Art Tips: Painting From Photos
When Possible, Skip the Photo
Painting looking at a reference photos is the most common way artists paint.
However, it is widely recommended by professional artists to paint on location, from a still life, or from a live model as much as you can.
While most art teachers would tell you that you should try to paint from life any time you can, many beginners are not even aware that there is anything objectionable about painting from a photo.
But why? What are the differences between painting from life and from photo?
Photos Don’t Show the World as the Eyes See It
The image captured by a camera is in many ways different from the image our eyes see when looking at the same object.
To paint from a photo and render things as the eye would see them, you need to learn about the possible distortions and how to correct them.
There Are Many Distortion in the Photographic Image
In Photos Shadows Are Darker and Lose Details
When I first started painting, I used to paint only and exclusively from a reference photo. I would find a photo that I liked, print it out, and paint looking at it.
The first drawback that I noticed was that comparing the photo on the screen of my computer (or phone) to the printed version of the same image, the difference between darks and lights was always more dramatic on the print.
Shadows and dark areas don’t print well. Darks get darker and lose detail.
When observed with the naked eye, shadow areas hold lots of details, and in many cases even deep shadows retain a lot of the local color. When we take a photo, the camera changes contrast and colors flattening dark areas into a very dark shape.
Furthermore, when we print those images, it gets even harder to see details in shadow. The darks become almost black, losing a lot of nuances and information. The lights are usually washed out as well.
One way to still see the variations that happen in the shadow is to hold the printed photo up against the light. Then paint them a little lighter than what you see, remembering that they are not really that dark in real life.
My First Painting From a Reference Photo in 2011
White/Lights Are Over-Exposed
In a similar but opposite way, light areas in the image print much lighter, almost white, colors get lighter and washed out.
Highlights become overexposed in prints, and subtle shifts in value become invisible.
The washing out of light areas that happens in prints deprives the artist of the specific information about local color and true value contrast.
The only good thing about this flattening of values is that it helps seeing the composition in big shapes, without getting distracted by the minor shifts in value and color.
Reference photo for Monarch Butterfly
The Camera Changes Colors
The camera may wash out or alter colors from what you see with the naked eye.
For some technical reason that I leave to professional photographers to explain – I’m a painter, what do I know? : )
In my experience, for example, skies become either a darker blue or a paler blue. Every single time I try to capture a colorful sunset with a camera I get disappointed by the results. They are never as striking and colorful as observed in person.
Verticals Are Skewed
Often when photographing tall objects or buildings, we hold the camera at an angle, pointing up.
This makes tall objects, due both to linear perspective and lens effect, seem to lean and taper.
Keeping this possible distortion of the verticals in mind, adjust your drawing accordingly.
Sometimes, to make the composition more interesting and captivating, we digitally edit the photo moving things around and adding elements from different photos.
Be careful, when combining elements from different photos into a painting, make sure you keep them consistent for direction of light, proportions, temperature, and value.
Most of all, consistency in the light source is what makes a painting work. Ask yourself: where is the light coming from? and make sure all elements are consistent.
"Glimpse", Oil Painting from Photo
When we look at a scene with the naked eye, we can only focus on a small portion of our visual field at a time. Everything else is blurry and out of focus.
Modern auto-focus cameras often capture everything, even distant objects, in focus, and make them appear sharp even in areas where our eyes would never see so clearly.
As painters, we are able to decide what the focal point is, and make that the only area in focus, while everything else can be rendered with softer edges. The further away we move from the painting’s center of interest, the more out of focus things should appear.
Photo Reference for "Glimpse"
Minimized Aerial Perspective
Things in the distance are filtered through a lot of atmosphere, full of moisture and tiny floating particles. The typical effect of the air filter is to make distant object look lighter in value, cooler in temperature, and duller in color.
Photos have a way of making far things quite sharp, and to minimize the effect of atmospheric perspective.
For a more dramatic sense of depth in your painting, you may want to emphasize those changes, pushing the lightness, dullness, and coolness of distant objects.
What side are you on?
Do you prefer painting from photo or from life?
Too Much Detail
You don’t have to include in your painting every single thing you see in the photo.
Simplify and include only what is necessary for the success of the painting. Eliminate unnecessary clutter, either by doing value sketches of the composition, or by digitally editing the photo.
What is unnecessary detail? Depending from the scene, it could be texture (like all the single bricks on the wall), objects (like the trash can at the park), or color (like the yellow spot on the landscape).
Control your composition and what attracts the viewer attention with small "white lies", leaving out or slightly changing what interferes with your big plan.
Tips and Solutions
Start from Good Reference Photos and Learn how to Use Them to Your Advantage.
- Use multiple reference shots. Take many photos of your subject from different angles, varied distance, and different lightening.
- When taking photos, take the time to sketch your subject and take notes of colors, value, and temperature
- Crop the photo as needed, making the crop proportional to the size of your canvas.
- Use the photo mainly as guide for your drawing, proportions, and value relationships, but feel free to alter colors as best serves the painting.
- Don’t forget to squint. If you don’t see it squinting, don’t paint it. This allows you to simplify and paint general to specific. Only at the very end, when it’s time to add details, you can paint some of the things you see only when not squinting. Choose well. More details are usually on your focal point.
- Use lower resolution photos. Lower resolution will make impossible to see several details, allowing simplification of shapes and the need to paint only what is truly necessary to understand the subject.
- Look at the image on an illuminated screen to see into the darks.
- Don’t paint the shadows black, even if that’s the way they appear in the photo.
- A good rule of thumb is: lighten up the darks and darken the lights.
A preview of a longer course, but full of tips on painting from photos.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Robie Benve