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How to paint from photographs. Tips for how to use photo's and what to look out for.

Art Blog how to paint painting advice painting from photos Photo edits

In the beginning, when you are learning to paint, chances are that you will use photographs a lot when you are looking for inspiration. But as you go on you will notice that painting straight from a photo and copying it exactly can appear flat and lifeless. But there is no denying that photos are a very handy reference and allow us to paint things that we could never paint in real life.

Sunset from my backyard. photo and painting. Art Blog by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

Sunset From My Backyard.

In the photo, you can see how the shadows are black with no interesting colour or reflected light.

First off there are a lot of great photographers out there that create works of art with their photo's. I am not talking about that here. I am talking about you and me taking photos and creating our own unique artworks from there. 

Not all of us are great photographers either and a lot of editing has to be done on our photo's to get a good painting from them. If you want to use a great photo to paint from. ( and watch out for copyright here) then you have to ask yourself, what can you add to that photo in paint to make it better. Sometimes a great photo should just stay a great photo.

But putting that aside 

How do we use photos to create a unique painted work of art?

Grape photo used for a painting of a still life. Art Blog by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

Photos can help us get tones when we have trouble seeing them in real life as long as you know how to compensate for lost colours.

If at all possible take your own photos and be very intentional about them. Plan things in advance if possible. If you are wanting to paint someone's portrait then think about your painting first. Set up the scene the way you want to paint it. Pose them. Make photos with the purpose of painting them. 

If you want to paint a flower and can take your own photos, then think about the best angles and light effects for that photo to make a great painting. 

Set up your still life as in these grapes with the idea of how the light will fall on those grapes to make the best painting. Take photo's when you have it all set up the way you like it.

Painting of grapes using a still life and photos together. Art Blog by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

Grape painting from a still life and photos.

Okay, so you have decided what to paint. Taken or found some reference photos and are ready to start. 

First, think about why you want to paint that. What intrigues you most about that thing or image. What story would you like to tell? What is it you would like to say in this painting.

Knowing this will add something unique to your work. Only you will have the same vision for that image. 

Think about composition. 

Photos can be a great jumping off point, But even if the photo is an excellent one you will want to edit it to make a great painting. Photographs can never tell the whole story. You can use them to jog your memory of a place and time or to record details to incorporate in later pieces. You have to be aware, as an artist, about what you are seeing in a photo or not seeing. This starts with being aware of the limitations of reference photos.

Beach photo from Art Blog by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson. How to use photos for better paintingBeach painting. Art Blog by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson. How to use photos for better painting

In this painting, I took the photo and was very impressed by the big white hill in the background, but when looking at the photo you can hardly see it compared to real life. 

Don't feel you have to follow that photo exactly. Feel free to be inspired and manipulate or leave behind anything in that shot that will help you tell your story and make a good composition.

Just like when working from life. Look and make choices. Spend some time looking at the scene. Figure out what you want to paint. Crop the picture in different ways. What should you leave out? What do you want to focus on? What do you like? What don't you like? What is less important? 

Relate all these questions to what you want to say with this painting.

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You must consciously create a composition in your art or you end up with work that's boring and repetitive. The subject of consciously designing your artwork can feel forced and unnatural at first and be annoying when we just want to jump in and start painting.

But if you ever hope to progress beyond the level of beginning artist, it is something you must learn to do.

Do some thumbnail sketches. Those are small drawings just concentrating on composition and the big shapes and tones. These are quick five minutes type of drawings. 

Once you have done all that and you have decided on just what you want to paint What do you need to look out for when painting from a photo. 

Watch out for distortions

Photos can be very distorted. The camera lens doesn't see the same as the eye. It can do funny things. Strange angles, fisheye effects etc. 

It also doesn't focus in the same way your eye does. You will notice this if you paint plein air and take photos of the same scene. When you look at what you focused on while painting and what the photo looks like from the same angle it will look very different. Your eye will focus on an area or idea and blur out the rest of the scene.

Framed by nature. acrylic painting of a river by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

Framed by Nature Sold


These river photos, as well as my plein air paintings, helped me to create Framed by Nature.

Our photos will give equal detail to all the foreground. This is especially noticeable in photos of flowers. A photo will show all the foreground flowers in sharp focus. But your eye will focus on one flower or even one part of the flower and the rest will fade out to be less important in the picture.

This means when you paint from photographs you have to consider your focal point carefully and keep it in mind as you paint because the photo will not show that focal point in the same way your eye would.

You have to be careful when using a photo not to get bogged down in the details. You have to be careful to not go from painting to documenting. It's very easy to take all that detail and go crazy. Keep your focal point in mind and remember that should be where your most detail and biggest value contrasts are.

Photos can lack depth, value, colour, and saturation compared to reality.

I USE THE ASUS ZENPHONE FOR ALL MY PHOTO'S AND VIDEO. Gives a great picture and I added extra memory so I can do those long art videos without running out of space. I am super happy with this phone and would recommend it to you. So handy to be able to use my mobile for all my photos and video instead of using a separate camera.

Colours can look very different in photos.

The camera can not see like the eye can when it comes to depth of field and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows.

The beautiful colours and details in a shadow are often lost in a photo.  Photographs tend to create extreme contrast. The whites are often brighter and bleached out and the shadows are often darker and not have the subtle colour variations as you would see in real life. 

Glowing hills acrylic painting by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

The colours in this photo were very different from real life. The shadows were darker and the highlights to light in the photo. Also, the hills seemed smaller in the photo than what I thought in real life.

Being aware of this means you can make changes to your painting. If you want a more natural look, you will need to brighten up the shadows and darken the highlights. Adding in the reflected light that is often lost in a photo. This is where doing plein air sketches are valuable for referencing value and colour.

So although photos are a valuable resource and allow us to paint things we never could otherwise. It is important to know how to use them. 

Photos will not give the subtleties of the look and feel of the real place. Nothing will bet actually being there and doing your own plein air sketches. You can then take your own photos and be able to use them as a reference for future paintings with the experience of the real place firmly in mind. Having a multitude of photos can give you a lot to work from. Giving you lots of ideas for inspiration to work from. Thankfully digital cameras allow us to do this easily. 

Bumblebee painting on clover acrylic on canvas by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

No matter how I try I can't get my own good photos of bumblebees, so I use photos from other people to reference all those details. 

All the above paintings are done with Atelier Interactive Acrylic Paints

Once you have experience of painting from life and seeing how photos differ from the real thing. You can make changes to photos with confidence to get a more natural look. Because we can't all be great photographers and getting those shots can sometimes be impossible for us. So being able to use a photo for those details on that bumblebee or getting that landscape with that fleeting moment in time captured for us to paint later makes life as artists just a bit easier and I think more exciting. We can combine lots of photos and our vision for our painting to create a really unique piece of art. 

Again just a reminder to be careful of copyright before using other peoples photos.

Hope this blog helps you to use photos more effectively in your future paintings.

Happy Painting everyone. 

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