This Different Strokes airport travelers challenge reminded me of Elvin Biship’s song, “Travelin’ Shoes,” which I put on repeat as I painted. These days the lyric should be, “gotta put on my (easy on easy off no metal shank) travelin’ shoes.” Nothing like some good foot stomping butt swinging music to make the hours fly by in the studio.
I loved the drama of Karin’s high contrast airport photo, but for my purposes it was a bit too dark. I couldn’t see the feet in the shadows, and I was having a hard time imagining what they might look like from that perspective. Also couldn’t see the colors in the darker cast shadows. So I lightened the reference photo in Photoshop.
Here’s a quick explanation of the hows and whys of lightening shadows:
It’s difficult to capture the full range of light and dark in a single photo. If you expose the light parts correctly, the shadows might get get too dark. Expose the shadows so they glow, and the highlights burn out. As an example, I took four photos of plants on my kitchen windowsill.
In the first, the meter reading came from the impatiens on the right. They look okay, but everything else is too light. The coleus leaves on the left are disappearing in a white glare.
The second photo was exposed so the coleus on the left would look good. But now everything else is too dark! We can barely see the impatiens in the shadows.
The third photo uses the camera’s automatic settings, averaging the lights and darks to arrive at something in-between. I’d love to be Goldilocks and be able to say this one is “just right,” but it’s not. The lights are too light, and the darks are too dark. These are some of the same auto-exposure issues I saw in the airport photo.
The fourth was taken with a flash. The colors are much closer to what I was seeing in real life, but the shadows are off because the main light source is from the front. I won’t paint from flash photos anymore, because it’s almost impossible to make the painting look like anything but a copy of a flash photo. Not good, when my goal is to make everything I paint look like it was painted from life.
Ideally, when taking reference photos I bracket the exposures, so I have good shots of both the light and dark areas. If I use a tripod, I can take it a step further and use HDR software to combine multiple images into one. Often that’s not possible, so what do we do when we have only one dark photo to work from? Here’s my quick Photoshop solution:
These are both photo #2, but in the second version I’ve lightened the shadows in Photoshop. This can be done using levels, or with the “lighten shadows” slider. It’s a quick, easy fix that selectively brings light back into the shadows without destroying detail in the lighter areas. This image is the closest to what I saw in real life. Gosh, I really need to scrub down that kitchen wall.
Here’s the same effect used on Karin’s photo:
Lightening the reference made the feet and shadow colors more visible, though I must admit I still had to fake the shape of the feet (and they still don’t look right).
Now, on to the painting. These are a few images I took along the way:
The acrylic underpainting loosely suggests where the light and shadow areas will be.
The sketch began with pastel pencil, so I could easily wipe off my mistakes and start over. I knew I’d be making a LOT of mistakes on this one.
Once the drawing was as good as I could get it, I started reinforcing some of my pastel lines with acrylic paint so I wouldn’t accidentally wipe off all my hard work.
More detail in acrylic. I was going to switch to oils before now because I thought it would be impossible to create a soft transition from light to shadow with acrylics. Not so – my test transition was nicely fuzzy – so I kept going with the acrylics.
I paid special attention to the lower left corner, where several floor sections intersect in the middle of a shadow. Getting the values and colors right in that area were the key to creating the illusion of a shadowed terrazzo floor.
I gave the floor depth by making the speckles in the foreground bigger and brighter, fading them out as they receded into the background. Also it gets bluer as it recedes, just like a landscape.
One of the last details was to give the woman Captain’s stripes on her sleeve. I liked the idea of black heels and power.
Here’s a little Elvin Bishop, if you care to listen to my painting soundtrack: