Painting from photos


2000 Photos and Nothing to Paint: Part 1

By Christine Camilleri, AFCA, PAC

Digital photography and software is one of the best tools around for an artist...if you know how to take advantage of all those pixels!

Has this happened to you? You have tons of reference material but just look at each photo and no spark of creativity strikes. You scroll through them for a couple of hours and then, frustrated, give up.

You need to think of photos as your diving board: they are simply a jump off point. Photos are not your painting, they are not your feelings, they are not texture nor composition nor design, and they are most certainly not colour. Paradoxically, that's what makes them so exciting.

Try these "jump off" ideas:

Ask yourself "why did I take this photo? What caught my attention? Was it the colours? The patterns I saw? The texture? The answers can be your main focus.

What was the day like when you took the photo? Was it hot? Do you want to convey the heat of the day? The bright sunshine? Can you still remember the clouds overhead around the place where you took the photo? Was it a large expansive scene or intimate? How can you convey that and bring it back to the painting?

What mood would make this photo work? Bright and airy or dark and somewhat mysterious? Playful or thoughtful? It's up to you to create the "atmosphere".

Do you like the colors in the photo? (these are usually the "local" colour so that trees are green, barns are red, the sky is blue) What if you could change the colours what would they be? Is a yellow or red sky more interesting? Can the beach sand be purple? What if the animal was blue and orange with a hint of lime green?

Try printing or looking at photos in black and white (often camera software allows you to do this) so you see the value patterns more easily and can dab in your own exciting colours!

Look at many different photos and pull them together into a painting. I work on as many as 10 or more photographs at a time. Rarely does one photo make a worthwhile painting.

If you magnified one area of the photo does that make the shadows and shapes far more intriguing? If you cropped out all the extraneous things does that help you focus? If you magnify until you can't see what the subject is anymore, does that help you think in a more abstract way?

Redesign the scene to make it compositionally interesting and artistically structured. Feel free to move things around; after all, you're the one doing the creating, not the camera. For instance, I have taken 5 to 7 shapes, drawn them out, then cut them up and rearranged them until I liked what I saw.

Once you have your idea firmly in mind, the photos often become quite secondary to your creative process. I use the photo(s) as a jumping off point and then...jump off and don't look back!


Posted over 6 years ago
Great article! Just exactly what I needed as I sit here looking at some recent photos, wondering how to interpret them.

Posted over 6 years ago
Hi I definately compose a library of photos to study, look over, and this brings out strong emotions towards my drawings. Your very creative in helping others understand in what you say in your writings. Looking forward to your next comments. Have a nice week.


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