Designing a Painting from a Reference Photo

You can make a successful painting of almost any subject.  Even a painting of a roll of paper towels can be made with beautiful artistic strokes and with a strong and interesting underlying composition.  When you are painting something that is not inherently beautiful, like a roll of paper towels, you know right away that you are going to have to dig deep in your bag of design tricks to make a beautiful painting.  But what happens when you have a beautiful reference photo?  Easy, peasy, right?  Nope, sorry.

Having a beautiful reference photo can make for a much harder time painting.  And why is that?  Because it may not even occur to you how many things in a beautiful photo just won't translate well to a painting.  One of my artist friends from my mom's painting group. John Stanford, paints the most beautiful landscapes, but his reference photos, in his own words, are the ugliest photos.  Most artists can learn to copy a reference photo without too much difficulty.  The real challenge is to paint the beauty you see while incorporating “all”(see note 1) the generally accepted design fundamentals. 

Whenever you are painting a landscape, cityscape, or even a still life, pick one to three "main elements."  The most important of these should be your primary focal point, both in placement and in how it is painted.  The other two are sub-focal points and should be placed and painted accordingly.  Everything else in your painting should support these three main elements.  Anything that doesn't support the main "characters" should be removed or diminished in some way. (Sometimes this happens by making another element pop, so it is “diminished” in relation to the elements with more emphasis.)

Whenever you are using a reference photo, the first thing to do  is to plan your composition (see note 2), keeping in mind that you want to simplify as much as possible at this stage, i.e. group together elements, leave out elements, etc.  Do 3 - 5 (or more) thumbnail sketches, about 2"x3" each, in your sketchbook using a sharpie to determine placement of these 3 elements.  (Refer to the "rule of thirds" for placement guidance.)  Arrange the other large value shapes in your thumbnail sketches as well.  Do not sketch any small shapes or details.  

Pick your favorite thumbnail sketch and turn it into a larger (fill most of the page) value sketch.  Do not add any additional details.  Instead, shade in 3 - 5 distinct values.  For 3 values, leave the lightest areas white, shade the medium values with charcoal, and shade in the darkest values with your sharpie or black paint.  CRITIQUE YOUR DESIGN before moving forward!!!  It is much easier to make big composition changes at this point!!!

Once you have a value sketch that works, use this to transfer your image to the canvas.  You can freehand it, or use the grid method.  AGAIN, DON'T ADD ANY DETAILS YET!!!  Fill all your shapes with 3 to 5 distinct values.  For 3 values, use white, or a very light tint, a middle grey (50% black, 50% white), and black or some other really dark shade.  If you need to use 5 values to keep from losing parts of your sketch, make sure each of the five values are distinct: 1) white, 2) 75%white mixed with 25% black, 3) 50/50 mix of black and white, 4) 75% black mixed with 25% white, and 5) solid black.

After filling in your value shapes, STEP BACK AND CRITIQUE AGAIN!!!!  Don't start with color and details until you feel you have a strong and interesting underlying composition.  (Composition, in its most basic form, is the arrangement of your value shapes.  Most generally accepted successful compositions consist of small and interesting high contrast value shapes in your focal ares(s) surrounded by larger value shapes/masses elsewhere. IF SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE MOVED/RESIZED/CHANGED, DO THAT NOW!!!

I recently help a friend rework a painting of a working trail donkey in a beautiful scenic setting in Santorini, one of the greek islands.  The reference photo (see note 3) was beautiful, but there were lots of elements in the scene fighting for attention.  She wanted to make the donkey the “star of the show”, but its hard to compete with the beautiful blues of the sky, the water, and the architectural details.  If you are familiar with the look of many of the greek islands, you know that many of the structures are a sun drenched white combined with pops of brilliant blue on shutters, doors, and gates.  Additionally, there were lots of architectural elements leading the viewers eye away from the donkey.  So, how do we make a brown donkey pop when faced with these challenges?  We get back to the design basics.

Here is the painting from my friend before it was reworked:


It is a great painting, but there are several elements keeping it from being a really great painting.  Here are the things I noticed right away:

    • There are lots of directional “lines”, and they are not necessarily leading the viewer’s eye to the donkey.
    • All the pretty blues are competing with the brown donkey for attention.
    • The high contrast details on the path, wall and buildings are causing the eye to jump around and away from the donkey.

Before we worry about small details, we want to consider the overall composition first.  Remember small interesting value shapes in the focal area(s); large mass value shapes elsewhere.  In this example, we want the donkey as the primary focal point.  The door and the gate are the other two, and I decided to group them together to act as one element. 

