La Tortuga | Approaching Photo-Realism in Painting

Once upon a time, I painted a turtle.

This turtle, to be exact:


My friends, Josh and Linellis, wanted to commission me to paint this photo that they had taken on one of their many adventures for Josh's parents as a gift. I said, "Sure! Why the heck not?!"

Because it's hard. Really hard. That's why the heck not.

I don't know what I was thinking really. I don't do photo-realism, I do impressionistic. Dabs of color. Illusion. Not realistic.

But my yes had been made, so I commenced with the project.

Here is how I approached painting photo-realistically...


Step 1: 
use an existing image

Preferably one of your own for copyright purposes.
It's important to use an actual photo, because trying to conjure up those details out of your own imagination will lead to overly simplistic and generalized suggestions of what it ought to be. You need actual details to translate.


my work station

Step 2: 
project image onto canvas and trace with a hard-leaded pencil 


Luckily, JD has fellow IT friends who own this sort of thing, so we borrowed a projector for the task.

Step 3: 
determine your palette




Step 4:
execute background

You don't want to be messing with this once you've already fine-tuned the foreground. Edges can get messy really fast, so it's best to overlap your background onto your subject a bit and then paint over it so it's clean.


Step 5:
determine foreground palette



top flipper
before and after



bottom flipper
before and after



head
before and after



shell
before and after








20+ hours of painting by numbers, cursing, counting, and squinting = one freaking awesome turtle

Step 6:
If a friend ever asks you to paint a life-like turtle, say "Print that sucker on a canvas at Walgreens!"

Lest I sound like a killjoy, it truly was a good lesson in observation, faithful translation, and patience. I also learned a few things about myself as an artist, namely that painting directly from a photo is too constricting for me. I need freedom like I need air, and it definitely applies to my art life. Especially my art life. It was a lesson worth learning.

Josh, thank you for the commission and continued patronage. I hope your parents still enjoy it after a year hanging in their home. Knowing them, they are the only people I would ever happily do this for :)