Gurney Journey | category: Photography


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Using Historical Reference Photos for Sci-Fi Paintings

Blog reader Jeff Jordan asks: "I was wondering if you're using gouache strictly as a sketching medium, or if you've done or are doing finished works, illustrations, whatever, in gouache?"

Jeff, yes, I love using gouache for illustrations of vehicles, robots, and architecture. For example, this small (about 6x12") painting: "The Sinking of the Hagfish" shows a giant fish-like ship, burning and sinking, with its survivors standing along the top, hoping to be rescued.

Using Historical Reference Photos for Sci-Fi Paintings
It's part of Dinotopia backstory development, documenting dramatic events thousands of years ago in Dinotopia's Age of Heroes, when humans and saurians defended Dinotopia from an invasion of drones and mech dinos from Poseidos.

Using Historical Reference Photos for Sci-Fi Paintings

The inspiration for this composition came from this historic World War II photo of the burning carrier "Franklin" off the coast of Japan after it was struck by two bombs. Over 772 of the crew were lost, but the ship returned to port on its own steam.

In my composition, I kept the figures on the far left watching the unfolding drama. The feeling that we're among those watching adds a sense of vérité to the science fiction image.

The painting appears in the expanded edition of Dinotopia: First Flight.

Book Review: 100 Flying Birds

Artists who paint birds need clear reference photos of various flight positions. 

Book Review: 100 Flying Birds

A new book called 100 Flying Birds: Photographing the Mechanics of Flight delivers a helpful collection of images in a beautiful and useful form.

Book Review: 100 Flying Birds

Author and photographer Peter Cavanagh has documented the flight poses of a variety of species, from swans and geese to hummingbirds to eagles and owls. 

Book Review: 100 Flying Birds

The photos are sharp and clear, reproduced full-page along with the author's commentary on the facing page. The text presents the context of the shot, the mechanics of the flight pose, or insights about behavior or the environment.

Book Review: 100 Flying Birds

That text combined with the photos makes this an unusually welcome resource for birdwatchers or ornithological artists who want a better understanding of their subject.


100 Flying Birds: Photographing the Mechanics of Flight, by Peter Cavanagh, Firefly Books, 320 pages, all color, 11 x 11 inches. 

Mr. Cavanagh curated the exhibition "How Birds Fly" exhibit at Seattle's Museum of Flight in 2015.

Photos by Peter Cavanagh (@howbirdsfly on Twitter).

Annigoni on Photographic Reference

Annigoni on Photographic Reference
Following up yesterday's post about Why Bother Copying a Photo?, it might be valuable to consider the views of Italian artist Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988). In a YouTube video in the Italian language,  he discusses why he doesn't use photography in his work. Blog reader Mario Zara generously provided the following translation:  
Interviewer: for example, you are one of the few painters, if not the only one, who doesn't use photography. Today everyone...

Answer: Well, this return to the so-called classicism, to reality, based on photography, in my opinion is a mistake, it's a form of impairment, in the end, because working from life, which is so transient, always changing, manifesting infinite aspects... working from life means that you accept an effort, a struggle, a labor of conquest, which is removed if you use photography. If you remove this big effort, this struggle, you are removing too much... too many important aspects of art

I: So it's easy to copy a photo..
A: Well... it definitely makes things easier. And then photography is a frozen instant of this reality, this truth I was talking about. Because truth changes together with us, while you are looking at it, it escapes, and you have to chase after it. It's a completely different view of life, I would say.

I: So, besides technique, there is also a psychological aspect.
A: Yes, of course, it's a different way of life.

I: So, the difficult part of portraiture - When you make a portrait, you require many sitting, don't you?
A: yes

I: What is the difficult part? In grasping the essence of the character?
A: To grasp something that is continuously escaping, in the end.

I: Which is the synthesis of that personality, because the instant...
A: The synthesis of...? It's the synthesis of I don't know what, it's that personality, and my personality mixed together. It's an experience of life, anyway... that's what, in my opinion, the use of photography cancels.

Annigoni on Photographic ReferenceI: So you start studying the character of the model by means of drawings? What do you do?
A: For me a portrait, or a figure, is first of all an object, like painting a still life. I have to draw this object, to put the eyes, the nose, the mouth and the ears in the right place... I mean, the construction of the figure, its shoulders and everything. Then, at a certain moment, I have to 'go inside' this human being. 

