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  • Gayle Ormon

Reference Photos: lights, luck, livable resolution

I’ve been asked before how I choose the images I make. I haven’t really analyzed it before, but actually there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. Normally a project starts as a general image in my head, but to get it down on steel or canvas I need to flesh it out with solid reference material.


I don’t tend to work from live subjects. It’s a personal decision. I’ve painted in the cold, wind, rain and heat before and I’ve had the sunburn to prove it. I found being subject to the elements like that while painting and being subject to the sun’s inflexible schedule is just not for me. I don’t keep bankers hours and often work at night. To all the awesome plein air painters out there, I salute you!


I’ve also worked from live models before. However, my clients and models have better things to do than to sit in my studio for hours on end. It’s so much simpler for them and for me to just take a picture, make sure it’s a good one, and work from that. The subject doesn’t move and I don’t feel rushed.


Which brings me to my next point—what makes a picture “good”? My two big requirements for reference material are resolution and light. If I’m painting a celebrity, I have to make do with the pictures than are available, which means I will inevitably have a resolution issue. The beautiful shots with fantastic light are taken by professionals. More often than not, they have been photoshopped within an inch of their life. Photoshopping the image makes it perfect and sleek and also takes away much needed visual information that I want. Often I find it’s what we perceive as the imperfections in a face that make up a likeness. Conversely, casual shots (like selfies) can have great resolution but the light and angle can be underwhelming. I like taking my own reference photos when I can.


My all time favorite light is a toss up between the golden hour (that yellow and sometimes pink color right before sunset) and fire light. Yes, I am a light snob. I like warm, beautiful lights—not a big fan of soul-sucking florescent or LED lights. I like bright light that sweeps across the face giving well defined highlights and shadows. I find it almost sculptural and definitely more dynamic.


So there you have it. I try to choose images from photos that are compositionally interesting/balanced, of a workable resolution, with dynamic and warm light that will match the vague notion I already had in mind.




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