How Do I Pick the Best Reference Photo For My Painting

Tips: Picking Great Photos for a Painting

Start off Right, With a Quality Reference Photo

Some photos translate to a painting far easier than others. You will be doing yourself a huge favor if you start off with the right photo. Looking for a good photo you should keep these things in mind:

  • Clarity: Something that is crisply in focus. Ideally you should be choosing which details to omit, not the photo
  • Good Lighting: Ideally not taken with a flash. Flash tends to wash out all of the information such as color and value which gives you form. You want something with reflected or diffused lighting in most cases, or something with nice dramatic drop shadows. The reflective or diffused lighting gives you a smoother transition between values and the drop shadows kind of chisel the form It just catches the eye.
  • Range of Value: Ideally a good reference photo will have dark darks, light lights and everything in between. A nice range of value shows off all of the forms.

Drop Shadow Examples That are Highly Translatable

Drop shadow example highly translatable

Above are some of the actual reference photos I used for the “Cereal Killer” series. These aren’t exactly High quality photos. They are pictures that I pulled from my friends’ Facebook accounts that were taken with phones, not cameras, and have been compressed in the process of sharing them on social media. They are however, highly translatable into painting.

High Quality References Without Drop Shadows

Above are some examples of high quality photos that you can see without the dramatic effect of strong drop shadows. These have a great range of value from the darkest darks to just the right amount of high intesity highlights. If you look you will notice that you can observe the many small forms contained by the face as a whole that are part of the skeletal and muscular structure. These shapes are just as important to creating a person’s likeness and expression as getting their eyes, nose, and lips in the correct positions, the right shape, and size. These layers of colors and values that hold together the abstract forms that spell out the face are what helps make these photos so easy to translate into a painting.

It might be helpful to look at a few of the reasons that these photos are higher quality beyond the fact that they are highly translatable. These are much higher quality photos, for two main reasons:

  • Controlled Lighting: they were taken with lots of reflective light. Having full control of the light in a photo improves  the quality. So keep that in mind if you are taking reference photos.
  • Camera: they were taken with my Canon EOS Rebel digital camera and haven’t been compressed through sharing them on social media. There is a huge difference in the camera on your phone and an actual camera. The camera on your phone was made to look great on your phone or maybe even a computer, but if you have ever tried to print something off of your phone you will notice the quality is not what you had imagined. That is because screens, like your phone or computer are basically good up to 72 pixels per inch, so that is all your phone puts out. Where to print even a decent photo you should really be pushing out in the neighborhood of around 200. If I take a picture with my Samsung Galaxy 5, which has a 16 megapixel camera, the dimensions of that are roughly 3000 x 5000 pixels at 72 Pixels Per Inch. If I take a picture with my Canon the dimensions are roughly 2000 x 3000 pixels at 180 pixels per inch. That is an 11″ x 17″ photo. Now, if I drop the Pixels Per Inch down to 72 like the camera Phone then its dimensions are roughly 5000 X almost 8000 to give you a comparison to the phone on the camera, and this Canon is about 13 years old. I kind of got off on a tangent there talking about the difference in camera quality, but that might come in handy for those of you that didn’t know.

Above are a few examples of photos that aren’t necessarily “bad” photos, but they aren’t as easily translated into a painting. The first painting would be a bit of pain to paint. The range of value just isn’t there. It is slightly blurry and a little washed out. The values are so close together that it wouldn’t appear to have any volume. You can notice that, because it is washed out, you can’t see all those forms across the face that you could see in the previous examples that are so important.It is flat. So while it isn’t a horrible photo, I would suggest avoiding using this as a reference photo if possible.

The second photo is drowning in shadows. Because there is some reflected light from her surroundings you can make out the larger forms of the face, but I wouldn’t suggest using a photo like this to paint a portrait (especially if the face is the entire composition). Once you have it in paint it will probably just look like she is too dark since there is really no frame of reference from lighter values.  They will just see the face you painted that is made up of the darkest range of values. If you were using this as part of a larger piece of art, and her face wasn’t the entire composition, then this photo could work out just fine. I would also like to point out another feature to look for in a solid reference photo which is the warm reflected light that you can see on the underside of her arms and neck. This translate great into a painting and makes for a really interesting piece from the interplay between the cool blueish shadows and the warm reflected highlights. This looks great in paintings. Some of my favorite paintings have this type of reflected light.

The third reference here is an example of what I would say is a very good photo that just doesn’t translate to a painting as easy as others might. It isn’t washed out, but at the same time there aren’t a lot of those really rich mid tones that bridge the gap from shadows to highlights that make it all clearly spelled out. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t take this photo and make a great drawing or painting, because you could. It just might not be as easy as some of the others that have been discussed here.

Hopefully this has given you a better idea of the types of things to look for when choosing a great photo for a painting.  If you have any other questions about how to get the most out of your project let me know.


This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *