Ann McMillan Art
Fine Art in Color

Studio Blog

teaching resources and studio blog

Painting from Photographs

Here are a few guidelines and suggestions: Step one:  choose a good photo.  A good photo has several qualities that are important for success.

  • Meaning for you.
  • A strong dark and light structure.  This is vital to painting a good painting.
  • Not lots of detail. An unfocused photograph might be better than a hyper-realistic one.
  • A good design and abstract form.
  • Cropping and composition that follows the standard rules for composition.

Step two:  Play with the composition, do some sketches using the photo to make different paintings.  try out two or three compositions from the same photo.  Always draw the sketches in the same aspect ration and orientation as your canvas.

Step three: Transfer the bones and lines of the drawing to the canvas.

Step four: Define the darks, keeping in mind the fallacies of most photos.  Cameras flatten and cool darks. Your task is to make the darks warm, translucent and varied by restoring the  information lost by the camera.

Step five:  Work the lights and mid-tones.  Stay away from details and stick to abstract shapes and lines.  Remember that the camera leaves out hard and soft edges.  Use your knowledge of how the world really looks to fix that (this is the tricky part).

Step six:  Keep focused on abstract designs and shapes, lights and darks.  Use atmospheric perspective and hard and soft edges to feed a painterly look back into your copy of a photograph.    Leave out any details you can.  The viewer's eye enjoys filling them in.  It gives them something to do with your painting.

Here are a few suggestions for success:

  • Print or project your source image onto a screen that does not turn off every two minutes, or reflect the light all around it.
  • Paint the image with image turned upside down.  This helps you to see the photo as an abstraction.  Turn the painting over once and a while and have a look.  You will be impressed with yourself.
  • Check your painting against the image in a mirror.  Reflections will show much that you have missed.
  • Exaggerate and use soft edges to their utmost.  Transitions are what cameras fail at most often.  Remember that you look at the world with two eyes, where a camera  look with only one.  A camera has no depth perception, unless wielded by a clever photographer with a macro lens. Your eye also does selective focus much better than a camera does.   Selective focus is what makes paintings look like paintings and not photographs.

A final note:

Violating copyright is a waste of your time.  You can do it if you want to, but keep in mind that it is not advisable to sell, exhibit, or compete with an artwork that violates copyright.  The only thing you can do with a copy of a copyrighted painting is hang it on your bathroom wall, or give it to your mom (not that there is anything wrong with either of those options).  Here is an article about copyright for artists.   The internet is littered with morgue files and open source photographs if you cannot make your own reference materials.    You can also paint from any of the classics done long ago enough that the work has entered the public domain.  Here is an article from Yale about their open access/public domain collection.


Check back soon for a post about forging paintings, and why it is great practice.  even if the result ends up on your mom's bathroom wall.