Top Tips for Painting from Photos

Many artists work with or from photos. Many artist hate the thought and swear by painting from life only. Most artists probably do both.  Some (beginning) artists do fall into the many pitfalls that working from photos brings. While there is plenty of advice on how to work from life, working from photos provides different problems and opens different possibilities. I have written about the endless creativity that working with photos can provide in an earlier blog post.  Here I’d like to give my 12 top tips to keep in mind when you work with photos. I hope you will find it helpful.

​1. Look and Make Choices

Just like when working from life, spend some time looking at the scene. Figure out what you want to paint, where to crop your image, what to leave out, what to focus on, what do you like, what is less important, what do you want to say with this picture, what painterly stuff do you want to work on.

2. Use Decent Equipment

Use a good camera, a good computer monitor and good editing software to give your self a head start. If you want to paint realistic portraits (why would anyone want to do that, I wonder), for example, having high resolution images with a good depth of colour will make all the difference. Invest in an DSLR camera and a decent computer monitor. Get Photoshop Elements, Lightroom or something like it to edit images into your vision.

3. Use Software

You can start working on your image on a canvas or in sketch book as well as on the computer. You can do a lot of preparation on the computer: crop, draw, paste, change colours, change backgrounds, add and overlay extra images, change the light colour, deepen or lighten shadows and high lights. You can creatively change a picture until it is closer to what you want to do in your painting. Have some fun. Explore your software.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom. Use software to adjust your image and get it closer to your vision.
Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom. Use software to adjust your image and get it closer to your vision.

​4. Choose and Check your Colours

Colours can look different in photographs. Be aware. Compare with real life. Decide what you want to do. Do you want a natural looking image than you might want to stick to working from life. But natural images can be made while using photos as well. Just compare colours, be aware of camera exaggerations and adjust accordingly. Or be bold and slide that saturation up a bit. Create an exciting image. Go on I dare you.

5. Avoid Extreme Contrast

Photographs can show extreme contrast. Whites are bleached out and darks are pitch black. In real life we don’t see the world like that. Again, be aware and decide what sort of painting you want to create. Do you want a natural looking scene then you need to brighten up the shadows and darken the highlights. A low contrast photo gives you all the details in the dark as well as the light areas and allows you to choose how dark or light to go while painting.

Sophie Ploeg, All that Was Black (detail), oil on linen, 60x50cm
Sophie Ploeg, All that Was Black (detail), oil on linen, 60x50cm For this self portrait I used photography and some extreme lighting

6. Watch out for Distortions

Photographs can be very distorted. Camera lenses can do funny things that we often don’t notice straight away. Strange angles, and fisheye effects can really make a picture look weird (or great). A fuzzy background might look good in a photo but does not leave you much choice in your painting. Be aware of these distortions and remove them or expand upon them the way you want to. If you like the look – then run with it, exaggerate it but don’t leave us hanging wondering if you are just a bad photographer….

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Watch out for fisheye effects in portrait photography. It really is not pretty!

7. What can you Add?

If you have a great photo, consider what the point of painting it would be. Is this a technical exercise for you? Is this a creative challenge for you? What can painting it add to the image? Often good photos remain good photos and if you copy a great photo it will look flat and boring in paint UNLESS you do something, you add something. If you are a great photographer then why bother painting it? I am not a good photographer. My photos are not good and could never be exhibited. But I mess around with my photos untill I can see in it where I want to go in my painting. By painting it I develop the image further, add depth and texture, but also the tactile medium of paint, of brush strokes. There is so much you can add. Plan it and think about it.

A great photo is probably best left a great photo ​​

Sophie Ploeg, The Shawl (detail), oil on linen, 122x61cm.
Sophie Ploeg, The Shawl (detail), oil on linen, 122x61cm. For this painting I positioned my model with her back to the window. I edited the photo on the computer to get the soft contrast and mute colours I was after.

8. Never Print your Photos!

Do not print out photos and work from these. Ever. Do some research and invest is a really good computer monitor. A monitor can show many more colours and values than a printer could ever produce. Printed images are flatter, duller and have so much less information in them than a digital image.

Also, if you keep your image on the screen, you can adapt the view while you work. I often lighten a picture just to see what’s in that dark corner. I then darken the image again so that my highlights become visible. I turn my image into black and white to check values. I mirror my picture to get fresh eyes and check composition. I zoom in to paint details, I blur things to see values and composition. A good computer screen will show you so much more to paint than a printed picture could ever do.

