Painting from Photos - Part 2


2000 Photos and Nothing to Paint: Part 2

by Christine Camilleri, AFCA, PAC

Digital photography and phones with cameras have really made it easy for artists to record information for later use in the studio. While photos open up the world of ideas...they can also close it down. Here are some tips for those 2000 (or so) photos you have to spark your imaginative fire.

ALT TEXT Photos are not even close to how our eyes perceive the world. A photo takes in all of the detail - every leaf, every blade of grass, every piece of fruit, every animal, every person is in sharp detail. Your eyes, on the other hand, can only focus sharply on a small area of a subject, the rest -- your peripheral vision -- is blurry. You can use this knowledge to create a painting with a focal point (the central flower) and blur the rest of the details so the focal point jumps out.

Values in photos will fool you. Photos can only capture a small amount of the values in a scene. Did you know your eyes can see 50,000 values?! What does this mean for a painting? Next time you are outside check out the deep shadows under the trees. In a photo they will appear black and that's often how they are painted. Check out the light areas where the sun is hitting the rocks. In a photo these will very often be bleached out and very white. Since that is what the photo shows that is what is painted but it's not nearly as interesting as painting the colours and textures of the shadow area and the nuances of detail and colour in the highlighted areas that your eyes can see.

Don't be a slave to your photo. For example, when you took the photo you noticed the market scene and the way the two women were talking over the vegetables. It was so intimate and old world somehow. Now back in the studio when you look at the photo it's less about that moment and more about everything else. The camera has pulled in everything else too and in the sharpest detail! The pole holding up the awning that you never noticed. The other people crowding in, the garbage pail right beside them. Now your creativity has to come in and crop and focus on what you liked about the scene: Avoid painting all the details; they will detract from your painting;s focus.

Camilleri-Winter_s_Embracerev.jpgStay composed! Photos are rarely perfectly composed. My animals are rarely photographed in great poses. Mountains lack snow, trees look straggly, shadows cast are harsh etc. I have to pick and choose what and where things are going to be placed to make the most of what I know about composition. You have to add and subtract and move things around to enhance and convey your creative idea. Think shapes and move them around.

That looks very familiar! I know I like to tackle subjects that are unfamiliar and you can get away with a lot when they are far away in a painting. Up close though the flaws (for me) show through. I like to be accurate. So just because you have a photo of, for example, a rider on a horse but it's still pretty far away, do you know enough about your subject to convincingly portray the horse's tack (bridle, saddle, etc) or the cowboy's outfit? You may need to do more research beyond the photo -- extra work but worth it.

It helps to be organized so your creativity can be unorganized and loose! I have all my photos catalogued into subjects. Trees are in one, cloudscapes are another, people poses, meadows and even one called abstract (I take close up photos that are out of focus of objects and these are intriguingly abstract). I like organizing my photos this way because rather than painting a photo I take bits and pieces from many photos and create and compose. I have had people say of a landscape, "I know where that is", but they don't because I just made it up! I am sure I look very funny taking photos of great beach logs when the sunset over the ocean is what everyone else is photographing!

ALT TEXTFinally, I like to paint from real life. It's challenging but there is a certain energy and spontaneity that happens that sometimes doesn't occur when I paint from photos. I have been sunburned, mosquito-bitten, chased off by bears and had gale force winds come up just as I started on a painting in the great outdoors. Those experiences, however, of really seeing that water, hearing the breeze in the trees, smelling the ocean, are all remembered when I return to the studio in the middle of winter and paint. I know then that the photos I took are very rudimentary and what I felt that day and what caught my eye is the most important thing I can convey.

Good luck with your paintings!


Christine Camilleri is an associate signature member of the Federation of Canadian Artists and signature member of Pastel Artists Canada. She lives and paints in Chilliwack, BC.




Posted over 6 years ago
Great advise, new to pastels so appreciate all tips

Posted over 6 years ago
I really appreciate your viewpoint on painting. Makes sense! I love painting in pastels and I have a few collections. I started few years ago. I am originally from Italy and I live in the USA right now. Gog bless you!

Posted over 6 years ago
Thank you for the insight. Most (if not all) of my artwork is drawn from a photo or two and rarely do i draw freely from real life. Your article has shown me the errors of my ways. I feel I am now inspired to challenge myself to the next level. Thank you again.


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