How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Painting from Photographs

I’ve spent way too much time in murky classrooms looking at slides, slides, and more slides. I’m convinced that the entire academic field of art history would grind to a halt without projectors, carousels and, you guessed it, slides. But what is weird about looking at so many images is I find myself thinking I know exactly what a sculpture or a painting really looks like because I’ve seen a photograph of it.

From Photo to Sketch

Photographs can never tell you the full story of an object, landscape, or person’s face, but they are convenient references for artists. The reality is that most artists use source photos in some capacity when they work, whether to jog their memory of a particular place and time or to record specific visual details to incorporate in later pieces.

Painting from Photo References Pitfalls | Mark Haworth | Artist Daily
Red Rock Country by Mark Haworth, oil on canvas

However, to produce a successful piece of art, an artist has to be wary and attentive to what he or she is seeing—and not seeing—in a photograph. That starts with understanding the limitations of reference photos.

El Mercado by Mark Haworth, 2006, oil painting, 16 x 20.
El Mercado by Mark Haworth, 2006, oil painting, 16 x 20.

Artist Mark Haworth puts it this way: “The camera cannot see like the eye can when it comes to color accuracy, depth of field, and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows. There’s a lot of distortion that comes along with photographs.”

Pastel artist and instructor Denise LaRue Mahlke agrees. “Following a photo to a ‘T’ is a big mistake, because the camera lies,” she says. “Photos can be indispensible as a jumping off point, but even if the photo is an excellent one, you want to reinvent the scene for a painting to work.”

Haworth, for one, puts decidedly less emphasis on reference photos than on preliminary sketches made on-site or notes written in the field. “When I’m traveling through an area, I write what I am seeing,” he says. “My notes often give me what I can’t get in a picture. Photos don’t give the subtleties I look for to capture the look and feel of a place.”

When Mahlke is on-site and doesn’t have time to paint, she’ll often do the same—sketch and take notes. But she acknowledges that sometimes she takes as many photos as she can.

“Having that multitude of photos can give you a lot to work with,” she says. “When I’m ready to start a piece, I’ll pull from many different photos for inspiration and do thumbnail sketches to familiarize myself with the subject and composition I’m working toward.”

Using Photo References, the Right Way

Painting from Photo References Pitfalls | Denise LaRue Mahlke | Artist Daily
Morning Song by Denise LaRue Mahlke, pastel

I asked Haworth and Mahlke if constantly referring back to photos can lead to overworking or to a painting filled with a bunch of little details instead of a cohesive composition. Both artists knew just what I meant. “It can go from painting to documenting,” says Haworth. “You can take in all the details and go crazy.”

Winter Stream by Denise LaRue Mahlke, 2008, pastel, 14 x 18.
Winter Stream by Denise LaRue Mahlke,
2008, pastel, 14 x 18.

Another point both artists stressed is the importance of working from photos they’ve taken themselves. “When using someone else’s photos, you aren’t painting your own concepts, just copying,” says Mahlke. “I tell my students, ‘Work from your own photos—your ideas are there.’”

What’s more, a reference photo, no matter who clicked the shutter, shouldn’t lead to a sense of obligation to show exactly what is depicted in the shot. Instead, an artist should feel free and inspired to manipulate or leave behind a reference any way he or she chooses. That assures there’s vitality in a piece of art and means you won’t miss seeing—and hopefully recapturing—the moments that will make a painting great.

With Margaret Evans’ Flowers in Pastel workshop video from, you have access to three complete demonstrations (and these are gorgeous studies to boot!) of working with reference photos. You will be able to hone your skill using reference photos, coming away with creative and technical food for thought on the advantages and potential pitfalls of working with photographs, plus you get the opportunity to explore lovely, vibrant flower painting too. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

19 thoughts on “How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Painting from Photographs

  1. When working from a photograph, I suggest get all that you can from it, at the end put the picture away and let the painting tell you what it needs to become a great work. Maybe this light needs to be lighter or that shadow darker,etc., always listen to the paining.

