Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
When Possible, Skip the Photo
Painting looking at 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 a photo?
Using a Photo?
Keep reading to learn how to use it to your advantage.
We'll talk about the 9 things you need to be aware of when painting from photos, and the 9 tips and solutions to maximize the usefulness of your reference photos and create great paintings.
How to Choose a Good Reference Photo
Here are five things to pay attention to when choosing and using a reference photo.
- Check the lighting of your reference. Avoid over-exposed images with colors washed out, or under-exposed where darks appear all black. Pay attention to the lightest and darkest areas, can you still see details there? Also, the color of lighting is important. A photo taken in natural daylight is best.
- Check the focus and resolution of your reference. Blurry areas can be hard to make sense of when drawing or painting. Choose a photo that shows more than the level of details you want to achieve.
- Consider the pose, angle, and position of your main subject. Will the subject matter successfully fill the space on our support? Would you have to change the size of your canvas? Can you see all that you are going to need for the drawing or are some important areas hidden behind others and you'd have to guess their shape and color?
- Think about how the piece is laid out on the canvas. Consider the negative space between the subject and the edges of the plane and, most importantly, the positioning of your focal point. Refer to the rule of thirds gridlines to place the important elements of a painting. Observe the negative space around the subject and aim to make it varied and balanced. Also the positioning of light and dark shapes. Avoid placing areas of high detail and contrast in the middle of the canvas.
- Use editing software to adjust the photo, use the enhancement of color, light, contrast, and saturation. Desaturate the color, lower the contrast and soften the areas that you don't want to draw attention to.
1. 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.
What side are you on?
There Are Many Distortion in the Photographic Image
2. 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 the 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
3. 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 to see the composition in big shapes, without getting distracted by the minor shifts in value and color.
Reference photo for Monarch Butterfly
4. The Camera Changes Colors
The camera may wash out or alter colors from what you see with the naked eye, due to some technical reason that I leave to professional photographers to explain – I’m a painter, what do I know? : )
For example, skies become either a darker blue or a paler blue. If you ever tried to capture a colorful sunset with a camera you know what I'm talking about. Colors are never as striking and bright as observed in person.
5. 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.
In general, when looking straight forward to a landscape, horizontal lines converge towards a vanishing point, but verticals remain perfectly vertical.
Note: images with two or three vanishing points may be an exception to this rule.
6. Photoshopping Errors
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 the 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? Then make sure all elements are consistent.
"Glimpse", Oil Painting from Photo
7. Generalized Focus
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"
8. Minimized Aerial Perspective
Things in the distance are filtered through the atmosphere, miles of air full of moisture and tiny floating particles. The typical effect of the air filter is to make the distant objects look lighter in value, cooler in temperature, and duller in color.
Photos have a way of making faraway things look 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.
9. 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 on the scene, it could be the texture (like all the single bricks on the wall), some 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's attention with small "white lies", leaving out or slightly changing what interferes with your big plan.
9 Tips and Solutions
How To Maximize Your Reference Photos and Create Great Paintings
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, varying distances, and pointing your focus to areas with different lighting.
- 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 a 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 details you only see when not squinting. Choose well. More details are usually on your focal point.
- For looser painting style, 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. Either visualizing it on your device or holding a print against the light.
- Don’t paint the shadows black, even if that’s the way they appear in the photo. There is always some local color even in the deepest shadow.
- A good rule of thumb is: lighten up the darks and darken the lights.
A preview of a longer course, full of tips on painting from photos.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where do you get good reference photos that are not copyrighted?
Answer: There are several good sites that provide reference photos for artists. Google image and Pinterest are not one of those.
It's important that you have the permission from the owner of the photo before you paint it, in case you end up entering the artwork in a show or if you sell the painting.
I wrote an article on how to find good reference photos, check it out
© 2016 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 14, 2019:
Hi Fred, yes, the Short North is in Columbus, OH! Glad to hear you know of it. :)
Slides do show a lot in the shadows and they were great to pint from. I kind of follow on the same idea by painting looking at my ipad, the illuminated image retain more details than a printed one. Thanks a lot for sharing.
