Sunday, March 11, 2007

Behind the Front Lines II - Pastel Portrait - Reference Photography

Duuuuuh....daaaaaaahh....dAAAAAAAhh.......DAH DUH!
Not sure how you would type that out, but hopefully you get a little 2001 theme from that.

Holy Pencil Sharpener Artman! Could it be that I've actually spent over a year on projects and have not seen fit to designate one for Behind the Front Lines Status? Say it ain't so! Say it ain't so!

Uh...it is so. Apparently the only thing still over on the ol' sidebar is the Black Sabbath Painting, and I never got around to creating any new projects that I could post publicly. Of course, it isn't like I hung up my apron and started a career as a tax accountant; but I really have envisioned EnBlog as being more than just a place where you see finished project, and Behind the Lines is all about seeing ...well, behind the lines of a finished project!


Pastel Portraiture, ala En'

Any of you who have visited EnArt, have no doubt seen the pastel portraits residing over there. I've taken the liberty of placing the self portrait I did back in my days at Academy of Art U on the side for you to see where this new project should be heading.

It all started out with a simple MySpace request for a portrait including a pet Monk Parakeet named Gumby. I decided to tackle the assignment from scratch, using my own models and photograph as reference. That's what today's Behind the Lines is going to be about...getting the photo.

Before I continue on, let me remind casual readers that Behind the Front Lines posts are full of technical jargon. If you have questions about the processes involved, don't be afraid to email me (via the link on my profile page), or if you feel like it, drop a comment below.

Step One - Equipment & Set Up
When you take portrait photos, you need to control a few things.

The first is the background, which I get away with using a plain old king sized bed sheet because I just need a somewhat uniform background for my subject. Don't forget, I'm drawing this, so the finished project won't have the background I use. In this case, I'm using a tan-ish color bed sheet, and I've held it to the wall using 3M Command Adhesive Clip holds. Before I used to use plain old tape, but I find that having the sheet fall down during the middle of the shoot is a pain, so I just leave the Command clips up and keep my fingers crossed for more opportunities to shoot portraits.

The second is the lighting. You can spend a lot of money on this, but I somehow scrape by with studio lamps that I bought from Utrecht art supplies. If you have just one, that's fine. Be sure to buy a light bulb that is adjusted to give more natural light, as opposed to typical bulbs, which have a more yellow light, and florescent bulbs, which actually have a green color to their light. GE's line of Reveal Bulbs works fine, but if you want to spend money on the Chromalux bulbs, be sure that you plan on having more than one use out of it. I personally haven't found too much difference between just the regular Reveal Flood light bulbs and Chromalux, but if you decide to compare and see a difference, you let me know!

Now, when you light your subject, you ideally want to have them lit from a 45º degree angle, and from above. "What about Flash?" you ask; well, lighting from the front, like a camera's flash, flattens the image we have to work from, which is bad. Drawings come easier when you have broad defined areas of value to define form, so shadows are good! Therefore, turn off that flash, and light your subject from a 45º degree angle to get a nice balance of shadows without having your subject completely in shade. This is obviously easier done at night, without interference from sunlight. You can see the example's reference photo nearby, and hopefully it shows what is more of an ideal setup.

The next thing to control is the camera. Now, I'm not a trained photographer, so don't think I'm giving anything less than amateur advice here. What I use every time though is a good tripod (the bigger and heavier, the better), and my digital camera, which is an Olympus C5050-Z. Cameras now a days are probably cheaper and better, but so far the old C5050 has come through. I recommend using a quality digital camera though because it's perfect to instantly check your results and then decide if you need to re-shoot the model while they are still in the studio. Even if you aren't paying the model, you don't want to keep on calling back your friend just to get the photos right. And if possible, get the cameras that let you control Shutter and Aperture and all that crazy stuff. Experiment with the settings and get a feel for the options and capabilities. If you decide to go deeper into the rabbit hole, check out Shooting Digital which is a great book on the subject.

When we photograph the subject, it's usually best to go with the presets on the camera, like "portrait" or "action shot" depending on what you are doing. Obviously if you can figure out the shutter speeds and aperture settings on your own you'll be that much better off. I also like to use the multiple shot setting, so that I get a lot of candid shots to work from. I do end up with a few closed eyes and otherwise throw away shots, but that's what's great about digital - who cares? For me though, it's all about catching the perfect moment, and you can't set that up unless you have actors and pros in front of your lens.

You also want to consider the format of your shots - landscape or portrait? There is no rule of thumb on this, and it really takes a solid understanding of composition to make good decisions on it. My advice would be to sketch out a rough composition in both formats to see what seems to work best for you. When you realize what that is, set up your camera for that format.

Oh, and before I forget...don't forget the set up you have with color. Color relationships are another one of those things you need to study to get it down pat, but the simple way around it is to just pick what looks best! Usually, contrasting colors (red vs green, blue vs orange, yellow vs purple, etc.) create the most interesting color compositions. I tend to favor simple color combinations when it comes to portraiture, because I think it's important to focus mainly on the subject, and multiple colors create exciting and often distracting images. Therefore, photos with large fields of one color against another make for better choices (if I have anything to say about it). This is definitely not a rule though - be adventurous as you want with color.

With Gumby...well, he's green. My model, by contrast, has a complexion that subtly contrasts that with a pinkish orange tan. Her black hair also works well too, because it frames her face and contrasts with her white shirt. So I have a few relationships going on.

Step Two - Photograph!
Maybe if you are a pro with Photography you don't need to take two hundred shots, but I do. I do it not only because I can't set up single shots, but because I know my odds are better when I shoot a lot of photographs. There usually is going to be at least one good one. Don't forget...digital means you don't have to get 200 photos developed!

As far as setting up your model, it obviously depends on the circumstances and the theme you want to create. With Gumby, we mainly needed to make sure he didn't bite our model, and then I started having the model interact with him. As they interacted, I took photograph after photograph, and occasionally checked the viewfinder on the camera to review what we had so far, and to make adjustments if necessary.

Once I had a lot of photos to look over, it's simply a matter of taking a good look at them all, and deciding which one would make a good color pastel drawing.

How do you decide? Well, I use a few rules.

First - whatever the person commissioning the art wants is what you want. They are paying for this after all, so don't feel compelled to surprise them in the end with something they'll regret owning. By taking the client into the photo selection step, you avoid a big migraine of "Ohh...that's nice..." later on. Go over some of your favorites, and hopefully your client will agree with a few.

Second - tell a story. We can always pose for a photo, but those are boring, because they look like you posed for a photo. If you choose a candid shot that describes an event through the action of the characters within it, you have something besides a pretty picture, you have a story. I could talk forever about why this is important, especially for someone like me who considers themselves to be an illustrator as opposed to a fine artist, but we'll leave that for another day.

Third - don't forget that you have to draw it! Hopefully through setting up the shots to be based off the 45º degree angle lighting you've avoided poor photo references, but that doesn't mean they can't still be difficult to work from. Your shots need to be clearly focused (no blurring), and offer plenty of information to work from (less cropped, more subject).

So, having done all that, the model and I chose this photo below. I think that there were plenty of good photos, but it came down to the idea that this photo looks almost like Gumby is sharing a laugh with my model. What an awesome idea - and how fun would that be to draw?

I guess we'll find out!


No Gumbies were hurt during the photography of Gumby.