  2. Having come to art late in life, I have found it most enjoyable to create paintings based on photos I took many years ago using my 35mm camera in far-flung places. Because I was neither an artist nor a photographer back then, my photos are pretty bad and not exactly the best starting point for a painting. I am forced to reach back through the cobwebs in my mind in an effort to remember how I felt, and what it all really looked like to me at the time. The finished painting always ends up looking very little like the original reference photo, but looking at the finished painting has the effect of taking me back. Hopefully my children and future grandchildren will be able to get a sense of what Daddy/Granddaddy used to do in his more adventurous days — something they’d have trouble getting from the original photos. Saeculis depingere!

  3. Sorry for the typo. I think my arthritic fingers should have typed ‘Saeculis depingete!’ I’m sure my high school Latin teacher is lodging her formal protest with St. Jerome already. Please forgive. :0)

  4. Good points, but there really needs to be discussion about the reliance on projectors to trace preliminary drawings onto the paper or canvas. I can usually tell within seconds if an artist has used a projector and has traced their image, and many of these artists are winning awards and attention for this kind of work! A renaissance in classical techniques must also address this issue, and so far there has been a lot of focus at American Artist on the pitfalls of photography, but nothing about the use of projectors and traced drawings.

  5. Hi all, I wanted to chime in because there was a point Denise made when she and I were speaking and I wanted to put it out there. When you have camera in hand and just point and shoot, sometimes observation really doesn’t take place. Sitting and observing the details of a scene you are going to try to recreate is crucial, and that may not always happen if you rely predominately on photos. Does that resonate with you like it does with me? I easily get tunnel vision when I have my camera, so much so that I later look at the photos and have no recollection of actually seeing the things I was shooting. That’s why I tend to not to even take my camera out until I’ve spent time just looking and taking notes.

  6. I didn’t realize how difficult painting from a photograph could be until I started working on a black and white image of my Grandmother at 25 years old. Not only was this photo very old (although in very good shape) but very flat. Not having many painting hours under my belt, I have really struggled with this. But when I decided to paint not from the photo but more from my heart, it’s working much better.

    Another issue I have is living out in the boonies, with very little access to live models. My son and husband refuse to sit for me any longer. I prefer painting portraits, but live models are just darned hard to come by.

  7. I can see how plein air painting has its advantages over a photographed outdoor scene, but I’m interested in portraying real people engaged in real activities, which differs from models self-consciously posing in a studio. I don’t want to recreate a given real life scene later with studio models, as they can never capture the unguarded emotion and energy of the original people unguardedly doing what they were doing. Other artists are interested in other ends, and more power to them, but in order to do what I want to do a camera is essential.

  8. The use of photographs in doing my artwork is important. The photograph becomes yet another tool in the process of creating a place in time, a response to an atmosphere, a feeling about place or a compelling urge to communicate an idea. But it is just that, a tool. It doesn’t replace the energy, the memory of a certain impact the subject matter had on me. It lacks the ability to personalize feeling or emotion that came from the subject or to record the 350 degrees of reality I looked upon. That’s why I use it “in addition to” not “instead of” and work from life as much as I can.
    Marge Heilman

  9. Courtney has made some interesting comments and given equally interesting quotes. I think the real answer is not quite that simple. Is our vision a true reflection of reality?
    The portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call “visible light” is linear; that is, it is a straight line based upon wavelength, reds on one end and violet on the other. Our popular color wheel puts the colors in a circular arrangement to better reflect how we actually see and interpret light. But can we actually see all the colors that are out there? Why can’t we see a yellow/blue mix as yellowish blue instead of green?
    The adage that a photo does not lie is certainly not the truism that it once was. I used to tell people – tell me what you want the photo to say, and I will give it to you. Cameras are always producing distortions, not always optical but rather due to the limitations of the recording medium. Color films always distorted the warm or cool colors due to the pigments in the emulsions. Digital cameras also distort colors due to the construction of the sensors and the built-in algorithims in the image recording process. Wide angle and telephoto lenses distort perspective and distace.
    The bottom line is that our vision is just as selective and distorted as are photos; we just accept what we see as normal.
    Some artists are very meticulous and capture every detail. Some capture visual masses and textures. Most of us are probably in between these two groups. Right or wrong, photos are here to stay. Each of us has to decide what we want, what we expect from our art. Are we content to copy a photo? Do we avoid using photos?
    Personally, I find that photos can be a help with image elements I overlooked while sketching or doing a field study. But to achieve the personal results that I want, photos have to take a minor role, otherwise I lose the spontaneous vitality and end up with a painted interpretation of the photo.

