Most artists use photos for painting at some point in their career. For some, they are the only reference they use, while for others they are rarely used. If you are going to be working from photos, there are a few things you need to be aware of if you want your artworks to succeed.

Distortion in a photo can come from a number of sources and there are many comprehensive articles on this subject on the internet. Most are aimed a photographers. This article will only discuss the main problems concerning working from photos and how to correct them as an artist.

This is not meant to be a complete list of possible problems and distortions generated by photographs, I am just covering the main traps I have found my students falling into time and time again.

Where possible I have tried to provide photo references to make the explanation a little easier to follow. The software I use to manage my photo collection is called ACDSeePro, I have been using it for over 10 years and it suits my requirements very well. I use it to correct colors, crop images, fix distortion caused by the lens, and most importantly to catalog and cross reference my many thousands of reference photos. There are other programs which would be just as useful I am sure; I am only familiar with this one however.

Inaccurate tones

The first thing you need to know is that photos lie. What I mean by this is that they generally do not correctly capture what is in the scene before you. While the mid tones are reasonably accurate, the dark and light tones are often merged. This makes the light tones too light and the dark tones to dark. This is very evident in prints.

Shadows are especially prone to this problem, appearing much darker than they really are. Often you will look at a photo and the shadows will be totally dark, almost black looking. This problem is compounded by the printing process, which is not able to represent true colors as accurately as a good computer monitor. However, if you look at shadows in real life, you will find that you can easily see shapes and colors within the shadow area. With the right software you can look into the shadow by making adjustments.

Photo shows how dark the shadows are in the original photo

See how dark the shadows are in the original photo

Photo adjusted to show what the shadows really looked like

This is what the shadows really looked like

Perspective distortion

The second item is perspective distortion. This is most evident in photso of buildings which appear to lean inward as they get higher, to a much greater extent than happens due to normal linear perspective.

Perspective error showing excessive leaning of buildings

Before perspective correction

Photo with perspective corrected

After perspective correction

Insufficient feeling of space

Number three on my list is the flattening of a scene when photos are taken with the camera on landscape setting. In this camera mode, distant objects are shown in quite sharp detail. When you paint from this type of photo, if you are not aware of this issue and make adjustments for it, you will end up with a painting lacking a feeling of depth.

With this type of photo you need to purposefully make adjustments, such as softening and lightening objects in the distance, to add a feeling of space to your work.

Photo showing how distant objects are in sharp focus

Distant objects in quite sharp focus

Watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright of George Street at Martin Place, Sydney

By keeping the foreground sharp edged and the distance soft and light I added more depth to this scene

If it does not aid your composition move it or leave it out

Item four is where the artist feels compelled to paint everything just as it is in the photo. No adjustments are made to improve the composition.

For example, if an extraneous object is in the scene, which does nothing to further the message of your painting, it should be left out. It is amazing how often such objects are left in, often totally confusing what the artist would like to say with his artwork. If the photo is poorly composed, fix it in your painting. If an object is in the wrong place move it. And if something is irrelevant to a good painting, leave it out.

As your experience develops, you will realize more and more that you are there to “create” a work of art, rather than just copying what is in your photo. At the start, most artists start at the copying stage, but as their artistic skill develops they rely less and less on copying and more on creating.

Photo of Coffs Harbour Marina used as an example for photos for painting

I did not like the breakwater in the distant right, so I replaced it with some boats

Watercolor painting Coffs Harbour Sunset, by Joe Cartwright

Coffs Harbour Sunset, by Joe Cartwright

Wrong lighting

Wrong lighting is another common problem. This often happens with travel photos — where you are only in an area for a limited time. This takes the form of overcast skies when you would like a blue one, or a warm sunset, etc. In this case remember to add this in yourself. I keep some photos of wonderful skies I have seen. Some I could not photograph but I still remember them in my mind. I add these skies to totally change the mood of my painting, to create the feeling I was not able to capture with my reference photo.

Remember the sky goes a long way to setting the mood of your painting. It provides the light for your scene. Don’t feel restricted to just what is in your photo. This skill will be greatly improved if you spend time studying skies at various times and different weather conditions.

Incorrect colors

Colors are often very wrong in a photo. Colors on an LCD screen can be better, but the printing process is often inaccurate. This is one of the reasons plein air painting or sketching is so useful — you get to see and concentrate on colors so you can later make the right adjustments in your studio pieces.

When using photos for painting references

In summary, don’t be a slave to your photo. Remember a photo is just a reference, a recording of what inspired you to create your painting. Don’t let it become the totality of what you do with your painting.

As an artist you are creating a work of art, not just showing your skill in copying – otherwise why not frame the photo!