More on Painting From Photos

After writing my last post about why I don’t paint from photographs, I realized that I forgot to mention an important point. In my work, I show the world not as it is, but as I think  it should be. I don’t depict every detail just as it appears to me.  I’m selective about what I include and what I don’t. I omit distracting elements, add emphasis, change colors, mute details, all in the service of creating a beautiful image. If I were to work from a photo, I’d be inclined just to copy the image as it stood. A painting should be more than a photograph!

Painting From Photographs


I always paint from life- never from photographs.  I’ve noticed that many painters, especially beginners, do work from photographs. I can usually tell simply by looking at the painting that it wasn’t painted from life. Edges are hard, 3-dimensional forms are unconvincing,  colors lack subtlety, there is not enough detail in either the darks or the lights, and there is little sense of light flowing through the work. Why should this be? Doesn’t a photo show us just what reality looks like?

The answer is, no! The camera does not reliably show us what the world looks like. How many times have you seen something beautiful or striking, and photographed it only to see a disappointing result? The camera can reproduce only a limited range of values and colors. If the light is too bright, the darks are completely washed out. If there’s not enough light, the camera registers only dark with no details. Looking at a photograph, it is impossible to truly study forms and light flowing around them.

Another problem with painting from photos is that a photo captures the view from just one point. It might happen that from this one point, an object’s shape is confusing. It’s true form may not be visible. The resulting painting would be unconvincing, as the artist is obliged to guess at the true form.  If the artist were working from life, however, he would merely have to move his head a little to be able to see the shape clearly, and paint it as it really is.

Finally, using a photo puts an artist a step removed from reality. I can’t imagine studying my set-ups and painting without being completely immersed in what’s before me. If I used a photograph, I’d be painting the 2-D photograph, not the world.  I want my work to show what I see, in an immediate, visceral way.

I do use a camera in my work, but not at the painting stage. When I am composing a painting, I use my camera to record the potential set-ups so that I can judge how they will look as 2-D compositions.



The Big Picture

Now that I’ve worked on all parts of the painting, I thought I’d take a look at my composition to see how it was holding together. First I’ll compare it to my black-and-white study to see if the values are what I had envisioned at the beginning.

green-cloth-bw-study-high-contrast       green-cloth-full-size-mid-point

They’re pretty close. There are several areas in the painting that are lighter in value than in the study- the lighter portions of the green cloth, the black cloth, and the left side of the terra cotta pot. I have to decide if I like this or not. I usually end up following my original plan, but sometimes I make changes. The differences are usually the result of the light being different on a painting day than on the day I painted the study. This accounts for the lightness on the left side of the pot. The study shows it on a cloudy day, and the painting shows it on a sunny day, with more light coming in through my window shades. I’ll have to decide if it’s confusing to have the ‘shadow’ side of the pot be so light. It probably is! My usual policy is to imitate reality as closely as I possibly can while I’m in a painting session. When I’m painting I’m a copying machine, and I’m not engaging the critical side of my mind. After a session (maybe later that evening, after I ‘ve had some time away), as I’m studying what I’ve done, I can decide if reality is fighting with my composition. A good composition is more important than being accurate! Of course, any deviations I make have to be believable in the context of the work.


Next I have to decide if the green cloth is too light. I’ve been avoiding glazing it darker because I liked the intense green color so much. Once I darkened it I couldn’t undo it! I thought I’d wait to see how it looked in the context of the almost-finished painting. It definitely calls attention to itself, which I think I like. It’s taken on the quality of being an object of interest in the painting, not just the background. I might want to darken it a bit near the top, so it doesn’t draw the eye away from the center of interest. I also notice that it needs some more detail in the area above the glass bowl. It looks too smooth and flat. I’ll need to go back and observe the subtleties of the folds in that area.

I think that the shadows on the right side of the painting could be darkened for added drama. Again, on a sunny day, there is a lot of light bouncing around within the set-up. I find this fascinating to observe and to paint, but it might not be contributing to the final effect that I want.


I think I like the value of the black cloth even if it’s not as dark as I originally envisioned it. I like the nuances of the warm lights, the bluish reflected lights from the window on the left, and the dark cool shadows.

I’ll make a few changes at my next session and see if the composition improves.























