Ask the Expert…Margaret Dyer

Question: I’ve hired my first model to shoot reference photos for future paintings. How do I make the most out of the photography session?

Answer: Working with Models

Margaret Dyer with Model, Dakota
Margaret Dyer with Model, Dakota

I am a figurative artist. I work from life and from photo reference, which I get from my photo sessions with models. I am often asked how to work with a model. People want to know about poses, backgrounds and lighting. In the pastel classes I teach, I often set up a photo session for my students so they can get familiar with photographing a model and working from their own photos. Here’s a brief description of how I work with models.




margaret model imageI use a Nikon D80 DSLR. I never use a flash. If I don’t have strong natural light coming from a window to illuminate the model, I’ll use my spotlight with a 200 watt bulb, placing it close enough to the model to create strong lights and shadows on her. I am not concerned about the warmth or coolness of the bulb; I make my temperature decisions while I’m painting. All I want from my photographs is stronglights and shadows that define the subject and create a sense of depth.


Denise with Striped Fabric
Denise with Striped Fabric

I pay a model $50 for a one-hour session. From that session I may get as many as 400 shots. If 1/5 of them are good for reference, I’ve had a successful session. A good shoot will keep me busy for months.


No matter how attractive or photogenic a person may be, some people are stiff in front of the camera.

Maria's Pedicure
Maria’s Pedicure

It may take you a while to find a model who is relaxed and not self-conscious, but it will make a world of difference in your final paintings. One thing I usually tell my models is that I don’t even have to see her face; I am only looking for a story. I never pose the model; I let her act naturally. I may tell her to fold laundry, draw a bath, disrobe, make cookies with her children, and ask her to do it slowly enough for me to get lots of pictures that won’t be blurred. I make sure the spotlight is very close to her, creating the strong lights and shadows that I need. If she moves away from the spotlight, I pick up the spotlight and place it next to her in the new position. I also move around her
continually, photographing her from every angle.

If I need costumes, I go to thrift shops and purchase colorful flowing robes; I’ve bought beautiful Japanese kimonos on ebay, surprisingly cheap!


The Cutting Garden
The Cutting Garden, detail

I prefer to call it the environment. Background suggests it is something to consider later, an afterthought. I want the model to be an integral part of her environment, where I can lose edges between her and her surroundings. I like the clutter you find in a normal home, which can become abstract shapes and strong colorful elements in my paintings, adding to the mood of the piece. I am constantly hunting for fabrics and interesting objects that might help make a painting more interesting.



Margaret Dyer ProfileTo see more of Margaret’s work, visit her website and her blog.



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