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Photos That Inspire Paintings

A couple of weeks ago, we drove up to Red Deer for the weekend to visit our folks and spend a windy fall Saturday at Discovery Wildlife Park before they closed for the season. I always enjoy my visits with the animals, but they’re much more fun with Shonna.
Taking photos of Berkley, Bos and Piper during the educational bear presentations never gets old. I got some nice shots of the timber wolves and lions, photos that already have me planning new paintings.

Two highlights from this visit were Koorah, their orphaned cougar cub, and Velcro, the baby porcupine (porcupette) rescued from a vehicle strike earlier this year.

While Alberta Fish and Wildlife rules prohibit the public having physical contact with the cub, I took plenty of photos of him as he ran and played in the grass. As I lay on the ground, he kept running straight at my camera lens until Serena would grab him and move him back. Then he’d do it again. It was a real gift, a lot of fun, and there will be a painting coming.

Though we couldn’t touch Koorah, there were no prohibitions about contact with Velcro, and Shonna was smitten with the little guy. He seemed to enjoy her attention, and aside from a couple of little unintentional quill pokes here and there, we came away without injury.
It was a wonderful experience, thanks to Serena, Mary and Belinda, who always treat us like family.
I took over 3,500 photos, which could be my record for a single day. A professional photographer might criticize my spray-and-pray method, and some have. It means I point the camera, hold down the shutter so it sounds like a machine gun, and gamble that one of the action shots might give me something from which I can paint.
As I’ve written many times, I do not want to become a professional photographer. I’m looking for painting reference, and there have been plenty of times when the accidental surprising shots inspire the art that follows. So, waiting for the perfect shot and then firing the trigger, as many skilled photographers do, means I might miss out on a look, pose, or head turn that inspires a future piece of art.

As for those thousands of photos, I only keep a small percentage.
There are two camera cards in my Canon 5D Mark III camera. I don’t need RAW files, so I set it to save duplicate JPEGs. It doesn’t happen often, but camera cards can fail, so duplicate cards are my insurance.

I download the photos to my computer when I get home and begin to go through them. The questions I’m asking with each pic are, “Is this a photo that makes me feel something?”, “Do I like this photo?” and most importantly, “Can I paint from this?”

Everything else goes in the trash.

Because I have other work to do each day, it usually takes me a few days to complete the first pass. From this excursion, it took me from Sunday evening to Thursday morning, and when it was all done, I had discarded almost 3,000. It could have been out of focus, poor lighting, or a useless pose; who knows?

571 photos remained in the first pass folder.
It feels great to eliminate that many so soon because too much choice is overwhelming. I let them sit for a day or two before going back to ask those same questions again.

Will I really paint from this? Really? If I was going through my folder for this animal, would I consider this at all? Is there anything of value in this photo that can contribute to a painting, like a closeup of texture detail or an expression?

It took me another week to whittle them down to 322.

I don’t like clutter, which also applies to hard drives filled with images I won’t ever need. After my aggressive weeding, I’ve got photos that will inspire paintings or provide the reference detail I need to paint my best work.

Then, I divide them into photos for reference and pictures I want to keep for memories of the experience or share in a post. These are pics of people with whom I shared the day or ones I can use to tell the story of the experience, like the one you’re reading here.
I edit the photos I’ll share, but not the ones I save for reference, aside from perhaps cropping out unnecessary background. That helps save file space.

Finally, I sort the remaining photos into my reference library, which contains over a hundred folders for different animals.

I have a custom-designed desktop PC, so every file I save is mirrored on two hard drives. If one drive fails, the other is a replica that switches over immediately. It then provides a warning for me to replace the damaged drive. Once I do, the mirror rebuilds. This system saved me a lot of time and work on a previous computer. I had two hard drive failures over six years and didn’t lose one file.

But I also have a backup of everything online with Dropbox and two portable external hard drives. My photo reference library is extensive, not to mention 20+ years of cartoons, illustrations and paintings. Strangely, my entire career fits inside a chunk of plastic smaller than a paperback novel.

Because of other commitments and projects on the go, it will be a while before I start any new paintings from the photos I shot on this trip to Discovery Wildlife Park, but I’m looking forward to that opportunity this winter.