I consciously decided to make the green cloth lighter, as I was enjoying the brilliant green in the light areas. The left side of the pot appears much brighter and lighter on sunny days

Scumbling and Glazing

Now that the local colors and forms are in place, I can begin to deepen the shadows with dark glazes and lighten the light areas with scumbles.  Here I’ll show you the process with the green cloth.  For the cool shadows cast by my warm light, I mix ultramarine blue with a little raw umber and alizarin crimson. I mix a bit of glaze medium into my mixture, which makes it more transparent and liquid. I apply the glaze with a soft sable brush, feathering out the edges. I wipe and blot the excess glaze off of the painting with a cotton pad, leaving a transparent layer. Often this first layer isn’t dark enough. That’s fine. I can always let it dry and add another layer. I actually prefer to do this, as it’s easy to add more, but impossible to take away. Also, I find that many layers add interest, as the glazes are always slightly different and you can see one through another. You can see in the bottom of the image how the underlayer of green shows in places through the dark glaze. This gives the look of a luminous shadow.


For the light areas, I add scumbles, which are dryish coatings of thick, opaque, light colored paint, lightly dragged over the dried underlayer, usually with the flat side of a stiffer, ox-hair brush. The paint catches only on the top fibers of the canvas, resulting in a  a speckly, pebbled surface, that beautifully mimics the look of light bouncing off of the fabric. Scumbled colors always have a cool quality, so for a warm light, as on the right, I have to use a much yellower paint than you would first imagine. The scumbles on the left side are depicting cool light coming in through the window, so the coolish bluel color looks fine there.

Terra Cotta Pot and Stones


Here’s my first attempt at painting the terra cotta pot and stones. My goal was to show the very basic colors and shapes without trying to be too precise. I’ve left the dark areas lighter, so that I can come back and glaze over them. Shadows will always look more transparent and luminous when achieved by painting a darker glaze over a lighter base and not by mixing the dark color and applying it as an opaque layer. The design on the terra cotta pot is very vague at this point. Its such a complicated design, that it was hard for me to see the details. As I explained in my last post, the details will become easier to see and paint with each session, as I slowly make corrections. I try not to worry about things looking crude. Polish will come later!

Another reason I like to paint in layers over many sessions is that it often can be difficult to work with wet paint. New brushstrokes can pick up the paint underneath and adjacent areas can smear into one another. I find it best to put down a layer of paint and let it dry for a few days. At my next session I can put down my new brushstrokes cleanly on the dried base.


At my next session, I started to indicate the texture and irregular color on the terra cotta pot. I soften the top edge to show that it’s actually a rounded form. Also, the light hitting it seems to shine out into the dark area behind, blurring it.  I begin to paint the patterned area in more detail, showing the shapes more clearly. I can now observe some of the highlights on the raised areas. I paint the patterned area on the right, and glaze the inside of the pot a shade darker. I also glaze some cast shadows from the stones onto the black cloth.


At my next session, I’ve added more dark glazes to the pot. I also added some texture and splotches of color to the pot in the shadow areas. Details will always be more vague in shadow areas, but it’s important to suggest them lightly, or the shadows won’t look convincing. I’ve glazed the darker areas of both the green and black cloth, and painted the stones more accurately. I painted the fringe on the green cloth and more details on the yellow crystal.

Seeing and Painting Complex Forms


Complex objects, such as clear glass or (folded) cloth, can be quite daunting to paint. There are so many subtle shapes, reflections, and fine nuances of color and value that it makes it very difficult to sort out what you are seeing, let alone to figure out how to represent it in paint.  As an illustration, let’s take a close look at how the green glass bowl has evolved.

The first step in painting something accurately is to have a clear drawing of the object. I drew the easy-to-see, basic shapes of the structure of the bowl, the reflections, and objects seen through the glass in my original drawing.  I then transferred the drawing onto my canvas, and preserved it when I carefully painted my underpainting. Here, I’ve painted a thin glaze of green over the underpainting to indicate the general color of the bowl. The underpainting is still visible beneath the glaze. At this point, there are very few details shown- just a basic suggestion of the larger shapes.



