Painting from Photographs: Advantages and Disadvantages

What we see with our eyes, such as the subtle color changes in shadow, is often not captured with a camera. Too often, the darks are too dark and the lights too light. ~Al Kline

Many of us paint from photos in our studio. This can and should be supplemented with sketches and tonal studies. There are advantages and disadvantages to using photos.

One of the biggest disadvantages is that the lens of a camera distorts much of what we see and also lacks color definition. This is especially true when looking at shadows and subtle tonal changes. What we see with our eyes, such as the subtle color changes in shadow, is often not captured with a camera. Too often, the darks are too dark and the lights too light.

There are many photo manipulation programs such as lightroom and Quickshot (Apple App) that can help.

However, with this said, I often will distort what I see in a photo and ‘enlarge’ focal points. If you carefully study photos while plein air painting, you know exactly what I mean. Much of what you see in your eye is made smaller by the camera, especially when looking at architecture. I’m never a slave to my photo and I often will move structures around to make the composition more pleasing.

Photos that are taken from still-life subjects are a little more forgiving. The distortion is less and many times you can manipulate the colors to plan your painting.

I was recently browsing on Instagram and came across a colorful photo that inspired me to paint. I often find beauty in photos and this one screamed watercolor. It was from a dear friend who is living in Florida. She worked for me when I first started my practice. She has had her own battles recently and I was inspired to paint this for her.

I’ve isolated some of the images. Very often, before I begin painting from a photo, I use my printer and isolate some of the images to better visualize the tonal values. I don’t often manipulate photos. This photo has had no maninpulation and came directly off instagram.

From these photos, I typically may do a ‘sketch’ painting and then attempt a more in-depth painting. I often notice , that even the sketch painting is sometimes more spontaneous than laboring over a larger work.

My initial ‘sketch’ painting of “Slumber”. Here , the colors and tone are loosely placed in order to get a feel for the lines and painting in general.

This sketch came out better than I expected. I immediately recognized the baby blue as the dominant color for this painting. I used Cerulean Blue for many of the shadows toned down with Lavender. This worked well to compliment the Gold Ochre and Yellow Ochre I used for the primary focal point of the larger dog.

In this second painting, I focused more on richer colors and a slight more detail. I still want this to read as watercolor, although I did use some gouache in this work. In this work, the Cerulean Blue is toned down a bit with more violets.

Painting from photos is a good way to work on composition, color mixing and tonal values. There is some inherent drawbacks compared to plein air painting which includes a sort of tightness while painting. I found myself ‘tightening’ up in the second painting and fighting the temptation to ‘do more’. This can be good and bad. Comparing the two , I like the color unity of the second painting, but like how the light plays in the first. I also took more time in the facial features of each dog and the cat. The first was more spontaneous.

Here are some other photos that I turned into paintings.

From this photos, I painted a few Snow Plows. Here , I tried to match the tones and colors to the photo.
The reference photo from my friend in New York. This was painted and sent to him as a gift.
Photo from my friend in New York of a Snowy Hydrangea. This photo is great for watercolor still-life because it has soft and hard edges with a lot of contrast.
My rendition of the Snowy Hydrangea. I tried to capture some of the soft and harder edges with the color contrast of the leaves and berries.

I must also add something about painting from photos. It’s always best to take your own photos. I have a very nice Canon EOS Rebel T31. The new Iphones also have some great definition and can rival some of the best cameras on the market. I find myself using both. I also use Adobe Lightroom to enhance my photos that I shoot with my Canon.

If you find photos that you want to paint, don’t forget to ask for permission. Many times, the photographer will be happy for you to paint the photo, unless it’s something unique to the photographer. Photos are personal property to the individuals taking them. This brings up the concept of fair use.

There is a good article in TheLawTog that explains the copyright laws when it comes to painting someone elses photograph. In short, the Tog states:

An artist who has used your work as part of their own may also not be infringing copyright if they make “fair use” of your work . . . fair use will be satisfied if an artist or any person uses the image for purposes of commentary, criticism, reporting, or teaching.

I also believe, that if you are using someone’s photo to paint and then show in a competition or sale, you should seek professional permission to use the photo and reference the photographer in that work.

And , if you just want to find some free-common domain photos for your ideas or just painting, you can find them at FreeImages, MorgueFiles, FlickrPhotos and Photos8.

Happy Painting!


  1. Al this Midwest gal has been in Del Rio for 10 days. My trip to Big Bend has to be bumped to next year. I’ve sure enjoyed your state! You know from my blog I use reference photos frequently when the winter slams us indoors. I enjoyed this post. Very nice animal portraits as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think working from photos is great and allows you to experiment too! Welcome to Texas! It’s pretty big! Big Bend region is a great place to paint landscapes. Enjoy your stay!


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