Monday, 2 July 2012


I thought I would introduce you this week to a handy tool for those who enjoy working from photographic reference.

I know I usually bang on about how much better it is to work from life.......and it usually is for all sorts of reasons........but I also recognise that there are people who simply cannot do this, for all sorts of other reasons.  I remember having a bit of a row with a tutor about this some years ago;  he claimed that all work done from photos was abhorrent. (He also thought art instruction books were abhorrent.  He was a strange chap) When I pointed out to him that there are people who are simply physically unable to work outdoors and yet might want to paint landscapes - should they be denied this opportunity?  He huffed a lot and said they should stick to still life painting.  I thought he was being rather horrible.  Why shouldn't people paint whatever they want to paint, and if they choose to work from photographic reference - so be it.  However, it is important to recognise that sometimes, photos have limitations, and one of these limitations is that the camera cannot always expose for both the light and the dark areas of a scene at the same time, and the photograph can sometimes be rather inadequate.

I have done crits for art groups, where a big dark patch has appeared in someone's work.  When asked what it was, the person would defensively claim "well, it was there, in the photo".  In other words, they had no idea what was there.  so they just painted the dark patch - dark. 

BUT there is a useful tool for those with a computer and access to Photoshop - I use Photoshop Elements, which is the vastly cheaper version of this complex bit of software.  Elements is pretty user-friendly, and can be put to excellent use for improving inadequate photos.

Apart from the "crop" tool, which speaks for itself and will obviously be useful for composing from a photo, there is a very handy little tool which can actually show you what is going on in the shadows!  See the barn at the top of this post?  Well look at this...same photo, adjusted in Photoshop:

Well, who knew what was going on in that bottom right hand corner?  You might have been able to see it with the naked eye, but without doing some sketching on the spot, you might be unlikely to remember when you got home,  and you might be badly disappointed with the photo....and so this little "correction tool" has proved invaluable.

So here is what to do.

You take your photo into Photoshop elements, and simply hit ctrl:L to bring up the "levels histogram" box.  Here is what my screen looked like:
The little grey box is the histogram window, and there are "sliders" for both "input" and "output"   Without worrying too much what this means technically,  I suggest you try this for yourself with an image;  have a play with the sliders, and watch the magic happen.  It is really fun !!!

Here is another photo, lightened in the same way.  The photo was taken during the day, not at night, but the camera could not read the land AND the sky together and expose properly for them both, so it read the light in the sky and exposed for that, leaving the land in total darkness.  the sky looks great....but what about the land? In the lightened photo, it is daytime, and we can even see the people on the beach!

The great thing about using this easy little tool is that you can manipulate your photo to give you information which can then be used...IF YOU WISH.  If all you have is black shapes and shadows, and you cannot see that information, you end up making things up, which may or may not work.
Give it a try, it's fun.


  1. I think what your professor was missing was that making your OWN photographs as a future reference is far far different from swiping other people's photos, in which they've done all the heavy lifting of design, composition, etc., and you just come along as a passenger.

    For one thing it's boring anyway! but for another you're missing the point of making art if you imitate someone else's photograph.

    I've been asked by artist friends for permission to make paintings based on pix I've taken and put up on my blog, and I agreed, just to see how it worked for them. And it didn't very well. They quickly realized that I'd already had all the fun, so they might as well get out there and snap their own pix, with their own choices, composition, time of day and all that.

  2. I agree about your tutor Jackie, seems to have a rather elitist attitude. Even if you don't have the resources to paint landscapes from life I do feel an artist needs to spend as much time observing life as possible. Even doing quick pencil sketches can open one's eyes a great deal. Your tutor is right that a photograph cannot replace being there, but the information in a photograph combined with the visual memory of one's own experiences and observations from life can provide enough reference material to produce great paintings. I also agree with the previous comment, you should work from your own photos is at all possible.

  3. thanks, both of you. I agree with everything you say. Of course nothing replaces direct observation......after all, a photo of a tree gives you a tree which is a few centimetres tall.......whereas a tree itself, seen with the naked eye....need I say more. But sometimes, there are good reasons why it is not possible for some people to work outdoors. Time alone can be a factor. A quick pencil sketch, together with some photos taken on the spot, can provide useful information for a subsequent painting....but as I have proven conclusively above, sometimes those photos are inadequate, and even a quick sketch will not necessarily help when faced with photos full of black areas. This "levels" tool will help a lot. I hope some people might find it useful.

  4. That looks very much like the North Side of Pentire point in Polzeath, north Cornwall. I must try this Histogram exrecise for myself. Thank you.

    JW... Birmingham

  5. Thanks Jackie, once again a very good post and great to share with students. I will be sharing this on my Facebook page for my artist friends. I get tired sometimes of explaining why the darks are so dark in a photo. You have explained it very well.

  6. Hey very cool website!! Man .. Excellent .. Amazing ..
    I will bookmark your website and take the feeds also…I am happy to find numerous useful info here in the post,
    we need develop more techniques in this regard,thanks for sharing.
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  7. As someone who is no longer able to drive for health reasons, your instructor sounds as if he is building up future bad karma! I have to use photos to help me; its how I travel and get inspiration. I can no longer jump on a plane to visit my favourite places for the same reason I don't drive. Thank goodness this contempt for the rest of us is not very common, and I feel sorry for someone who is so lacking in empathy. I hope he has a long healthy life, otherwise he will have to eat his words or give up painting!


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