Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Case For Using Reference Photos?

"Have you ever used photo images?"

I hear this from time to time from artists who are new to urban sketching or are curious about my sketching process. The short answer is "yes," but if you want a more complete explanation, Urban Sketching has some guidelines that prohibit to the use of reference photos.

The reality of sketching on location is this: things change, they move, lighting changes, or your field of view can change. Have you ever witnessed a scene and said to yourself "this will be perfect, but I will have to come back later when I have time?" Wrong answer. To paraphrase the public announcement on trains and in airports "if you see something, sketch something." But if you are short on time, take a picture. It will last longer. In short, those perfect moments in time where they are begging to be sketched never happen twice in the same way and never the way you remembered it.

Here are some of the best reasons to use reference photos:

1. When you subject tends to move a lot (people, animals, vehicles, banners, public transportation, etc.)

2. When your lighting changes or you think it might change

3. When your window of opportunity is very short to capture your subject

4. When your sketch time is interrupted

5. When extreme weather conditions or temperatures effect your ability to sketch

6. To reference color later when you add color to your sketch long after you have left the location

So yes, sketch it if you can or snap a photo if you have to. For instance, I was enjoying my lunch in the town where I work when I noticed a crew repainting the street markings. I decided that this scene was so interesting that I needed to sketch it but the man operating the sprayer moved a lot. I snapped a photo because I wanted to remember the coloring, the textures, and the mechanics of that piece of equipment, especially if I wasn't going to be able to color it during my lunch break. The resulting reference photo and the final sketch are here below.

In a more recent example, my sketch group met up in Evanston and I had decided to sketch a vintage Triumph TR3. I had a hunch that the owner might be eating lunch or shopping nearby and I did not know how long this car would be my subject. If the owner was to return to their car while I was in mid-sketch, I would've lost my subject. Since I snapped a photo at the beginning of my time, I could sketch at my pace instead of rushing the sketch and be unhappy with the results.

What did I learn? 
First, the reference photo I was using was taken by me so I was not infringing on anyone's copyright or using someone else's creative eye. 

Second, the photo was taken just moments earlier in the same location and time of my sketch. Therefore, my photos, taken on location, are still consistent with being truthful to the scene and by direct observation. 

(Note: You should avoid using your photo to apply a digital sketch filter onto because you will not get the full benefit of sketching by observation and working on your hand-eye coordination).

Third, if you should happen to use reference photos while urban sketching, it is no longer "urban sketching." Urban sketching is about being in the moment and sketching on location the subject that is in front of you.

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