  10. westphal, you make some really good points. I just bought an interesting book for my husband called ‘The Artist’s Eyes, Vision and the History of Art,’ a look at the variability of the human eye and its effect on the work of a range of artists from various time periods. While I haven’t read it yet, it seems that a lot of famous artists had vision quirks or problems and these are evident in their work. Our vision is individual, and our memories for places, faces and events are not always accurate, as law enforcement discovered some time ago. I still maintain that if you have a well developed feeling for form, light, color, etc. it will come through whether you are working from life or from photo references.

  11. Kisu – there is another one you may find interesting: “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing”. This is not light reading, but is very illuminating. The authors start with optical theory, then into the biological basis for human vision. From there, they look at ways our optical system has been used, whether intentionally or accidentally, by various artists to produce a wide range of effects in their works.
    The primary author is a neurobiologist whose specialty is human vision. Her co-author is a Nobel Prize winner working in the same field.
    Having worked in the medical field for over 40 years, and having been actively involved in either photography or painting since a teenager, I was somewhat startled to discover just how little I knew about how our vision system actually works.
    Will it make a difference in the way I paint? YES! It will take some experimentation, but there are some things I already want to incorporate in my paintings. One big issue is much tighter control over my values.

  12. Charles, that sounds really interesting! I’ll have to either look for it at the bookstores or get through inter-library loan. Another one along that line that I’ll suggest is a book by Frank R. Wilson called ‘The Hand, How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.’ This author focuses more on musicians than visual artists, but the relationship between the brain, the arm and the hand is absolutely relevant to visual artists as well. It’s all in the brain’s control of the arm and the hand.

  13. To jfite – I am also a beginner, fulfilling a lifelong desire to retire and learn to paint. Any advice? I know much depends on talent, of which I am lacking, but if enthusiasm counts for anything, my cup runneth over. I am taking watercolor lessons from a woman who is very talented, so I hope to get better with time and practice. I also want to learn oil painting. How long does it take to develop “an eye” for painting? I can’t seem to “see” what I should be doing. How long have you been painting? Do you have an instructor? What is the thing that has helped you most? Thanks for any help. Alecs

  14. Excellent article, I had been using photos (my own at least) for many years as a primary source for my paintings. The more able I became at replicating the photo the less satisfied I was with the results.
    I can not stress the importance of working from life or at least discovering a visual vocabulary (i.e. colours are cooler when a plane recedes) and incorporating your own understanding into a painting based from a photo.
    Kisu, you are so right about the use of projectors to draw the initial image. It is obvious from a mile off. There is such a sterility to it. They all look the same regardless of the artist. Sadly there are a surprising number of said artists whose work is valued (I fear by the less knowledgeable).
    I think this issue is so important to painting at the moment and I could and perhaps should write a lengthy thesis on it!
    In short, photography as a primary source for a painting will develop an artist at a very tedious pace even though the results may ‘appear’ pleasing.
    An artist like Gerhard Richter does validly use photography as a primary source but his paintings are about seeing and about photography itself.

  15. Mugshot, interesting points. I don’t think anyone denies the importance of drawing and painting from life, especially during the student years. But if one doesn’t want to be chained to the ‘Holy Trinity’ (figurative/portraits, still life, casts/statuary) then you have to find a way to get to other subject matter. Photography is often the most efficient and direct way to do that.

