How do I choose my reference photos?
This is a question I get often when people visit my studio.
When I am looking for inspiration, I am always drawn back to my mother’s family photo albums. They are old and falling apart and contain several generations worth of memories. I must have browsed through them over a hundred times, but each time a different photograph will catch my eye. Sometimes it’s because I notice something that makes me laugh or reveals clues about a person’s character, or maybe a particular detail will capture my imagination and prompt me to dig further.
In this case, a number of things caught my attention in the photo below:
- It’s a horrible photograph
The photograph made me chuckle because nowadays, we would have simply deleted it from our smartphones, or at least it would have been lost amongst a plethora of other attempts. I love that this blooper of a photograph, with its crooked framing and with my grandma’s eyes closed, and doorknob right next to her head (likely the photographer, probably my grandfather, had had a few drinks…), was kept in the album for posterity for over 60 years, alongside other cherished family memories. It’s not staged or manicured, but it’s authentic, and to me, in this era of touched-up photos and fake news, that’s much better.
- My mother is plotting something
For those of you already familiar with my work, you will recognize my grandmother, Ruth, a frequent subject of mine, sitting on the left. My mother, Linda, is the little girl sitting next to her. This photograph reveals a lot to me about what my mother was like as a child. Her expression—intelligent and mischievous—is one I recognize in my own daughter (now I know where she gets it from). And just like my daughter, she must have kept her mother on her toes.
- The loving way they are holding hands
Mum and Grandma had a complicated and often difficult relationship from what I have been told. On a fundamental level though, I would like to believe, a child loves her mother and a mother loves her child. The way my mother’s fingers are curled around my grandmother’s hand is definitely something I will want to bring out in the painting.
- The sofa bed is ridiculous
According to my mother, this old sofa bed used to eat people. If you ever had the misfortune of sitting in it, you were stuck in there forever. Despite this fact, it managed to remain in the family for quite some time, and my mother even remembers having it in her dorm room at university many years later. It’s like it was part of the family. (You probably have one in your own family!)
As with all my paintings, you will notice that I like to have fun with the colours and textures in the clothing and background decor. This is where I really get to play and leave my own imprint on the image. I am going to have a ton of fun painting this sofa bed. In fact, I will make it look even more ridiculous.
- The Shoes
My mother always told me that my grandmother had great shoes. I love that this photograph provides evidence of it. They are great shoes!
Bottom line, this photograph is just so interesting and endearing to me that I simply must paint it. That, folks, is how I choose my reference photos. Perhaps you see a few things in this photograph that you recognize from your own family photo albums. If so, I hope this post inspires you to take a closer look at them. You never know what clues you might uncover.
Here is the finished version of the painting…