Image with Permission of Mr. Marvin Mattelson
My mentor Mr. Marvin Mattelson was once given a yearbook photo and asked to paint a portrait. Now that's what I would consider a bad reference! His solution was to hire a model, have her wear a completely different outfit and pose anew. He had the family give him some mementos of the deceased to add to the painting, in this case it was jewelery. The painting of "Sylvia at Seventeen" is stunning, so it can be done if you know what to look out for and how to overcome the shortcoming of a bad photo reference!
There are many portrait artists who absolutely refuse to work from bad photo references. I can't say that I blame them, but on the other hand, what do you do when a client approaches with you with the photo of a loved one that is deceased and all that's available are a few rather faded photos? I always say the world is not perfect, so best thing is to make the best of it and look at it as a challenge. I will tell my client that the reference is not the best and that I will have to see if I can work from it first before accepting the work.
Artists today are extremely fortunate that they have a multitude of aids available that can enhance a bad photo reference. My greatest help is Photoshop and the Adobe Light Room. To start the process scan in the photo reference at the highest resolution possible. By playing around with Image-Adjustment-Levels or Brightness and Contrast, etc. I tweak the image to get what I think is a workable photo. Sometimes I will take it over to Adobe Light Room and play around there until the desired results are achieved. You have to learn to "see" the problems with your photo reference, otherwise you will transfer them to your painting. The camera will flatten out certain areas, so look for them. A word of caution! If with all the tweaking you still can't see the necessary things to produce a good painting communicate this with your client and let them know, that you can't paint what you can't see। It is not worth your time and effort to try to make things up, because in the end the painting will suffer and your clients won't be happy.
Here are some things to watch out for:
The camera tends to make the shadows look as if they were all one solid color. Play around with your settings in Photoshop and look for variation of values. Even a black outfit that let's say appears to be a solid black, will have have tonal changes!
The camera flattens out highlights.
3. Variation in color
When looking at a person you will notice how their skin picks up color nuances from the things around them. These are nuances and they tend to get lost in a photo.
If you look at a white shirt you will see that it's really not white, but have tints of color in it. These too, disappear on a bad photo reference.
A really bad problem to have, especially if it's in the face. Unless you know magic, I would stay away from a blurry photo, because there would be too much guessing involved. Should you have more than one photo to work from, then find the best face reference and get a model to sit in for the blurry parts. Make sure your model is of the same built and in the case of children the same age!
5. The pose
Not every photo will make a good painting! When you are given a bad reference then try to overcome the static pose by changing the location of it on the canvas. Slightly off center might work better than the passport photo shot. Also don't copy everything and take some artistic license in background and clothing.
Ask yourself if the image would look better in a monochrome, as a vignette, as a watercolor or pencil rendering. Do some thumbnail sketches or if you are very computer savvy manipulate a copy of the original image in photoshop until you find a good solution.