So in the first poses I ask for a complete silence and stillness, then, after blocking in the portrait, as I said, with a construction as correct as possible, I start to talk to the person about many subjects, about any subject, in order to see how he or she reacts, and lives, and so on, and I myself identify with that person on those subjects. It is a way to go inside that person, also psychologically.

I: It's...
A: A long, hard, laboring work. That's why, at a certain point, I got tired of making portraits...

I: But the most difficult thing is to let the soul come out from the eyes, isn't it?
Annigoni on Photographic Reference
A: Well, yes, from the eyes, and from every part: from everything. Sometimes it's a matter of an instant, of a glimmer on a certain part of the face, which can change the expression. There are many aspects...

I: So during many sittings... there comes a moment... when everything gets becomes clear and illuminated...
A: Well, there is... when there is... but sometimes there isn't, and you have to adapt.

I: I've read in your diary, when you went to the US, that J.F. Kennedy let you in his office when he was meeting with his staff.

A: That was the kind of portrait I did for the Time Magazine covers. A few of these things were unfortunately disastrous for me.
Annigoni on Photographic Reference
I: They considered you the painter, and let you stay near him?
A: He didn't pose, I was forced to “steal”...

I: Which models were the most patient? Was it the Queen of England, or the Pope?
A: Oh, well, those... No. The Pope was like Kennedy. But the Queen at least granted me sixteen poses, Princess Margaret twenty-six. I've always tried to get as many poses as possible, because my type of art...

I: At least, on this subject, regarding you as a portrait-painter, no one has any grounds for objection, and they all agree...
A: Well, I don't know, they may take issue with that too, I don't know...

I: No, no, I say, it's unquestioned... at least on this subject, Annigoni...
A: yes, yes, they let me do portraits, because incidentally portraiture...

I: ..Is considered a genre...
A: A cheap genre, an outdated genre...

I: But on the contrary, it's the genre which requires the best technique and “eye”
A: Well, portraiture... is a big hassle...

I: So, you feel you really belong to our time, as a painter?
A: I feel... to our time? I don't know... to my time, that's for sure. If my time doesn't belong to our time, that's not my fault...
Related previous posts:
Menzel and Photography

Why Bother Copying a Photo?

After watching yesterday's YouTube video, R.H. asked a fair question: "Why waste time and energy (and potentially vision health) painting something that looks exactly like a photo when you can simply look at the photo?"

Why Bother Copying a Photo?

Answer: I'm not making something to look at, nor am I particularly interested in being a copyist of 2D images. It's not even that great a copy. Instead I enjoyed learning from the experience of using a comparator mirror. I think of it as a form of visual play. It built my confidence in capturing a slice of reality using straight-ahead paint, and who knows? That mileage may help me in my observational painting and my imaginative work. 

Why Bother Copying a Photo?

After all, on of my specialties is painting realistic images of things that can't be photographed, so I have a particular interest in understanding how the camera "sees" and how we humans see.

Shooting Illustration Reference Photos

Shooting Illustration Reference Photos
Reference photo of Steve Holland

In the 1970s and '80s, many paperback covers were painted with reference to black and white photographs. Typically those photos were taken by professional photographers such as Robert Osonitsch using models like Steve Holland, who posed in a torn shirt for the "Doc Savage" covers.

The publishing client generally would pay for these sessions. Modeling sessions were expensive, so the team had to make the best use of the time. The illustration photographers had busy schedules with back-to-back appointments.

Paperback illustrator Bob Larkin recalled, "I had only an hour to shoot. Steve [Holland] first posed for what I wanted, and then what Bob [Osonitsch] suggested, then Steve did what he thought would work. Everything is going smoothly until Bob's camera shot counter tells him to put in a new roll of film. Bob opens the back of the camera to put a new roll in—and no first roll was put in! This is early in the morning. He's still not awake yet. We had a good laugh, Bob apologized, and we started all over again from the beginning with minutes to spare before the next artist had to shoot Steve. He was booked all day anyway."


Shooting Illustration Reference Photos

Doc Savage cover by Bob Larkin

Read More:

Shooting Illustration Reference PhotosMagazine: The quote comes from the new issue of Illustration #73, which includes features on Peter Driben, Art Fitzpatrick / Van Kaufman, Zoë Mozert, Steve Holland, and Robert Osonitsch  


Steve Holland: The Torn Shirt Sessions and Steve Holland: The World's Greatest Illustration Art Model

Bringing Old Photos to Life

Old photos provide a window to life in the past. A great deal of information is contained in those photos, but a lot of visual data has been lost, too—not just the color, but other features such as the subsurface scattering.

