It’s no secret that I use photo reference in creating my work; my painting method is laborious and using photos helps ease the burden on my models and my schedule. But one thing I always caution my students on is becoming a slave to the reference. Photos are a powerful tool in the making of art but directly copying a photo without a fundamental understanding of light, structure, and color can leave your images flat and lifeless.
Above is an example of one of my recent watercolors and the reference used to paint it. Every artist that uses reference has their own way of incorporating the materials into their work. I view my reference as a road map: There to guide me in a general direction from A to B, but ultimately allowing me the freedom to explore other avenues.
The differences between the reference and the finished piece above are obvious, and I wouldn’t have been able to convincingly make those changes had I not spent numerous hours drawing and painting from life.
The ability to believably fill gaps in detail, alter colors and lighting, and even change anatomy all come from observational study. As with any other part of your process, let photographic reference be a tool, not a crutch. Never let a lack of information in a photo limit your art. Instead, study from life and apply those lessons to your work, using photos as a prompt, a reminder, a road map along the way.