Vlog: 6 Tips for Painting Portraits from Photos

written by Sophie | Beginners, Materials & Technique

Many of us paint portraits from photos. We can’t afford to hire a model, we don’t always have commissions, a model makes us feel awkward, or maybe we just prefer to work from photos. But working from photos has its own set of challenges and opportunities. 

So in this week’s vlog I want to tell you about 6 things to look out for when you paint a portrait from photos.


6 Tips for Painting from Photos


Work from your own photos

Don’t use somebody else’s art work, somebody's else's vision or idea and work with your own photographs. Of course there is also the not unimportant issue of copyright, so just be sensible and work from your own photos. Unless you are really just painting for practice and will keep it to yourself.


Use Good Quality Photos

Don't make things hard for yourself! Work from a large digital file, a sharp photo that shows lots of details. Old small blurry snapshots will not have enough information in them to help you paint a good portrait. You'd be guessing. 


Work from a Computer Monitor

A good quality computer monitor can show you much more depth of colour and value than any printed image can. Most home printed images are flat and dull. So why work from that if you have a huge array of tone, value and colour available?  Also, a computer monitor allows you to zoom in, change contrast, colour and so much more.


Use Photo Editing Software

With some good photo editing software the creative process starts way before you put brush to canvas or pastel to paper.


Take Lots of Photos

Not only will you have more choice, but it is really helpful to see your model's face from lots of angles (even if you are just painting one angle!) and in lots of different expressions.


Be Creative with your Photos

A photo does not need to stay like it is. There is so much you can change in a photo. Think creatively and outside the box. You can create a whole story just be playing around with effects and adjustments.

Want to Practice This With a Little Help from Sophie?

Join Sophie’s Art School and join a warm and supportive community where you can post your work, get feedback and ask for advice. On top of that you’ll get access to a variety of courses, workshops and tutorials. All online!

Published: January 28, 2020

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  1. Hi Sophie,

    Thanks for writing these articles on using photos. I’m an artist and have experienced what you have- I’ve been in both circles where people decry the use of photos- and others who are purely conceptual. Anyway, I’m feeling the need to use photos in my practice again after years of working from life. Regarding my life right now, it seems very practical to use them. I appreciate your prudent tips for photo use.

    As I explore purchasing a computer monitor, are there a few that you have used/ would recommend? Maybe some at different price points?
    Thanks so much!

  2. Thanks for the encouraging segment! I’m understanding more and more how to interpret/adjust my personal photos when painting. I’m with you – if I want to be exact, I’ll just keep the photo!

  3. Thanks so much, Sophie. This was very helpful. Could you explain how to make adjustments in the image on the monitor itself? Also, I’d heard that if you alter a photograph by 70% then you would not be violating the copyright of the photographer. Obviously, it would be simpler to take your own photos, but sometimes they’re taken in countries far away which would be impossible to replicate at home.

    1. Hi Liz! Thanks for your comment. Glad to hear you found it useful. To make adjustment to a photo on a computer you need a photo editing program. Photoshop Elements, for example is very affordable and good. As for the copyright; yes, there is such a thing as a ‘derivative work’ which means you have created a completely new work of art than only partly refers to a somebody else’s work. But it is a grey area and it is not easy to stay on the right side of the law. So if you intend to sell or exhibit your work, it always best to use your own material. This way your art work is completely ‘yours’: it is your vision, your inspiration, your composition, your idea, your everything. After all there is little point in me showing off beautiful paintings of Tibet when I have never been to Tibet. Hope that helps!

      1. Appreciated your reply. A friend told me that as long as you make changes to someone else’s photo, you’re “not really stealing”. I disagreed, plus unless it’s simply practice, I want my works to be my originals. Loved your Tibet analogy!

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