Reasons NOT to Paint a Photo

Turning a single photo into a painting won't make you a good artist, ever.

Painting from photos seagulls
Part of a page from one of my sketchbooks where I looked at seagulls, plus a couple of my reference photos. Image: © 2008 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

Photography and painting are two different means of expression. What makes a great photo doesn’t necessarily make a good painting. And even if you believe it will, why spend the time translating it into paint when you can just process it through a photo-editing filter, print it on canvas and, if you want texture, slap on some giclee print medium?

Let’s be clear, I’m not saying don’t use photos to help with your painting, that would be daft as they’re a very useful tool.

What I’m saying it, turning one photo into one painting without critical thought and artistic selection will never make a great artist, not even if you’re using your own photo. Photos should be used only as a starting point, an inspiration, and a reference. One photo shouldn’t dictate everything in a painting; it's incredibly limiting and you're missing out on the fun and creativity to be had deciding what to include in a painting's composition, and from observing the world around you.

So what do you do instead of painting from a photo? You paint from life, from visual memories and your imagination, from sketches and notes in your sketchbook, and from a bunch of reference photos, never just one. You work out your ideas in a sketchbook, in thumbnails and studies, and on canvas. Creating a good painting is a process that builds and develops; it doesn’t begin and end with one photo. Being a creative painter means being receptive to ideas, to inspiration in the world you live in not just in scenic locations.

You add yourself to your painting, you add texture and brushmarks as much as color and composition. Photos are printed with a flat, smooth surface, in set dimensions or proportions but you needn't reproduce this; you've choices.

What Do You Mean by “Reference Photos”?

Reference photos are photos you’ve collected on a particular subject or theme to provide information.

Not to take one and turn it into a painting, but to use bits and pieces of information, filter it through your artistic viewpoint, and turn this composite knowledge into a composition and painting that’s wholly yours.

Say for instance you want to include a lion in a painting. It’s hardly feasible to get one to pose in your studio, but it may well be practical to see one in a wildlife park or zoo. It’s certainly within most people’s reach to watch a wildlife documentary and spend time observing postures, shadows, effects of change of light on fur. In both situations you can make notes and sketch. In the former you can take reference photos and in the latter you can rewatch a scene. Together the visual memories, sketches, notes, and any lion reference photos you might take provide you with the information for painting a great lion not a cardboard cutout lion.

Photos Aren’t the Whole True (and They Can Lie)

The color in a scene isn’t the color it is in a photo all the time. The clouds don’t sit in the sky in exactly the same spot all the time. Shadows move, flowers wilt, leaves drop off trees, trees fall down in storms. If a scene captured in a photo changes in real life, why can’t you change it when you’re painting?

Why can’t you use several photos to make a “true” scene? It’s called artistic license, not cheating. It’s what you should be doing if you want to develop as an artist.

Painting from Other People’s Photos

It doesn’t matter how “nice” a photo in a calendar or magazine or book or website is, if it’s not your photo and you don’t have permission from the artist to turn it into a painting, you’re venturing into the territory of copyright infringement. If you exhibit or sell the painting, you’re likely stomping all over that territory. Brush up on the fundamental principles of copyright and stick to the various places you can source free reference photos.