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Do You Paint From Photos? Then You'll Love These Top Tips.

There exists a divided opinion between painting from #photos and painting plein-air. Photos can be regarded as static and flat, and that they somehow don’t contain the life and magic of a #painting completed on the spot. There are pros and cons for both approaches, but the most convenient method for most people is to paint from photos, because you can pick them up and put them down to suit your timescales. Besides which, if you see a subject in the most perfect light or an amazing sky, why wouldn’t you take a photo to work from? Photos shouldn’t replace your understanding of a subject though, so plein-air work is extremely valuable and a great way to work on the spot is with a #sketchbook. A sketch will give you knowledge and a photo will provide you with reference. So here are my seven tips for working from photos.

1 Take your own photos.

To paint successfully and to get the best out of your ability, use your own subject material if you can. Choosing something to paint from a book or the internet might be convenient but it has a number of negative attributes. First off there exists copyright law to protect the work of creators and that includes photographers, so if you do choose to use someone else’s image you must seek permission from the #photographer unless the picture is freely offered without licence. There are licence free sites you can use such as RGB Stock and Photos4artists. Even though using a royalty free photo might help you find a particular subject or get you into painting, making a painting from such source material is inevitably using someone else’s vision. If you’re able to obtain your own photos of your chosen #subject, it is a far better, more creative, and individualistic approach as you seek out exactly what you want to achieve. Take a number of images from different heights and angles so that you have some choice to work with back in the studio.

A sketch will give you knowledge and a photo will provide you with reference.

2 Compose with the camera.

Use your #camera as a tool for painting. It is important to shift your thinking here, because the nearer to a well composed image you can get, the better the painting will be and the less adjustment work you will have to do later. Read more about composition here. A quick snapshot of a general area might just miss an important element, so try to imagine your painting as you shoot. Use the compositional grid to help you offset the order of the elements of the image. Move about, crouch, stand up or do whatever to get the optimum shot. I’ve created paintings from photos taken in the most impossible positions to #paint from, so a camera is not just a way of recording something, it can also act as a third eye. Think of all the elements of design as you select your subject – shapes, values, lead, and focus. A small viewing screen is great for this as it condenses the image into these basic forms.

Farm track through green fields

Here I arranged the elements on site using the compositional grid in my camera screen. The track leads from right to left with the trees around one third into the space. The sheep would make an interesting focus, but because they constantly move it is almost impossible to catch them in the right place. The base of the large mast is unsightly and could either be eliminated or changed to a thinner pole.

3 Make adjustments.

One great advantage of working with #photographs is the ability to make #adjustments to the #composition before you paint. Historically this would be a thumbnail painting #sketch to try out an idea or to get a feel for the scene, maybe with an increased size of background mountain or whatever. Nowadays I alter my images with photo editing software, which is part of the whole creative process. I recommend using Photoshop or Affinity photo to make edits, lighten, darken, erase parts, move objects or even draw and paint electronically onto the image. The results are convincingly real, which gives a clear impression of how you want your image to look before you begin painting. This can then be used as your working reference material. If you’re not #technical (it does take some time to learn the editing software) an alternative is to print out the image, then make the adjustments directly on the print using #gouache paint.

Farm track and sheep with green fields

This is the same image from above but with adjustments made in my photo editing software. First I cropped the scene to separate the foreground and background into a two thirds/one third relationship. Using a clone tool I removed the unsightly mast and copied the far right tree to add balance on the left. I also removed the near sheep. I reduced the overall vibrance then shaded the background to make better contrast with the bright foreground. With a paintbrush tool I added a foreground shadow and sketched in some extra sheep. All this can be done fairly quickly once you are familiar with the software and its functions. The advantage of working electronically is that at anytime I can undo any of the alterations.

I alter my images with photo editing software, which is part of the whole creative process.

4 Print or screen?

When you work from a photograph you need to be aware of certain issues and habits that can hinder your progress. The first consideration is whether to work from a printed photo or from a #screen such as an i-Pad or laptop. There are pros and cons to each method, so it’s down to personal preference which to use. An i-Pad will give you a luminous and #colourful image to work from, plus you can zoom in on detail if you need to, but comparing colours and values with those on your painting can prove impossible as one image is lit from behind, and the other lit from the front. There's also reflection from the screen to contend with if you are working in a brightly lit space, not to mention battery time (unless you work near a power socket), plus messages and pop ups, which can be distracting. Working from printed sources have a few limitations too, as you need a printer for a start, some detail can be lost, and the image can appear flat, especially if it does not contain much contrast.

printed photo next to an ipad photo for comparison

Printed image (left) Vs i-Pad image (right). The i-Pad gives deeper values and richer colour but the print out is more practical, especially when comparing values.

