Finding the Right Reference Photos


The best reference material is always being able to study the subject in person. Being able to observe not only gives me an idea of the personality of the subject, but helps me to understand how it moves. But cuddling up to a few wolves or deep sea diving with a sea turtle isn’t always an option. This is also true for requests for custom feathers for pets unless I happen to be in the area. The second best option I’ve got is utilizing photography reference material, but sometimes this can be a bit harder than what it can seem. So what makes finding photos such a challenge?

1. Position & Cropping
The first thing to look for is how the subject is portrayed in the shot. There is a huge difference between beautiful photography and wonderful reference photos. Unless the perfect pose is found, we have to find ones that give us the best amount of workable information that can be manipulated in the painting process. Where the first two images are beautifully done, they lend only very specific aspects of the subject. Sometimes multiple reference photos have to be used, but the more of the animal that is seen the more proportions and structure can be assessed. Unless one of our photography friends have an example handy, this means a lot of time looking for angles or positions in the mass of photos in magazines or online.

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2. Clarity
Being able to understand what you’re looking at is very important. This is especially so if you’re sending reference photos for a custom order. Remember that we can only see what is in the picture, we can’t infer a lot of details and produce an accurate representation of the subject with the examples given below. Images that are too dark or bleached out with overpowering highlights hide a lot of color that makes the subject unique. Poses that are contorted or unnaturally looking can make it hard to create an attractive work, especially if it is so contorted you lose the identity of the subject. Blurred photos contort all of the proportions and details just as much as a photo with poor lighting.

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Good photos will have clear color and details about the subject. The more clarity an image has, the easier it is to try and reproduce a beautiful image in a painting. This can be difficult for the average person (as well as the average pet!)to achieve. Often, we can supplement professional photos for a basis and utilize a lower quality of image when trying to work on the details. However, a clear photo of the subject is always better than a top notch artist trying to guess.

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3. Contrast & Resolution
The last thing that is important in reference photos is looking for a good amount of contrast and a fair resolution. An image can have a wonderful pose and good clarity, yet the contrast in the photo makes it hard to get to the detail. A reference photo can also look wonderful as a thumbnail, but it is too low a resolution (or size) to have any detail when opened.

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Remember to try and have a background that is a different color than your subject as it will help bring out the details. Different lighting aspects will also bring out more muscle structure in dark colored subjects.

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Sometimes, it can take a lot of research on projects that are requiring particular details. Try looking for detailed images of the plumed headdresses for funerary horses for someone who wishes for a very specific style! But don’t get discouraged by this post, the research is often part of the fun of every project. If you’re thinking about ordering a commission, don’t get frustrated if you can’t get the perfect photo. Do the best that you can and let us see what we can do!

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