Working from photographs … sort of

Clouds — my current fascination — are natural phenomena that are very difficult to sketch with any detail. They move, and your perspective changes each time you look up at the cloud and then down to your paper. My latest linocut planning makes use of a photograph I took with my Iphone and this artist’s secret tool — tracing paper.

small photo & sketches
A large photograph, tracing paper and ruler begin the transformation process.

I should say first that I am careful to only use photographs that I have taken. I only use other people’s imagery to clarify questions. Armed with my subject, I use our large printer to print out the image with the proportions I want to use. I use tracing paper to sketch over the photograph — allowing my pencil to flow gracefully — capturing the essence and basic structure of the photograph, but not making an exact copy. If I wanted an exact copy, I would just take up photography.

blown up
I just love the blueprint enlarging machines at Fed Ex. They save me so much time and heartache.

I make a photocopy of my sketch using the color setting, and take this to my local Fed Ex office. They are able to scan in my image and transform the image into the size of my block — in this case 25 x 40in. I take this print-out and put it up somewhere in my house to evaluate if the image still works on a larger scale. I need to be able to step back from the image, so here my front hallway and closet were pressed into service.

Georgia inspiration
As I trace the contours of my favorite Georgia O’Keefe painting, I image how she made decisions about lines and contours.

I’m always looking for ways to exploit the commonality of patterns within nature, and after staring at my drawing, all I could think of was my favorite Georgia O’Keefe painting, Red Canna (1924). I used another piece of tracing paper to distill her combination of hard edges and softer ones, her straight lines and ripples.

large interpretation
A giant piece of tracing paper (pieced together from 19 x 24in sheets allows me to simplify and improve the image.

I keep this inspiration in mind as I use yet another piece of tracing paper laid over my enlarged drawing. I use this step both to simplify and emphasize the shapes of the clouds. Armed with a 9B graphite stick, I am also creating the tracing paper guidelines I will use to plan my first carving marks. I simply flip the paper — graphite side — down, and rub!

While this process is a bit labor intensive, I find it very helpful in creating a stronger image, rather than just replicating my photograph. The resulting linocut will be inspired by photographs, as well as the talented Georgia, but will also be something unique as well.

If you use photographs to inspire your work, how do you get past the human propensity to just copy what you see?

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