5 Do not hold your source image.

One of the biggest issues of working with photos is absorbing too much or unnecessary #detail. If you paint with one hand whilst holding your reference #image with your other hand, you will inevitably end up bringing that material close to your face in order to scrutinise the detail. What happens then is you put all the minutiae into your #painting, resulting in an overworked #picture. Think of how the process works plein-air and try to recreate that. With plein-air you are viewing the #scene from a constant distance, so you must do the same with a photo. I recommend placing the reference material out of arms reach so you can’t grab it to analyse it mid brush stroke.

Fortezza Della Verrucola, watercolour 26 x 19cm

A small sketch of a hugely complex and busy scene reduced to simple shapes by placing the reference at a distance. This kind of scene is subject to close scrutiny as the brain tries to make sense of it all, but in the process of holding the image, too much information can be absorbed.

One of the biggest issues of working with photos is absorbing too much or unnecessary detail.

6 Reduce the detail.

Paintings need to be built on a solid foundation of #shapes and values, but detail such as blades of grass, leaves on a tree, or bricks in a building, can be left to a bare minimum. If you find you absorb too much #detail, or your paintings look overworked, you might need to reduce the amount of minutiae that you can see. Putting your reference further away from you as you paint is one way. If you work from #photographic prints, there are other techniques to try. The highest quality photo print for painting would be an A4 size on high quality photo printing paper with the print settings set to a high standard print. Whilst this creates a pin sharp #image of bright colour, it might contain too much detail for painting. If that is the case, try printing on plain paper as this will lose a lot of the detail, especially in the shadows. Experiment with different printer settings switching from high quality to standard printing. You could also print smaller, say A5 as this will consolidate the details and values even further. It’s all about finding the image size and working distance that helps you the most.

Road leading into the distance

Left: High quality print 13x 18cm on photo paper. Centre: High quality print 13 x 18cm on plain paper. Right: Standard quality print 9 x 13cm on plain paper. Notice the reduction in details and contrast between the larger photo paper and the smaller plain paper prints.

7 Photos blacken shadows.

This is the biggest issue with #photographs. If like me you use point and shoot methods to obtain references, the #camera will either compensate towards #light or #dark. I usually focus on a light area which makes the #shadows darker, but when the image is printed out, the shadows can often look black. You will notice this most in a high contrast scenario such as a sunset, where there is a beautiful bright and colourful sky section set against a jet-black #landscape. The reality is we don’t actually see that #black, and this is where plein-air work and photo work differ. In a real time scenario of say looking out across an estuary at a sunset, you will see #colour in everything – toned greens in the salt marsh, toned ochre of the sand, toned blue of the water and so on. A photo of the scene is likely to return a large black mass of the marsh, sand and water. Black is the absence of light, and we only notice it in small amounts where there is little or no light, for example in the deepest depth of a #shaded tree or the gaps between stones in a drystone wall. We never see it in a large swathe of landscape, so always have in the back of your mind that photographs blacken shadows and compensate by increasing the colour slightly so that the area has a colour identity.

Sunset image with receding lines of telegraph poles

If you're not a technical photographer like me, exposures can become imbalanced, leading to blackening of the shadows. It is possible to adjust in photo editing software, but when printed, the image is likely to lack colour, so be prepared to compensate for this by increasing the colour saturation in your painting.

#Technology has come a long way and most mobile phones nowadays produce high quality images. You don’t need to venture into digital SLR cameras unless you are also a serious photographer. I generally use pocket cameras which keep down weight and bulk on a long walk or mountain adventure. When you know your subject and you feel inspired, get out with your camera and #sketchbook, gather some images and enjoy working with them later in the #studio.

Paul Talbot-Greaves RI, Artist, Author, Tutor

Paul Talbot-Greaves is a member of the Royal Institute Of Painters In Watercolours, and has been painting and writing for 30 years. He writes many articles for The Artist magazine (UK), has four practical art books published and has contributed to various others. He is represented by numerous galleries based around the North of England. He can be found on Instagram and Facebook where he regularly posts up to date pieces and inspirational stories.

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Lynda Robinson
Lynda Robinson
May 15, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

All really useful, of course I’m still trying to get on a one of your workshops or demonstrations so I can see it in the ‘flesh’ so to speak. You are very generous with your time and effort thank you

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