Don't Paint From Photographs

Painting from photographs is a very bad habit that many amateur painters and students consistently utilize to make paintings. Photographs can be used effectively as reference material for paintings, however what I see and hear from most of my painting students is that they replicate the photograph completely without first organizing a separate painting composition or value study.

Here is why I believe painting from photographs is harmful for a painter:

  • You will never be a good painter if you only copy photos.
  • You will not learn how to design a painting composition.
  • You will get into a habit of copying, rather than creating.
  • You will not learn how to create color harmony because you simply copy the colors in a photo.
  • You will not learn how to adequately manipulate values or develop a center of interest in a painting.

Here is what I believe to be a better approach - one that I have learned from many of the best workshop instructors in the country. This is an approach I have used for at least 20 years, and if I paint anything but an abstract painting, I utilize this approach:

  • Use the photograph only as a reference, or jumping off point to develop a painting composition. Use your sketch book or any other kind of paper and a pen or pencil and draw a painting composition utilizing the photo as a reference for the subject matter. You will need to move objects and components around to create a good, cohesive composition that has a strong design, interlocking shapes and good center of interest.
  • Next, take that drawing and overlay a series of value patterns over it to see what type of light and shadow pattern will be most effective for your composition. Once you decide on a value pattern that most highlights your composition, paint a value study using the value pattern on your composition.
  • Now put the photograph away and don't refer to it anymore - it's job is done.
  • Now that you have your composition and values, you need a color combination. Use your color wheel to develop a color combination that expresses the feeling that you want your painting to convey.
  • Now you are ready to paint. You use only your value study and your color selections to develop the painting.

This approach takes you from a being person who merely copies a photograph to being an artist who develops a painting using a photograph only as a beginning point of reference. Artists design and create, they don't copy. The next time you are tempted to copy a photograph, stop and realize there is a better way. Use your design sense and artistic knowledge to create a painting rather than make a copy. It could be the biggest step you take in your artistic journey.