Painting From Photographs

Photograph and painting. Lisa Marder

Although some artists might be reluctant to admit that they use photographs as part of their process, thinking of it as "cheating," photography has aided painters since it was first invented.  Among many others, artists as diverse as Vermeer, Degas, and Norman Rockwell have all relied on photography. 

Here's how you, too, can use photography to make you a better painter.

Take Your Own Photos

Taking and using your own photographs to paint from is ideal.

Taking your own pictures is part of the creative process and you do not need to worry at all about copyright infringement. Look at your subject carefully before you start photographing and take mental notes, trying to memorize what you see. This will help you in the painting process.

If you need to, it is possible to use someone else's photo if you have obtained permission, it is on a website expressly for that purpose, such as Morguefile, or you have bought the rights to use it, but you have to be careful about copyright restrictions. If you do use someone else's photo, try to capture its essence. Think about what made you want to paint it.

Take Many Photos From Different Angles and Orientations

Now that photography is digital, affordable, and accessible it is easy to take many pictures.  As a painter using the photo merely as a reference you need not be as particular about the composition as you would be if you were taking the picture as a photographer, but the better picture you take, the more it will help you as a painter.

Crop Your Photo

Here's a fun way to find a new composition. Change the format and crop different areas of the photo. You might find one painting or many within the different framed areas.

Remember That the Camera Captures Light Differently Than Your Eyes See It

Our eyes have a much greater dynamic range than do cameras.

 The camera is unable to capture the range of light and dark that our eyes can see, so may lose detail and subtle colors in the lights or darks if not exposed correctly. Be sure to study the shadows to see the nuances of color there. 

Mix and Match Your Photos

 Combine elements from the different photos, choosing which ones best suit your painting.  You might choose a sky from one and land from another. You might add or eliminate elements within a photograph.   

Don't Rely Totally on the Color in the Photo

Bear in mind that color can be different in a photo, influenced by ambient light. Again, our eyes are more sophisticated in being able to adapt to ambient light and keeping colors "true." You can set the white balance in a camera to control for the ambient light source - incandescent, fluorescent, tungsten, or daylight.  If the white balance is not set correctly the mage will take on a different overall hue.

Be Aware That Cameras Will Show Perspectival Distortion

That is, when taking a picture of buildings from close up, or any vertical subject, the parallel vertical lines will look like they are converging. Look at a skyscraper when you're in the city and you'll see how the sides of the building seem to be getting closer together the further away from your eye.

Watch for Blurred Areas in a Photograph

Photographers control depth of field to create areas of clarity and focus in their images, but as a painter you want to be aware of this and make your own decisions about that in your artwork.

Avoid Using the Flash on Your Camera

The flash on your camera tends to be overly harsh, eliminating value shifts and flattening your subject.

Know Your Light Source

Try to use natural light if you can, and pay attention to the direction of your light source.

Convert Your Image to Black and White 

Don't be restricted by the local color of your subject. Try a different color palette, such as the bright saturated colors of the Fauves, like painter Henri Matisse.  

Learn Your Camera

The automatic setting often works well, but the better you  can control your camera, the better it will serve as a tool to help you achieve dynamic paintings.


Be Selective and Don't Forget to Paint!

Don't feel that you have to include everything that you see in your photograph in your painting. The painting is different than the photograph and the compositional choices are up to you. Also, don't be limited by your photograph. Paint is a different medium than printing ink and can be applied in many different ways - thinly, thickly, in drips, in glazes, with your palette knife, etc.  The painting demands artistic decisions apart from merely copying the photograph.


Updated 6/22/16

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Your Citation
Marder, Lisa. "Painting From Photographs." ThoughtCo, Jun. 22, 2016, Marder, Lisa. (2016, June 22). Painting From Photographs. Retrieved from Marder, Lisa. "Painting From Photographs." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 17, 2017).