  16. In response to Alecs:

    For me the key has been practice, practice, practice, and then when I think I’ve got the hang of it, I practice some more. I drew and painted a lot as a child, but my dad was an accountant, so art wasn’t considered a “real job” in my family. Fortunately for me, my oldest daughter is a superbly gifted artist and has been since a very early age. I took up my own study of art mainly so I could see things the way she sees things, and also so I could share something that is so important to her. When I looked at a sunrise, I just saw the start of the work day. When my daughter sees a sunrise she sees the whole spectrum — a rainbow in the sky on every clear morning, and again at sunset. Being an incurable autodidact, I still buy every book I can to learn about all the different art media, techniques, history, and I spend a lot of time reading up on all the greats to get an idea of how they saw things, what materials they used, and how they found inspiration. I seek out other local artists to pick their brains. There is one book in particular that helped me the most, but I’m afraid to mention the title for fear of violating the rules of the forum. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to mention specific titles and authors, but I’ll be happy to share that with you if it is allowed or if I can figure out a way to send you a private note. The book was recommended to me by another accomplished local artist, and it turned out to be quite an eye-opener for me. It helped me see how my daughter sees, and I can’t say that about any other book I’ve found yet.
    Above all, my art time is relaxation time, so if I get even a little frustrated with a project, I walk away and come back to it when I’ve had a chance to cool down a bit. Drawing and painting both help me get in the zone, my blood pressure comes down, and the tension eases up. I’m blessed to have a very supportive wife, my kids are all very encouraging, and my translation work helps me to keep from stressing out about the money side of my art business. I do make good money from my art, but that isn’t why I do it. As soon as I start thinking about saleability and deadlines it ceases to be relaxing and becomes just another job, and that stress shows in the finished product.
    To help get this back on topic, my photos are an invaluable reference, and I continue to take photos for that purpose. I may not use them all, but they all help to one degree or another. I tweak them, cut and paste elements, convert them to B&W, combine them — whatever it takes to get me back to the moment I took the photo and how I felt at the time. As someone else has already said, photography is just another tool at our disposal that is neither a fix-all, nor a kill-all. If used properly, it can help us see things better, break things down into larger masses and shapes, find an appealing composition, etc. I personally believe it is a technology that most if not all of the past greats would have embraced.
    I hope I answered some of your questions Alecs. If not, just send me a note. Hang in there, keep practicing, and most importantly — enjoy it!

  17. Thanks, jfite, for all of your advice. I will take it to heart, and get the book today. I know what you mean about relaxing, even though I have no talent for this, and I should be immensely frustrated, because I have always been a perfectionist. I find it so relaxing.
    At this time, I can’t imagine that I will ever be able to sell my paintings, but I understand your concern that when it becomes about creating for the sake of money, the joy is gone. My instructor has told me the same thing. She gets very high prices for her work and the commissions, but she has lost that sense of personal accomplishment from just letting the juices flow.
    I have been reading with interest the topic of photography in painting. Currently, I am painting from photographs, just to develop techniques. I can’t even draw stick people, so sketching live will be a challenge in the future. I do agree that the camera cannot capture the feeling recorded by the human eye, and the palette is impossible to duplicate. I was enthralled by the greens on a trip to Ireland. Shades of green I had never seen before, and when I printed the pictures I took, alas, we have no developing pigments to recreate what I saw.
    Do you have a webpage to display some of your work. I would enjoy seeing how far you’ve come.
    Thanks again for the advice.

  18. Excellent post. I recently re-read this one Courtney and it harmonizes with my own experience. Study the reference photo and don’t let it take control. I have a tendency to go towards too much detail and if I’m not careful everything gets really ‘tight’ and the joy of painting is lost.

  19. For me, working from photos takes all of the magic out of creating art. Using paint to make a one dimensional visual reperesentation of something that exists in reality is am amazingly abstract thought process. When you use the camera, it is doing the work, not the artist. When you use a photo for reference, you are making your painting more like the photo, and you are moving away from your humanity towards a mechanical recording of the scene. If I am not able to render it from my observations, I go back to the source and spend more time studying and sketching the subject so that I understand it thoroughly. I don’t worry about making my paintings “photographically ” accurate. As humans we have limitations that a machine does not. I embrace these limitations. However, if you are a photorealist, the photograph itself is your subject. For those types of paintings, I think it is ok to copy photos as long as you are clear in your intentions. If you are painting a photograph of a tree, you are not painting a real tree. The difference between a real tree and photograph of a tree is infinite. The difference between realism and photorealism is also infinite.