Friday, December 30, 2011


Spring Canyon, 12" x 18"

Using a photograph as a source of inspiration can be a helpful tool, but as an artist you need to develop the strength to make decisions based on your creativity and ideas, and not become overly dependent on photos. Becoming a better artist is a lot like building muscle. You must make time to work out and improve, and try different exercises to become stronger. Training makes you fit, gives you confidence and allows you to try new and more difficult activities, which can result in new vision and creativity. Your artistic muscle improves when you exercise it independently.

A photograph can assist you in planning a painting. It can be a wellspring of information that helps you recall the place, time and object you’re painting accurately and helps you capture temporal elements not easily recalled. However, the same photograph can come to dominate a painting, slowly and subtly becoming the goal, sapping you of creative strength. Too often a photograph enslaves the unsuspecting painter to some degree of realism, detail or composition, and steals creative aspects. The artist can feel compelled to make the painting almost identical to the photo.

The eye sees differently than the camera. This difference shows in a painting done exclusively using the photo. When you stand in a location and look at a scene you tend to overlook the little things that lie close to you that a photograph will often include. The photo creates an “arm’s length” look to a place set off in the distance, like a postcard held in your hand. Another aspect derived from using different lenses is the tendency to have the same amount of detail from your feet to infinity or the horizon -- something only a photo can do -- or to have such a short focal length that everything in front of and behind the subject is a dreamy blur. Surely you’ve seen pieces painted using a photograph and clearly recognized that fact.
Many artists aren’t willing to abandon the use of photographs entirely, wanting to make credible paintings that include some aspects found in photos. So, how can you free yourself of over-dependence on the photograph? At what point does it cease to give strength and become a source of weakness? This point is different for each artist, but if you find the photo has begun to sap your power you might want to try a few exercises to help you limit its use as a resource.

Newly gained freedom from photos can often be disturbing, even a bit frightening. It seems safer to have a good photo that you can go back to over and over. However, the idea is to free yourself of this dependence and find the creative aspects of painting that will make you a stronger artist. You need to develop those artistic muscles. Begin by resolving to put the photograph away after completing a certain portion of the painting. Decide exactly how far you wish to go before setting it aside. You might choose to do a sketch, the underdrawing or one layer of color using the photo as reference.

You must put the photograph in a place where you can no longer see it if you’re to become free of its undue influence. When you reach the point of too much dependence, resolve to put the photograph completely out of sight. This means it’s not lying on your worktable a foot or so away where you can easily glance over at it. If that’s the case, eventually you’ll pick it up to see some aspect more closely and find yourself captured by it once again. Put it in a drawer or in another room, a place where you have to make a concerted effort to get it again.

Spend some time thinking about how far you really need to go with your reference photo in hand before going without. At what point in the process of your painting are you comfortable putting the photo away? (If you just said, "When it’s finished," you need these exercises!)

One way to begin is to decide to use photos only for sketches. You can draw every detail and catch every nuance of the photograph as long as you know it’s only the beginning. Many artists find this system helpful because it works out the desire to draw what they see. After completing the initial sketch, you can begin to recompose elements, rearranging things to improve the composition in subsequent sketches. Once you arrive at a pleasing arrangement of shape, line and value, put the photograph in its hiding place and proceed with the painting, relying on your intuition and creativity to complete it. This usually results in a more original work that contains some of the virtues of the photograph.

Another possibility is to use the photo for the underdrawing only. This means that you might make decisions about composition, value and detail on your paper but not make any commitments to them without changing things. You can use the photo for certain aspects, then recompose before you begin putting down color. Rearrange the elements -- lower the horizon line, position an object lower or higher, or to the left or right, lighten or darken an area, mass things together differently. Whatever needs doing, do it now. Think of the drawing as your own, not a recreation of the photograph. Take possession of the place or object you’re painting. In some ways, you might find this a more independent way to compose, unlike making sketches and transferring the image to the paper. This method encourages you to loosen up in your approach to the whole painting process. Once you’ve determined what elements you want to use and where they reside, including details in certain areas, be sure that you put the photograph away. Try to think of the new image as being liberated from the photograph, an original place or item that’s solely yours.