Fred T on November 13, 2019:
Years ago I painted from slides; they show a lot of detail in the shadows. Hard to get slides now.
I print a grid over my subject, then adjust the grid on my drawing to my final desired size. Prints outsourced.
Short North must be in Columbus Ohio.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 08, 2018:
Thanks a lot Peg Cole for your kind words. Painting has been a life-long passion for me, and I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to pursue my dream. I hope my writings can help others getting started too. It's a wonderful journey. :)
Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on January 05, 2018:
You are truly talented. I love the work you showed here. Whether it's from a photo or not it is lovely. The Monarch butterfly is awesome in its realism and color. I loved the landscape one too. Thanks for sharing these important insights on artistry.
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on October 23, 2017:
An interesting article, Robie. My daughter is the artist in the family and she often paints from photos. I have always found it fascinating.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 12, 2017:
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!
Vinca Voda on January 10, 2017:
Very useful article, thank you!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 03, 2017:
Hi Denise, you are right, painting plein air is not for everyone, and it's absolutely ok. Changing light is probably the biggest challenge of outdoors painting. At times, I start a painting outdoors, and then finish it up in the studio looking at photos. Often, I take a photo at the very beginning of the plein air section, as reference to remind myself after a couple of hours how the shadows and the reflections looked in the original composition. Photos are extremely useful as reference for painting. Even more when you know how to interpret distortions and value changes cretead by the camera lenses. Happy new, creative year!
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on December 31, 2016:
I agree with the distortion and problems you have with photos but many people can't handle the constantly changing light with plain aire painting. I have friends who will come with me on a painting excursion but take lots of photos and return to the studio to finish the painting. That seems the best way to "capture" the changing light problems. Still, I love painting on the spot. Thanks for the reminder.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 20, 2016:
Hi Janda Raker, I think that there lies the greatness of the painter, in portraying a subject as seen though the filter of his/her eyes and feelings. Definitely not an easy thing to accomplish, for any artist, but surely something to strive for. Same thing as in writing, as you said. Creative work is much more interesting when it's not stereotyped, but it expresses one's point of view. Thanks a lot for stopping by and taking the time to comment. :)
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 20, 2016:
Thanks a lot RTallony, I'm happy to hear you find the hub interesting. And many thanks for your kind words about my artwork. :)
Janda Raker from Amarillo, Texas on December 15, 2016:
Robie, obviously painting is much more subjective than photography, but even with photography, it's fun to try to produce a product that portrays what WE see, to give the viewer OUR view of that world! Like with writing, it's all about "point of view"!
RTalloni on December 15, 2016:
Thanks very much for this look at using reference photos, and for including your tips. Your paintings are beautiful.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 15, 2016:
Hi Janda Raker, Glad that you found some useful tips for your photography in my writing about painting. :) I am always intrigued how composition critera for photography and painting intermingle and overlap.There sure are a lot of the same things to keep in mind in creating a winning composition, in any medium. Thanks!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 13, 2016:
Oh wow, thanks vocalcoach, you are very kind. I don't know about my talent, but I sure enjoy painting and creative projects. Painting has been a wonderful influence in my life, especially in the last few years, since when i started painting almost every day. Thanks a lot for your comment.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on December 13, 2016:
Thanks billybuc for spreading the word! One day you might find yourself picking up a brush as well, you never know. :) Best wishes!
Janda Raker from Amarillo, Texas on December 13, 2016:
Wish I could do this, but your article gave me some insights I hadn't thought of . I am a nature and travel photographer (and writer), and I believe your ideas about painting will help my photography. Thank you.
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on December 12, 2016:
Painting is a beautiful gift and talent and one you are a master in. Thank you.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 12, 2016:
I'll pass this along to the artist in our family. Definitely not me. :)