Click it and paint it

     People sometimes ask if it’s all right for artists to use photos as reference for paintings or drawings.  It is as long as the photograph is taken by the artist him/herself.  Using someone else’s photo is an absolute “no-no” even if they give their permission.  You can adapt an idea, but you can’t paint a copy of that image; you must take your own photo and paint your own version. 

     With the above said, look at using your own photos for painting reference.  Photos are ideal for taking home a landscape or old building.  They’re wonderful for catching fast action and fleeting light effects.  And they can’t be beat for taking reference pictures of children or animals that don’t want to sit still.

     Many artists and teachers are against working from photos.  Certainly if the painting ends up being an exact copy of a photograph, why bother to paint when an enlargement of the photo itself will work just as well? 

     Artists should think of photos as raw material.  A photograph to a painter is like clay to a potter.  How you use it and what you create from that source depends on your own creativity.  In using photo references you can move things around, manipulate parts of the painting, combine things from several photos to make one scene, eliminate distracting people or objects, select one pose out of many, and change colors.  It’s easier to do all this when you’re working from photos than when you’re looking at reality.

     You don’t have to have a perfectly composed, sharp picture to paint from.  Just take a quick photo of what interests you, to get just enough information to get you started on your painting.  A photograph, for an artist, should be mostly a memory jogger.  It can remind you of colors, shapes, and details, but it’s up to you to put your feelings and emotions about the subject into the final artwork, using your own technique.

     Photos can help you catch mood.  For example, on a rainy day the reflections in puddles, colorful umbrellas, and dark clouds can give you ideas for several paintings in one photo.  Photographs taken outside in late afternoon often have dramatic shadows.  Evening scenes give you contrasts of small light areas against masses of dark shadows. 

     If you’re looking for interesting reference photos of people and your friends and  family members aren’t quite what you’re thinking of, don’t go out with a gigantic camera strapped around your neck, obviously pointing it at strangers, and expect to get natural, relaxed poses. 

     Be unobtrusive.  Carry a very small camera with the strap wound around your wrist.  Practice taking pictures with one hand for speed.  If you see something interesting, don’t stand around composing.   Just bring the camera hand up to your eye, shoot, and put your hand back down to your side as quickly and smoothly as you can.  If possible, take another shot for insurance in case the first one didn’t work. 

     Don’t annoy people by aiming the camera at them as if they were animals in the zoo.  Some people may be upset or angered if they know you’re photographing them.  Pretend you’re not taking a picture of a specific person or persons.  Act as if you’re shooting the scenery around them and they just happen to be part of the scene.  You can crop in on the people later using your computer or a magnifying glass.  The best pictures come when people don’t know they’re being observed.

     When you paint pictures of people from these candid photos, don’t make them identifiable.  Keep the rendering loose.  You’re not painting a portrait of someone you know.   Think of strangers in a photo as being painting material, like apples and oranges in a still life. 

     When it comes to painting barns, houses or other buildings, be aware that you can photograph anything as long as you’re on a public street, road or sidewalk and not blocking traffic or causing problems (we’re assuming there are no signs that say photography is prohibited).  You do not have to pay or credit a building owner if you use a resource photo taken from a public sidewalk or street to create a painting.  Just stay off private property when doing reference photography; if you can’t shoot the picture from a public street, road or sidewalk, don’t take it. 

     With a selection of subjects and raw material in the form of reference photos, you can stimulate your creativity and come up with exciting new ideas for paintings.

Published by on December 2011. Filed under HowDoit PB dept. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment for “Click it and paint it”

  1. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with copying someone else’s photograph…unless you plan to reproduce your art and sell it. There’s absolutely no copyright infringement otherwise. You can paint a copy and sell it. You just can’t reproduce it. In the matter of commercial illustration, you cannot use someone else’s photo as a recognizable source in your work. Again, the key consideration is reproduction for sale.

    As an aestrhetic issue, there’s still noting wrong with copying a photo, though I would hope original art would have some creative input and technique that distinguishes it from the source photo.

    I frequently have my students paint from photos.
    Tom –;

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