Make the most of your references
Learn to utilise photos in a brand new way with Miles Johnston, who successfully transforms his grandmother into a young fantasy figure
Miles Johnston turns his grandmother young again.
For me, working from imagination is always the end game. I find it the most enjoyable aspect of painting and I believe it enables you to express yourself the most openly. However, we’re all human and sometimes a lack of technical knowledge can hold back a painting’s potential.
This is when it can be a good idea to use a reference image, to inject fresh information into the way you solve issues and to inspire new creative choices – without ever resorting to direct copying. I’ve taken a liking to practising this principal by shooting reference pictures that are totally unrelated to the subject I’m painting.
I use information from the reference picture, such as the structure, values, colours or textures, to inform the way I paint an image. I try to make these decisions intuitively, trusting my gut for what I want to take from the picture and what’s unimportant. I find this approach enables me to come up with results that are radically different from the original photograph and still flavoured with my own personal tastes, avoiding that obviously photo-referenced look.
To demonstrate this idea, I have taken some photographs of my grandma wearing a hat from a Christmas cracker, and I’m going to paint a young elf based on information in the photograph and my own imagination. I suggest trying the same yourself. Especially if you find it difficult to draw from imagination, this might act as a useful exercise.