Sometimes you’ll use one of the two methods above, and then as you begin to paint you’ll have a need to refer to the photograph again. You may need to retrieve a certain area of detail, perhaps the rocky face of a cliff at your focal point or the sheen of the water’s edge. In that case, try beginning with the photo, putting it away to recompose the drawing, and then retrieving it for the details before putting it out of sight again. This yo-yo effect works to begin to free you of the photo by assuring you when you’ve rearranged and established a clear composition and found the area of interest. You’re still able to retrieve the detail in areas where you need them. It may reassure you to know that you can freely compose and go back to your reference material later. Don’t fall into the habit of using the photo too often. If you’re tempted to pick up the picture and return to it as the final authority, this method may not be the best for you.

Another idea is to use the photo for the underdrawing, deciding on the light and dark masses of the painting, at which point you can choose colors based on the black and white values that are in place. Match the value of a color for the value in the drawing, disregarding the photographic color. This is a good idea if you’re fairly capable of understanding value and color and are not afraid of working without the aid of the photo. You’ll become free of overly photographic color and can begin with a lovely layer of playful color. If your goal is realism, you can achieve more realistic color in your subsequent layers, allowing the creative use of color to enhance realism’s lyrical quality.

Another possibility is to do the underdrawing and one layer of color, then put the photo away. This way you have the natural color in place, but are free of the photograph to add layers of creative, personal color. This will work if you’re able to think value when a color is in place, but will be difficult if you’re overly dependent on photographic color. For instance, once the green of the foliage is in place, you may find it difficult to put orange or purple over it. However, if you feel confident of color and are more comfortable with the colors of nature in place, begin with the green and let orange or purple work their magic. You still must free yourself of the photograph, allowing natural color to bow to your creativity.

If the photograph is so precious and beautiful that you cannot bear to depart from it, consider having it enlarged and framed, and don’t try to make a painting using it! Good photographs are seductive, urging you to copy every aspect. Instead, find a photograph that has some interesting elements, but one that you wouldn’t paint as it is. This will force you to recompose or recolor your painting. Bad photographs can make good paintings in the hands of an increasingly strong and original artist and can encourage creative risks that will likely improve your work. When you’re not enamored of the photo you might be inspired to make the painting look even better.

Is there ever a time when you should rely on the photograph throughout the entire course of a painting? Each artist must answer that question herself. However, think creatively and use different methods to see what will help you become stronger. As you become more confident of your ability to paint, rid yourself of dependence on the photograph. The ultimate independence comes when you no longer rely on the photo as a reference at all, instead reaching into your memory and experience to paint. Most artists have built more muscle than they realize and the act of painting solely by recall can reveal hidden strengths. Try painting your next piece without using any reference photo at all. Think about the place or objects you wish to paint, making a mental composition. Relax and let your mind and hand find the composition on your paper. You may be surprised in your ability to paint without any help from outside resources.

Building muscle is challenging but it results in new self-confidence. Knowing how much to rely on the photograph and when to let go can make more powerful paintings.

Soft Morning, 9" x 12"

Making a drawing, as I did above, can satisfy the desire to capture the details but free you to paint an image different from the photograph.

Sunstruck City
The resource photograph, shown above, is quite ordinary and uninspiring, except that it reminded me of the light that day. I used it to establish the mesas and shadows, then cut loose and recalled the color creatively.

Twilight Crossroads
Likewise a dull and fairly pedestrian photograph inspired me with a memory of shapes and light, but the color is all my own.

The paintings below were done entirely from my imagination, using no reference photograph at all.

Glow, 12" x18"

Boundary of the Day, 18" x 12"

Hillside series paintings.


