Tips on Painting From a Photograph

Photographs are very handy reference materials. When you decide to paint a picture you can use a photo and you do not need to worry about the weather or time of day. I do not like to paint when it is raining and obviously night-time painting sessions can be a challenge.

However when you have photos to use you can paint whenever the mood takes you.

There are really two main ways to use photos.

1. Using just one photo and painting your version of the scene
2. Using several photos and choosing sections from them to compose a different scene altogether

Using One Main Photograph

When you are using one main photo for the painting there are a few things you may want to consider. You do not need to use all of the things from the photo. A photographer has no choice when he takes a picture, but you do not have this problem.

If your photo has a lot of detail you may choose to just use a section of the photo for the painting. You do not have to use the entire photo, custom pet portraits just use your artistic licence and select a part of the scene to use.

Often less is more in a painting. If the foreground is complicated and detailed you might want to keep rest of the painting simple.

Simplify for Impact

Putting the majority of the detail in the foreground will help to give depth to your final piece. The further away a thing is the less detail you can see, so simplify the middle and distant areas in your painting to help give it depth.

The Composition of the Final Painting

Although you are using the photograph for your inspiration it is still necessary to consider the composition of the picture. Here are a few points to think about.

What is the focal point?

Where is it placed? (It is better to avoid putting it in the centre.) You can move it to a better area if you want.

Are there objects to lead the eye into the painting? These could be paths, branches, or shapes to lead the eye in.

What about the colours? You could change a landscape to a different time of day or a different time of year? Instead of midday you could have a sunset, instead of the bare branches of winter you could have green leaves or even autumnal leaves?

Consider the contrast between the tones used in the different areas too. Again you do not need to follow those in the photo. Perhaps you want to highlight a contrast between some light and dark areas of the picture.

You can use the photo as a starting point for your painting.

However you still have the option to change things to improve the composition of the picture. For example missing out a power line in a landscape or changing the background in a portrait.

Painting the Picture for Someone Else?

If you are given a photograph and asked to paint it then be sure to check what the other person expects.

Perhaps they really want a painting of the photo just as it is, in which case you will have to try to keep the picture fairly true to the photo.

They may say that the photo is just a starting point but they want the final piece to be recognisable as the photo. In this case you have a bit more flexibility with the composition and colour of the painting.

Or they may say that they are happy for you to paint your version of the photo. This will give you the most freedom with the choices you make.

It is always best to discuss what they expect the final painting to look like. This will avoid disappointment for you both!

An Example

I painted a pet portrait from a very small photo (the dog’s head was about half an inch by half an inch in the photo) and felt that the final painting was a good likeness. Although the client was happy with the painting she said that it was her partner’s dog and she had never seen it when it was younger. The dog was going grey and this was not apparent due to the size of the photo.

For myself, I prefer to remember pets in their prime, looking healthy and alert. But I should have discussed the painting more than I had. Maybe a painting of the dog looking older would have been more appreciated by the owner.


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