I don’t generally work from reference photos, however sometimes I am inspired by a specific theme or place that I have visited and so I use images from that visit as starting points for new artworks. This was the case recently, when I visited a local garden that specialized in different varieties of Lotus and water plants. I found the combination of water and greenery irresistible and felt the instant urge to create. I took many different photos on my phone while I was there, not really sure at the time how I was going to incorporate this new subject into my existing style and aesthetic.
I find the biggest problem that I have when working from reference images is that I get bogged down in the details. Instead of seeing loose shapes and colours, I see all the different subtleties and I struggle to decide what to leave in and what to toss. I find that my work is a lot tighter and less free when I am focused in an image that I am trying to convey.
I have found that I get the best results by first sketching the images and compositions in my sketchbook. I make simple colour studies and I observe the details in the images and sketch them out,
I looked through the images that I had taken and first decided on what elements I wanted to focus on. Although I found the flowers to be really beautiful, I decided that I found the images that I had taken of the plants coming out of the water much more interesting. I liked the view from below, the stems and seed pods poking up, the canopy of leaves and the negative space of the sky, so this is what I started to sketch.
Once I had made enough of these sketches and mini paintings, I ditched the reference photos all together and this is the key. From that point on, I only worked from my small reference artworks. These small test paintings were simple and lacked detail, which meant that when I started working in a larger scale I had to make that detail up myself, which is when the magic happens. Instead of ending up with a painting of my photos, I ended up with something inspired by the landscape but also completely original.
So if you find that when you are working from a photo reference you work becomes stiff and unimaginative, or you are trying to loosen up your work into a style that is more expressive and free then maybe give this method a try and see what you come up with.