  1. Thank you for this chapter! Very often the photos don't have true color anyway, memory for true color can be a lot stronger and creative color can look truer than it did when looking at the scene.

    It's tempting to stick to the photo in a lot of ways, because photos seem trustworthy. Especially for things like accurate anatomy and shapes. Your chapter made me realize that I was ready to launch all the way into imagination.

    Since I was small, I loved Charles R. Knight's paintings and the beautiful drawings and paintings of extinct animals by various artists and paleontologists. I've always been a dinosaur and prehistoric animals geek, long before it became fashionable or popular. But reconstructing an extinct animal is something that absolutely demands two things -- accuracy to everything that's known about it, and an ability to visualize what a live creature looks like from just its bones.

    I've been picking away at learning those skills for years but my prehistoric animals were stiff and often posed a lot like skeletons in a museum. My big cats were posed in gentle, affectionate happy cat poses because my own cat is goodnatured and sweet. I never see him standing and roaring to claim his territory very long.

    But tonight I worked from some sketches I did from a photo reference generously shared on WetCanvas by just_chaos for the current Weekend Drawing Event. The pose is magnificent, a charging rhinoceros coming right at the camera. It's a very popular photo.

    Reading your chapter made me suddenly see that same action ... and a different animal, a huge extinct brontothere that probably acted the same way (grumpy, big and aggressive). From the sketch, I know I could develop a good painting. I might start researching the plants and climate of its time and place so that I can do justice to it -- and the color's got to be from imagination when I take it that far.

    It's like writing science fiction. A painting needs to suspend disbelief, create a feeling of looking through a window at something real yet distant, sharing a vision. It doesn't need to be absolutely accurate so much as it needs to feel that way and be plausible within itself. If the light gains a pinkish cast or a half dozen trees move out of the picture (or wander in from a different one), or you create scenes that could be real without any reference at all, that's fantastic. It's visual fiction and it goes right to the heart.

  2. Yes! "Suspend disbelief" is the perfect phrase. Imagination is a wonderful thing, Robert. I hope this chapter will inspire others to just launch out and find out what they already know, take a few risks and play with aspects of painting. My hillside series was just such an experiment, and I found it not only satisfying but successful.

    After reading your talk of dinosaurs I looked at James Gurney's blog and there's a video of very realistic dinosaur costumes! You ought to see it if you haven't.

    I think making drawings from such a video would be great fun and good practice for an imaginative painting of them.

    Thanks, Robert, for you thoughts. Have fun!

  3. Hi Deborah, I am Robert's art friend on Wetcanvas. I really appreciate your online-books. I hope to come back to read more.

    Thank you for being inspiration to bring beautiful things for us all to see and encouraging us to do the same in our own path.

    I wish to absorb, pay it forward, and do my best so that your art-book gift for God/public won't go in vain.


  4. Dear Deb,
    Thank you so much for offering your book, a freebie, which impressed me so much.
    I'd like to read your book and follow all your blogs, as portrait is my favorite subject and want to learn about landscape. Practice is needed to master effective photo-use for landscape like you demonstrated above.
    Deb, God bless you and take care.
    Kind regards,

  5. Thank you so much, Ai. Blessings!

    Sadami, I agree. Practice--but in art, no matter the subject, that is so much fun! Enjoy, and many thanks.

  6. Oh just in time! I am traveling next week and will devour the latest chapter. I know you publish as a free book but I would love to pay, even if you choose to donate, for a copy so it is easier to study and utilize. Just saying. In the mean time my computer is my friend. Blessings on sharing so freely. Vanda

  7. My ex- husbands' late grandmother didn't start painting till she was in her late 60s and almost everything that she painted was from her life experiences and imagination. I am still amazed by her abilities. She was a lively, happy person and her paintings were infused with her personality. I have always hoped to accomplish the same and I believe your suggestions in this lesson will be just the thing to help me learn! As always, many thanks~!~


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah