Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Painting from photos

Sorry folks but I am really up against it for time this week, so I thought I would give you a few important things to remember when painting from photos, rather than miss a blogging week all together.

I know many people DO paint from photos, and it is all too easy to take the photograph as gospel, and copy it as accurately as possible, since photos have to be accurate, don't they?

Bit tongue in cheek, that last phrase, I know, but what I am trying to put across is the importance of NOT taking everything in the photo for granted.  When you paint from life, your brain is able to compensate for visual distortions, but the camera cannot.

Take a look at this image.  It has not been manipulated, it is actually what happens when you take a photo too close!
The other side of this coin...if you take a photo of a standing person from eye level, their feet will be way too small because they are a lot farther from the lens than the face.  To prevent this, you need to drop the level of the camera, perhaps even take the shot from waist level.  If you use a telephoto lens which is too long, you can flatten the face and make the ears come too far forward.  Pitfalls galore!

So - here are just a few guidelines, if you plan to use photos as your reference material (and there is plenty of precedence for this, many Masters of the past used photo reference)

1.  Always try to remember that the camera is not the same as the human eye.  It will make shadows too dark or highlights too low...because it cannot expose accurately for both.  Perspective may be distorted too, and needs checking carefully as if you were painting from life.  This does mean working from life as often as you can, so that you sharpen up your ability to recognise distortions, and know what to do to correct them.  To prove this to yourself, take a photo of a corner of your own environment, where there is strong sunlight and shadow.  Now look at the photo, and compare the shadow with what you can see with the naked eye.  You will find all sorts of  subtle colours and details in the shadows...they are rarely just black, which is often what a photo will give you.
Look at the shadow at the back of the wall in the original photo.
Now take a look at the photo below.  this is probably much closer to what you might have seen, though I suspect you would see even more colour than you can see here, because your eye WILL be able to adjust for both the dark areas and the light areas.  The human eye is amazing!  Look - there are LEAVES lurking in the corner of that bench!  You would certainly have seen those with the naked eye, despite the shadow.

2.  Try to use your photo as something to be INTERPRETED rather than copied.  There is a bit of a difference here, and you need to think about this.  It will help enormously to begin by doing some thumbnail sketches from your photos, as if you were working from life.  Doing this means you are exploring the subject in your mind,  you have to begin to think two dimensionally, so you will begin to see the photo slightly differently, as a starting point rather than as a law to be lived by.

3.  Remember that a camera cannot create a focal point for you.  you need to find painterly way to draw attention to your focal point or area - for example, your focal point could be in sharp focus while the corners of the image could be less sharp, with softer edges and reduced contrasts.  Or you could use other painterly "tricks"- stronger tonal contrasts, strong colour contrasts, counterchange - there are various ways to focus the viewer's attention .

4.  Remember you are in charge.  You can leave things out.  You can change things.  You can emphasise what you want to emphasise.  You can combine elements from several photos, tho do beware of differing light sources if you do this.  You can think, and be creative.  A camera cannot.

5.  Use Cardboard "L" shapes to find good compositions.  One of the most useful tools to have in your arsenal, when using photos, is two L-shaped bits of black or white card.  You can then experiment with different placements of the two "frames" to find new and interesting compositions from one photo.  It happens all too often that when you are out and about with your camera, you take loads of photos, they seem OK within the viewfinder, but when you get home, they could be improved upon quite dramatically.


6.  Blow up your cropped picture.  If your image was fairly small to begin with, and you have cropped and made it even smaller, you may well find yourself working from a tiny image....and this may not give you the information you need if you plan to produce a considerably larger painting. If you use a computer - which I assume you do if you are reading this - be prepared to re-scan the image, and print out the cropped section, as large as you can, rather than try to work from a teensy image.

Original photo:

cropped section (which actually would be even smaller than this)

cropped section seen much larger:  It feels quite different, doesn't it.  I hope you can see this. I wish I could have made it even larger for you.

when you do use the L shapes, check a few design ideas
  • Are there any lines now that might divide the image in an uncomfortable way - 50/50 for example
  • Does the picture have a stronger or better focal point than before
  • Are there any lines which force the eye out of the picture, to a corner, for example
  • Is there anything important, or strong, right on an edge, so that it looks like something trying to escape out of the picture "stage left" or "stage right"
  • Are the shapes interesting?  turn the picture upside down to check this.
With the image above, I would be questioning the need for the waves above her head.  Do I need them?  Or are they distracting?  Could I reposition the incoming foam on the wave rather better?  What colour will I use for the shadow on the left leg - painted as is, it will look like half a black legging!  And the shadows on the white dress - what colour are they?  Grey would be SO boring, wouldn't it.  There are lots of questions to be is never safe just to copy what is in front of you.  It's not terribly exciting, either.

I hope you might find some of these thoughts and ideas helpful.  There is a lot more to be said about working from photos but perhaps the most important thing to say is try not to work exclusively from them;  without spending time working from life, you will never build an arsenal of knowledge which you can put to use when the camera presents you with less than perfect "reality".



  1. Really useful post, Jackie, thank you so much!

  2. Good morning, Jackie ... wonderful post! I have shared it to my Facebook page because I think this is such an important topic. So many artists copy what they see in a photograph ... you have stated the main issues so well here! Thanks.

  3. Great information...thanks for sharing

  4. Good information, very helpful. Even if we know some of these things it is very helpful to be reminded. I have been doing more painting from life lately and see exactly what you are talking about. Thanks

  5. I really enjoyed reading this informative post. Thank you for taking the time to share it.

  6. Hi Jackie, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris


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