A couple of recent digital innovations have helped to bring old photos and paintings to life. There's a lot you can do with Photoshop, but there are limits to what you can accomplish with denoising, colorization, and superresolution. 

The result here has reduced some of the cragginess of the original Lincoln photo and made him look younger, but presumably that could be dialed differently. 

'Time Travel Rephotography' is a technique for recreating the natural, full-color appearance based on the the original photograph and an input photo of a contemporary person. The metrics of the modern person are shifted to match that of the historic person.

The way to test this method would be to take a photo of a contemporary person using an antique process and see if you could restore the missing information to match a high-res photo of that person.  

Another digital reconstruction tool is My Heritage, an app that takes a photographic input, or even old paintings or statues, and animates them with blinks and turns (Link to YouTube video). 

Because it draws power from large data sets, the results have some convincing nuances, such as the movement of bags under the eyes. I think it would actually be more effective if the movements were more limited and subtle.  

Combining these techniques and animating them with a motion-captured actor's performance would yield even better results.


More about Time Travel Rephotography on Two Minute Papers

Thanks, Mel and Roger

Gerome: Truth and the Well

Jean Leon Gérôme (French 1824-1904) produced several paintings of Truth as a nude woman holding a whip as she emerges from a well. The idea is based on an aphorism by Democritus: "We know nothing of reality, for Truth is hidden in a well." 

Gerome: Truth and the Well

Gérôme was thinking of photography in connection with this idea. The camera offered immediate access to a source of truth that was not previously available. It seemed to transcend subjectivity and it gave artists a valuable tool.

Gerome: Truth and the Well
Gerome: Truth and the Well

Gérôme was positive and progressive in his views on photography. 

He said: “Photography is an art. It forces artists to discard their old routine and forget their old formulas. It has opened our eyes and forced us to see that which previously we have not seen; a great and inexpressible service for Art. It is thanks to photography that Truth has finally come out of her well. She will never go back.”

Wikipedia on Truth and the Well
The Life and Work of Jean-Leon Gerome (Sotheby's English)

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

One way to capture light is to surround it with darkness. 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The photographs of Fan Ho, who explored Hong Kong in the 1950s, often use this principle.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

Within the area of light, the dark elements are lightened by backlit atmosphere. 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The light patch coheres as a single shape, with dark elements jutting into it.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The light enters the dark space and casts shadows from each of the forms.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The key figure appears backlit in the central region of light.  

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

If you follow around the outside border, it's almost all in deep shadow.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

The charcoal fires and cigarette smoke made for bad air quality, but it was a gift to photographers.

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

When he introduces color into this scheme, it's a revelation.


Portrait of Hong Kong 念香港人的舊 

Fan Ho's Bounded Light

Magnum Contact Sheets 

Tissot's Creative Use of Photogaphy

A new book on James Tissot discusses his painting techniques and explains how he used photo reference.

Tissot's Creative Use of Photogaphy

According to author Sarah Kleiner, "he had a dedicated photography studio at the Château de Buillon, and evidence reveals that he used the medium to capture poses or other compositional elements. 

In Waiting for the Ferry, 1878, (above), for example, he arranged the tones so that the woman in the light coat stands out against the background, while the man and the boy are dark on dark and daringly cropped off the right side, a compositional trick he shared with his good friend Edgar Degas. 

Tissot's Creative Use of Photogaphy

The reference photo shows Kathleen Newton and her son. The girl's hands are on a sawhorse and they all appear to be holding still for a long exposure.

Tissot's Creative Use of Photogaphy

In a second exposure, she is sitting up more and he is leaning forward. Tissot picked and chose from these variations to get the poses he wanted. 

More in the magnificent new hardcover monograph about James Tissot (1836-1902).

Using Historical Reference Photos for Sci-Fi PaintingsBook Review: 100 Flying BirdsAnnigoni on Photographic ReferenceWhy Bother Copying a Photo?Shooting Illustration Reference PhotosBringing Old Photos to LifeGerome: Truth and the WellFan Ho's Bounded LightRobert Bechtle (1932-2020)Tissot's Creative Use of Photogaphy

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