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A Portrait of Bruno

BrunoThe first time I asked somebody if I could paint their portrait, it was a spur of the moment thing and I was woefully unprepared.   My buddy Darrel and I were attending a small concert at Ironwood Stage and Grill in Calgary last year for Alan Doyle’s debut solo album, ‘Boy on Bridge.’ An intimate venue, I could have put my feet up on the stage from where we sat. A trio of Doyle, Corey Tetford and Kendel Carson, all talented and accomplished musicians, it became one of my favorite live music experiences to date, just had a really great time.

During the show, when Carson was playing her fiddle in one of the songs, I noticed the way the light was bouncing off of the wood, her face and her long straight blonde hair. It was just this instant feeling of, “I want to paint her.”

While gearing myself up to ask, all I could think was, “no matter how I do this, she’s going to think I’m creepy.”

But, I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try, so at the end of the show, I approached her with my business card and mentioned that I’d like to paint her portrait, showed her a few images on my phone and told her if she was interested, I’d love to see any photos of her playing that I could possibly paint from, really wishing I’d brought my own camera. It was that image of her playing that I really wanted to paint, but I had missed that moment. While she was friendly and polite, I knew right away this wasn’t going anywhere.  Pretty sure she thought I was creepy, and in that profession, I imagine she’s got reason to be wary of strange men approaching her after a show. Who can blame her?

I’ve painted a number of portraits over the years, mostly characters from movies, and all personal projects. A few have ended up having some very nice stories to go with them. Emilio Estevez bought the original of my portrait of Martin Sheen to give to his father last year and when astronaut Chris Hadfield was hired to speak at a conference here in Alberta, the host company bought the original of his portrait to give to him as a gift. They all graciously signed prints for me, which hang in my studio.

SheenEven though I make my living as an artist, portraits of people are solely for my own enjoyment, at least for the time being. Up until recently, they’ve all been painted from reference from movies or online video, nothing I’ve shot myself.

A few weeks ago, I was at the local outdoor market here in Canmore. A regular Thursday event downtown in the summer months, it attracts vendors from all over, selling all sorts of food and creative products.

One particular booth, Spirits of the Creek, sells pottery, jewellery, and bio magnetic products. It’s excellent quality handmade work. As I was perusing the merchandise and talking to the vendor, with his eclectic hat that he said was handmade by a friend in California (Head n Home), there was that little voice again. “I want to paint him.”

The next week, I returned to the market with my camera and while I wanted a candid shot of the gentleman, I also knew that if I started snapping photos of him, he would notice, so I just approached him, introduced myself, told him what I was after and showed him some of my portrait work on my iPad. Bruno seemed amused by the whole idea and said he was fine with my taking the shots. He later told me that he and his wife, Donna (the creative force behind the pottery) thought it amusing afterward.  Were the roles reversed, I would have as well.

Now, no matter how well a person thinks they’re being natural, a camera will always make a non-professional change his demeanor, unless the photographer is very good at putting their subject at ease. So, I skulked around the other booths, taking candid shots of Bruno from a number of different angles, and was pretty sure that most of the time, he didn’t see me.  But a couple of times, he did and sure enough, he changed his posture and expression.

BrunoAt one point he was talking to a customer, and for a split second he noticed me and only his eyes moved in my direction. I snapped the shot and instantly knew that was the one. As I don’t like chimping (constantly looking at the display screen at the back of the camera while shooting), I waited until I got home and sure enough there was the shot I needed, that one out of about two dozen.

I set to work painting and over the next two weeks, managed to produce what I think is probably my best portrait piece to date.

When I showed up at the market with the finished image on my iPad, I was relieved that Bruno liked it. He asked me to email it to him so he could show his wife and she sent me a lovely email the following morning, approving of the work. It was really a lot of fun to paint and I look forward to sending Bruno and Donna a canvas print next month.

On the legal side of things, I did get him to sign a model release, which basically allows me to use the image as I see fit, whether it ends up in a book or some other media. From what my professional photographer friends tell me, a model release will rarely come into play for most people, but you get everybody to sign one just for the one person that makes it necessary.

Perhaps the best thing I’ve learned from this experience is that I want to repeat it.  The next time I see a person with an interesting look or character, and that little voice pipes up inside my head, I’ll be more willing to take a risk and ask if they’ll let me paint them.  Some will say No, I’m sure, but for those who say Yes, I can only hope that I do them justice.

And if it’s a woman, I’ll probably get my wife to ask her.


Bruno Close

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