L6 Discussion – Painting from Photos

L6 Discussion – Painting from Photos

Chuck Close painting from photographs
Painter Chuck Close is famous for large realistic paintings from photographs.   From BBC article about learning to paint after his paralysis (click image to read)

Recap Discussion for Lesson #6

Let’s talk about painting from life vs painting from photographs.   The self-portraits we worked on exclusively used a photograph even as a mechanism for tracing and finding the right color. This might have felt more difficult than working on the live apple painting. Why? Faces are very complex and we look at images of ourselves with the most critical eye, seeing and caring about details others do not.

Putting the psychology aside though, photographs are flat, they cannot capture everything our eye can, the subtlety of light and shadow from a specific angle, the color accuracy or depth of field. In some ways, the camera lies to us, showing us an ideal or showing things not quite as they really appear.   When using reference images, best practice is often to use your own images,    use multiple images,   use a small section of an image or inspiration for a specific quality of the image in your final piece.

Many painters (digital and analog) use photographs for reference or for straight recreation of the image, transferred into a different media (digital ‘paint’ being a medium also).   When using images, the artist must interpret what they are seeing and not seeing in the photo to some extent and craft the work to reinterpret the scene.

Respond here in any way you like to this post and/or to other’s responses on this post…

What do you think? When is it easier to use a photo reference vs real life? What was your experience and thoughts over the last few weeks in terms of what you valued from each experience? Is there part of the process of using a photo for reference you found particularly helpful?   Is there something lost when you paint from a photo in terms of quality?   What do you think about using other people’s photos for reference, when and how is that okay or not okay, ethically or legally?



  1. Avatar photo aastogsdill

    Personally, I like painting from photos more than painting from real life. Mainly because when you are painting from a photo there won’t be changes in the image at all, but the lighting and set up of a real-life scene can easily change. Also, when I am painting something from live observation, I actually pretend what I am looking at is flat. That way I am more able to accurately represent whatever I am painting.

  2. Avatar photo Scott

    As someone who has done very little painting, I agree a lot with Aubri, although our first digital painting, was my first “real world” or still life painting. I’ve only made one real painting, and that was from a photo. If I was to start digitally painting regularly, it would likely be from my landscape photos. In these, I can definitely appreciate the range of light changes from moment to moment, and enjoy playing with the angle, field and depth of view. With that said, I know that my paintings lose some of the detail that, with my skill, I would only be able to capture in a photograph, and not in the painting. With using others’ photos for painting, this falls back to the same issues as digitally manipulating others’ images; the user should verify that they have the right to do so, and then always credit the artist of the original image.

  3. Avatar photo khansen16

    I want to capture my daughter, but as a real life model its hard, she is eight and holding still is hard. I like looking at real life, but it has been interesting learning how to use a photo. Tracing a photo does give the opportunity to get facial structure correct (something I still lack as an artist). I don’t think you get the same feel when painting from a picture, but it is consistent. I think if you use someone’s work as a reference, that is different than using it outright, if your finished project looks exactly like theirs…you should give credit.

  4. Avatar photo mlwebb3

    I personally also have enjoyed painting from a photo more than painting from observation. I find it easier to represent the subject from the same perspective, whereas when painting from observation it’s harder to keep the whole painting in the same perspective and with the same lighting on the whole scene. I feel like if I tried to paint something more elaborate than an apple from observation it would end up looking like a cubist painting. I also really liked the idea of tracing out the photo in photoshop first so you have an outline. That made it really easy to start off with a semi-realistic outline.

  5. Avatar photo mlwebb3

    On another note, when it comes to painting other people’s images, I think ethically it is fine to paint them, but that you should give photo credit, or “inspiration” credit. Maybe say “based off an image by –.”

  6. Avatar photo sspindl1

    I tend to do better when drawing or painting without a photography to get the general tone and position of my subjects, and then if my drawing/painting is going to take a long time, I will get a quick picture of whatever I am working on to reference when I am finishing up my artwork. I feel that photographs are nice for the small details, but that for the general feel and layout of a subject on the art surface, just going off of what I see in person tends to leave a more “realistic feel” to the finished piece.

  7. Avatar photo castockdale

    I’ve really never painting before this class and so far I found painting from a photograph much easier than painting from real life in general although painting a human face was really difficult even from a photograph. When I painted my self portrait I had the photograph of myself on my tablet and painted on my laptop. But I’m learning there are different techniques you can use when painting from a photography that might include increasing the contrast to see the areas for shading better or opening the photo in photoshop to take colors from using the dropper tool. I’ve also seen some interesting painting techniques where for example and artist that was painting very large scale projected the image using a projector on to the wall or canvas. This way they could start the painting by tracing an original image. This technique would be a huge time saver.

  8. Avatar photo mjkunz

    I like painting from both to be honest. I say this because you can use both to still make beautiful art. I found it a little bit easier to do it from a photo because you can draw on top of it and make it look realistic with paint. As for the real thing you have to actually draw it and try to get all the little details from it. Which is okay but I am not the best drawer and have struggled with it. Overall I think that I like both just for different reasons.

  9. Avatar photo Josh

    While I using photos for reference, I really enjoy painting from life when I have the opportunity. I don’t do it as often as I should but I always feel like I get a better understanding of form and how light falls on an object. Especially when working with colors and not having to worry about them being muted after processing.

    What I do like about painting from a photo is that I don’t have to worry about the objects shifting and can practice understanding composition and balance as well as mess with the colors.

    I think it’s alright to use other’s people’s photos as reference if you have their permission and credit their original work. Giving credit is extremely important!

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