I only work free-hand, never from projections or tracings, and for two very good reasons.
The first is technical – Nature doesn’t always give us correct compositions. In photographs, besides a poor composition, there can be a loss of aerial perspective, awkward shapes, altered colors, incorrect values, too many details, etc.
The second is artistic - I want my paintings to reflect how I see the subject, filtered through my emotions, experiences and memories. I enjoy making changes as I go along without the restrictions of adhering to a photograph or tracing. I never want to “stay in the lines.” I want my painting to lead the way. After laying in my basic composition, I put the photograph down, only glancing at it now and then, and with my own story in mind, I paint the scene "my way."
Plein air painting has been an invaluable teacher. Painting outside, from life, seeing and studying the effects of changing light, weather conditions and the effects of aerial perspective has given me a greater understanding of studio landscape painting. Taking the time to really look at nature is very important.
Every successful painting needs a concept or story, a central theme - what the painting is about. Your emotional response to the scene. Decide what you want to say and focus all your attention on saying it with paint.
This means examining the photograph for the elements that you need and eliminating the others. Every element that you choose to include should support this central theme. And if your reference material suggests two different stories, paint two different paintings – each with its own storyline.
If you need to add a missing element to your painting, you can always borrow from another photograph. Just make sure the light is coming from the same direction. It’s fine to combine more than one photograph per painting. But remember - one story per painting.
Because we are all unique, with our own memories, experiences and emotions, each of us will see the same scene in a different way. Paint your own story.