference photograph can determine how much detail I can go into in the resulting portrait. If the reference photograph is sharp and shows all of the nitty gritty details, then the more detail I am able to go into when working on the artwork. In contrast, a grainy photograph may mean that I need to guess where some of the anatomical details are. I prefer not to make up these details myself and prefer to work from a high resolution, sharp reference photograph.

How does aerial dance compare with aerial yoga?How does aerial dance compare with aerial yoga?

Reference photograph by Patrick O’Connor of Nicole doing aerial yoga next to her portrait ‘Touch Your Toes

 

The first example here shows how a high resolution reference image allows for a more detailed artwork. This is in contrast with the second photo taken with a phone camera, where the artwork needed to be simpler.

 

A picture of the strength to flyA picture of the strength to fly

Reference photograph of Ashe on aerial straps next to her portrait ‘The Strength to Float’

Good Lighting

I love when show lighting is captured in a photograph. When aerialists perform and the bright spotlight hits a pose it can create amazing effects on the body. In the example below, the lighting has made the triangular shape striking. It has also created a rosy hue over the silks and Alexa’s body.

 

Aerial silks from a gymnast's perspectiveAerial silks from a gymnast's perspective

Reference photograph by Louis Montaño of Alexa performing on aerial silks next to her portrait ‘Subtle Splits Triangle

 

Interesting composition or shape

My favourite thing about creating artwork inspired by aerialists is capturing the amazing things aerial artists can do with their bodies. The beautiful shapes that these stunning performers can make allow for some interesting figurative compositions.

Aerial silks from the perspective of a captivating performerAerial silks from the perspective of a captivating performer

Reference photograph by RJ Muna of Anastasia on aerial silks next to her portrait ‘Inverted Diamond’

 

I also love the way that the aerial apparatus frame the figures and add to the interest in the composition. The silks can add movement and fluidity, whilst the rigidity and continuous nature of the aerial hoop contrasts with the bodies in the artworks.

What happens when a yogi becomes addicted to aerial arts?What happens when a yogi becomes addicted to aerial arts?

Reference photograph of Nadine on lyra next to her portrait ‘Golden Hoop’

 

A beautiful silhouette

Something that I look for in reference photos, particularly for resin pieces, is a beautiful silhouette. Specifically, it is good to have almost no overlapping areas, because overlapping limbs can be confusing in the resin artworks.

 

How I was introduced to resin painting at a resin workshopHow I was introduced to resin painting at a resin workshop

Reference photograph of me on lyra next to my self-portrait ‘Splatter Hoop’

 

Movement

Sometimes stillness is lovely but movement can also be so interesting. The problem with movement is that it can be a challenge to capture effectively. Below is an example where I painted a portrait of Angela from a video still. You can see the silks billowing out like wings as she flies through the air.

‘Wings’: A painting portraying Angela Chu on flying silks‘Wings’: A painting portraying Angela Chu on flying silks

Reference photograph by Patrick O’Connor of Nicole doing aerial yoga next to her portrait ‘Touch Your Toes

 

I hope that you have found my tips for the perfect reference photograph for figurative artwork helpful. In next weeks blog post I am planning on calling for submissions from yogis who have stunning photographs of themselves in their favourite poses. So if you love yoga and would be interested in having a portrait created as part of my upcoming yogi collection, use the tips in this post to get your photos ready 🙂