Below, I’ve blocked in the local color of the black cloth so that I’ll be better able to judge the adjacent colors and values of the bowl. Painting is all about comparing one area of the painting to another. As each part slowly grows, it becomes easier to judge what other areas should be. That’s why I never try to bring just one area to completion before I’ve worked on the others. You can’t properly judge color and value unless it’s in relation to what’s nearby.  I also added in a first indication of the rest of the red cord, and added some of the dark tones to the rim. I also noticed a dark slanting shadow on the left, inside the ellipse of the top of the bowl, showing the shadow side of the cloth behind. These large shapes were very easy for me to see. I always begin with what’s clear to me. The details will come soon enough!


In the next photo, I glazed the green and black cloths a bit darker. I added some of the larger details of the bowl’s design on the left side, and corrected the size and shape of the main highlights. I darkened the dark areas, and the red string. I added some detail on the rim, very gradually bringing it nearer to reality.


Painting is always, at its beginning, seeing. Seeing complex objects is very difficult. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the myriad details. Also, by the time your eye travels from studying a detail in the set-up to back to the canvas, it’s hard to know exactly where to put the detail you were just studying. Having a basic framework of large shapes in place is like having a hook to hang further details on. For example, I looked at the bowl and saw two long bluish reflections near the inner portion of the red string. Because I had already indicated where the string was on my canvas, I could easily look at my canvas, locate the string, and place the reflections next to it in the correct position. In this way, as I add details throughout the course of the painting, I make it increasingly easy to place additional ones. My painting proceeds by my comparing how reality appears to how what I’ve painted appears. The more my painting gets to looks like the object I’m painting, the easier it is for my eye to go back-and-forth between them and focus right in on any particular detail. I can then see any differences and correct them. Because of this, at every subsequent painting session it becomes more and more easy both to really see and then paint the small nuances of color and value that create the feeling of reality in a painting.


At this stage, it’s becoming easy to observe more of the reflections and highlights. Notice how the highlights from my light source on the right are a warm yellow, whereas the highlights from the window on the left are blue. I also added more detail to the rim, adjusting value and color to match reality. The green cloth and the black cloth now have some highlights indicated.  I’ll continue to work on the bowl as the painting progresses, always trying to bring it closer to reality.



Red Tassel & Cord

The painting is far along enough now that I can start thinking about some finer details. I thought I’d take a stab at indicating the red tassel and cord.

So far I’ve put down several glazes of alizarin crimson, a rich, transparent red, to indicate the mid-tones of the tassel and cord For the darkest areas, I mixed the alizarin with ultramarine blue, which is a very deep, transparent blue.

Now I’ll paint some of the lighter areas- a few individual strings on the tassel that catch the light, and some highlights on the raised areas of the braided cord.



In order for the tassel and cord to look real, I do have to paint in some very small details like this. I don’t, however, want to paint too many of them. Painting every string and every highlight is both impossible and counter-productive. To portray a complicated object such as this, my job is to see it clearly, and then simplify what I see and present only what is essential and important.  I’m trying to show the essence of the objects, not a photograph-like exact record.

It’s interesting to see how just adding a few details greatly adds to the effect of reality! I stop here for now, and will return to the tassel and cord later. I like to keeps all areas of the painting at about the same level of completion, so they all grow together. I make adjustments as I go along, and sometimes I need to re-think an area. It makes sense to keep fine details for the end because if I need to make any changes, I might end up having to paint over an area and cover up all of my hard work, only to have to repaint it later!

Getting the color right on the highlights was a challenge. My painting is lit mostly by incandescent light, which is a warm yellow. All of the light areas should show this warm tone. My first thought was to just add white to the warm red to get a lighter tone. This did not work. Adding white to red results in a cool, chalky pink- not at all the glowing warm tone I was after!

Also, the highlights on the red cord and tassel aren’t the lightest things in the painting. I need to save pure white for these areas (such as the highlights on the yellow crystal). I found that a pure cadmium red did the trick. It was both light enough in value and warm enough to look like a convincing highlight.  For the very lightest highlights I mixed in some pure cadmium orange. Now, the highlights look rich and warm, not dull and cool, as white or white mixed with red would have been.

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that an artist uses physical pigments that all have different and distinct qualities. We are using these physical pigments to try to portray pure light. Getting the correct effect requires a lot of experimentation to see how the various pigments act and interact with each other. The paints on an artist’s palette will never have the range and subtlety of reality, so the artist has to use some tricks!