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My model for ‘The Shawl’ is having some fun in my studio

​9. Take your Photos Intentionally

Don’t just choose a pretty holiday pic and go and paint it, unless you want to simply practice something. Plan things in advance. I get an idea for a painting in my head and then go ahead to plan a photo shoot. Don’t randomly choose snapshots from a shoebox of photos. Think about your painting first. If you fancy painting a peony, then go in your garden and photograph one (if you can’t paint it from life). If you want to paint your dad, go and set it up. Pose him just how you want him. Photograph him the way you want to paint him, but try some different angles and positions as well (you never know what you might find).  A pretty holiday snapshot is just that: have it printed and hang it on the wall or stick it in an album. A painting is a totally different kettle of fish.

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The Studio is ready for the arrival of my model. Her dress is waiting. A camera, tripod and some lighting is all that is needed.

​10. Use Photos with Depth

For portraiture (but probably for other subject matter as well), create photos with shading and depth, or in short, a good variety of values. Do not use flash. A portrait photo can look great with some extreme brightness and a flat and softened skin, with very little shading. But for a painted portrait it is not such a good idea unless you want to lean to pop art and cartoons. Shading and shadows is what makes things look 3-dimensional and real. So put your model next to a window and let the light fall from the side. Avoid glaring sunlight as the shadows will be too strong or totally absent. I could go on, but then this post will turn into the top tips on portrait photography, so I will stop here.

Sophie Ploeg, Drapery (detail), 60x40cm
Sophie Ploeg, Drapery (detail), 60x40cm For this painting I caught some sunlight falling over the dress. The bright light gave very dark shadow areas in the photos that I took. I adjusted this with the help of software.

11. Do not Trace

Do not trace your photo unless you have to. Lots of artists use tools to get images onto their canvas. There is lots of debate about what is right or wrong. I will not go into this too much but all I can say is that I find a traced image looking stiff and cartoonish. For some reason it lacks something. What that something is, I am not sure, but probably it has something to do with tiny mistakes. If you draw freehand, you don’t copy something 100% perfect. Even though you might aim for perfection, the imperfections make your drawing or painting more loose, alive and more successful. If you trace, you lose a certain liveliness that is very hard to add later. If you always trace, you’d never learn to draw or paint and you’d never get any better.

If you ask me, the same applies, but in a lesser way, to using a grid. A grid can be helpful but if too small and detailed it gets very close to tracing and the result is stiff and lifeless. I sometimes divide my canvas and my image into a grid of just 4 or 6 rough squares. It helps with placement (where is the middle of my canvas and where is my subject positioned in relation to it) but I would not go any smaller. This is just my opinion so don’t hate me if you disagree. I know it is a sensitive subject.

Reproducing a photo in paint does not necessarily make it ‘Art’

Sophie Ploeg, The Duchess (in progress), oil on linen, 91x101cm
Sophie Ploeg, The Duchess (in progress), oil on linen, 91x101cm I sometimes place small marks on my canvas to locate half-way points, or quarter points.

12. Use your own Photos

Does it need mentioning? Please only use your own photos. Better still, make photos with the purpose of creating paintings from them. You will see you will make much more suitable photos than if you have to browse your albums. If you ever intend to sell your work you must avoid using other people’s photos, no matter where you find them. Pretty much all photos are copyrighted and you cannot freely use them. So play it safe and use your own photos. That way you know your art work is your creation and yours alone. If you really just want to practice and your art works will never be exhibited or sold – feel free to use any photo you see. I sure spent some time as a teenager copying photos of my favourite pop stars!

I hope these twelve tips will help you in your journey making art. Do let me know what you think of my tips and perhaps you have some to add yourself?

2 thoughts on “Top Tips for Painting from Photos

  1. I totally agree that “if you copy a great photo it will look flat and boring in paint UNLESS you do something”. I think a lot of those sites that paint from photos of a subject end up looking kind of lifeless, actually it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what’s wrong. It’s just missing the special quality.
    This is a disturbing reality in general actually. I just took my kids to an exhibit at Denver art museum this weekend of renaissance art from Venice and the difference between seeing works of art in person vs seeing pictures of the same works is stunning.
    Great blog and site, I took art classes as a kid and did some painting, but have not for a while. I like your posts on palettes and got some good advice there. And I’ve been painting from photos actually 🙂

    1. Hi Tim, thank you for stopping by! So pleased you enjoy my blog. And yes…the world seems to turn digital and we see more images and less ‘things’ it seems. Our work is more seen online than in real life, or so it seems sometimes. It is something artists must keep in mind! Happy painting!

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