You were walking around, minding your own business - then there it was. The perfect painting subject. Except for the fact that you don't have an easel stashed in your Mary Poppins back pocket, just your phone. So you snap a photo for later.
Smile if you know that by "you", I mean me. I love plein air painting but it just doesn't work sometimes to paint on location. Rain, moving vehicles, small children, it happens. So I take a lot of snowy day painting reference photos.
I'd like to take you through how I plan a painting from a photo without it getting really rigid. Ironically, to show you how I think, I had to create several studies. While these are great exercises to try, please think of them as training wheels - to be taken off for cool points as soon as safely possible.
Digital Is Good, Traditional is Good
If you're coming in planning on using acrylic paint or software, you're both among friends. If you know me, I don't see a big difference between digital and traditional painting. It's like the difference between a painting with a flat brush vs a bright, oil vs acrylics, or on canvas vs on panel. I could use paint to decorate a bird house - that doesn't necessary make it a painting (unless you're me). Not everything made in an art program is a painting either. My definition of a painting is an art image made by mixing colors.
Don't be afraid to move between digital and traditional tools. I don't like to waste paint, so I do studies and test palette in a computer program before using up paper cracking open a tube. Digital is clean - it takes much less bargaining to bring an ipad and stylus to an event than an easel, brushes, paints, canvases, palette, knives, mediums, and paints - not to mention trying to get all that through airport security. Traditional is better prone to awesome accidents, so it's good for digital painters to keep their hand in to make new discoveries. It has permanence and the thrill of 'dear God I hope I don't ruin this'.
So pick whatever is most comfortable to you.
Photos flatten objects and freeze moments. One way to make a painting feel less static is to give it movement. Step away or lean back from your photo and just look at it. Follow curves and lines with your eyes. Are you draw to certain objects? Is there an edge you trace without thinking? Find a few key eye movements you want to bring out in the painting. In this photo, I naturally followed the curve of the basket and each skein of yarn. To me, this made a spiral, so in my painting I'll work to emphasize that path. Someone else may pay more attention to the V formed by the red and blue yarn. Do whatever works but feels natural (you don't want to fight your eyes later).
Caveat. If you don't know where to look, or your eyes slide immediately off the edge of the photo, this is not a good composition! The best compositions will move you around a composition and pull you towards one or a small number of key points (triangles of 3 objects are common). Try cropping the image or moving/removing an object to see if that improves the flow.
Do not get hung up matching the colors in your photo. They're wrong. The human eyes continuously adjusts - we have a biological imperative to see as accurately as possible no matter what. Cameras...well, it's good that things with sharp teeth don't think cameras are tasty.
Instead, get an idea of the color relationships. For example, I noticed that my photo has a primary color relationship (red, yellow, blue). What are the main colors in your photo if you can only pick a few?
Also notice the following. What color is the white in your image (is it more blue, yellow, etc?). What colors do you see in your deepest shadows? Your dullest grays? How saturated (full of color) are your highlights vs midtones vs shadows? Does it depend on the color or object?
For example, I picked out a highlight, midtone and shadow for each of my main colors in the image above. Here it's pretty obvious that my shadows and midtones are saturated, and my highlights dull - with the exception of the neutral colors, which have saturated shadows and highlights with dull midtones. I noticed the darkest shadows are warm undertones, the grays are more cool, and the whites an intense yellow.
Make Your Palette
Now that you have a pretty good idea of how the colors work, make a palette. It's really tempting when working from a photo to match every color exactly (espeically if you're a digital painter). Don't do it! Instead, use the color relationship you noticed above to decide on a few main colors and mix them for everything else.
So for my palette I'm going to use the brightest red, yellow, and blue I see - along with each hue's their tone (aka plus gray), shade (aka plus black), and white. Every other color I need will be mixed from these. This is a good test that you've got everything ready before you start. If you find you can't mix a color you need, add it, but try to keep your palette to a few colors.
The reason to do this is to keep all the colors well-matched. Light bounces, so all of the colors in your photo have bits of the other colors in them. If you mix your paint colors this way, you're matching what happens in reality. When you don't do it, people realize something's wrong.
...and that's it for the planning stages! Check back soon for my post where I cover drawing, shapes, and values. You know, the fun stuff.