The large mass value shapes are:

  • the sky, the landmass in the distance, and the ocean (treat these three as one large value shape for a stronger composition)
  • the vertical buildings and wall
  • the foreground steps

Next, when looking at the sketch, since this is a landscape, perspective theory can help a great deal.  According to the theory of 1 point or two point perspective in drawing, with man-made structures, all vertical elements should be plum, i.e. perfectly straight up and down.  With natural elements such as rocks, the vertical edges may curve or zig-zag, but the general direction of any vertical sides should appear straight and not leaning.  

With horizontal elements, if you are looking straight at them, like the gate in this example, the top and bottom edges should be level, i.e. straight across horizontally.  (Another example would be a house: If you are looking at it straight on, then all the windows and doors would be perfectly balanced rectangles.). For this reason, I straightened out the gate.  I also added a flat "paver" area in front of and under the gate.  (You want the viewer to feel like they could enter in through the gate.)

Here is a rough mockup I created for my friend to demonstrate the changes I suggested:


And below is the mockup next to the “before” painting:


The donkey:

My friend did a really good job with the donkey.  Two things that needed improvement in terms of how he was painted:

  • In the reference photo, his butt is up in the air because he is walking down a hill, so I made that change.
  • His underside and legs on the far side needed to be much darker than the front side and top.

From a design standpoint, since the donkey is the star of the painting, he needed some high contrast elements on and around him.  High contrast is one of the main ways to draw the viewer's eye to your focal point area.  This means that your lightest lights and darkest darks should be reserved for this area. Some other ways to highlight your focal area are:

  • to have the brightest and most saturated colors there
  • To have your smaller, more interesting value shapes there, surrounded by larger value shapes.
  • Have all pathways, lines, shapes "pointing" towards the focal area, and not away from it or off the canvas.

To me, many of the prettiest paintings of this style have lots of neutral colors (shades and tints) combined with bright saturated highlights.  The neutrals help the brights to shine.  The reference photo had both for sure, but they weren’t in the right place to make our main character, the donkey, pop.  

With all the previously mentioned design fundamentals in mind, and my preference for brights highlighted over neutrals, I:

  • muted the bright colors in the sky, ocean and distant landmass.  This helps to group these three elements into one large mass value shape, contributes to atmospheric depth, and leaves the brighter colors for the focal areas.
  • added the pink flower masses all along the wall to add a "pretty" element in the foreground and to keep the attention in the same plane as the donkey
  • gave the donkey two brightly colored blankets; one in high contrast stripes
  • Removed all but one step edge, and placed that one where it was mostly associated with the donkey, without making him feel crowded.
  • brightened the color of the blue door and gate
  • Subdued the contrast and details everywhere else.  (This helps to create "quiet" areas/places for the eye to rest.). Now these areas don't compete for attention with the focal areas.
  • added dark shadows along the base of the wall, under the donkey, and under the gate (high contrast, leading paths/lines)
  • I straightened out the wall to the right of the gate.  The sharp drop-off was leading the viewer's eye away from the donkey and off the canvas.
  • Because the step edge is so prominent with the light colored rocks, I balanced this by adding a similar color (also similar value) to two of the buildings behind the donkey.  Having the lighter color building behind the donkey's head really helps it to pop because of the change in value/high contrast.  

The other big changes I made were to the sub-focal areas, the blue door and blue gate:

  • I made them both bigger to be in proportion to the donkey.
  • I moved them closer together (almost overlapping) and closer to the blue value mass of the sky/ocean/land-mass.  
    • Overlapping elements helps with atmospheric depth.
    • Grouping these two sub-focal areas helps to enhance our main focal area, the donkey, and helps to "quiet" the composition, as your eye isn't jumping as much from one bright blue element to the next.

And to the stairs:

The "flat" part of the stairs, the tread, should have a very gradual subtle slope, while the edge of each step, the riser, should have a very distinct vertical edge.  Additionally, the paver rocks lining the edge should have enough detail to make them appear 3-d without being too distracting.

Some additional notes that are referenced above:

1) While developing your artistic skills, it is best to follow all the design guidelines, but over time, you can pick and choose which ones to follow and which ones to ignore.  This is one way you develop your own style.  

2) Also, over time you can start to drop some of the planning steps outlined above.  You will start to intuitively paint this way, and you will be more accepting of moving and/or changing things at a later stage if needed.  You will paint faster, and will experiment more, and repeat the mantra "it's just paint.  I can always paint over it." (at least with acrylics, which are so easy to paint over)

3) I have not included the reference photo as part of this blog post, because I don’t know who took the photo, so I don’t know who to credit or ask for permission.  You can find the reference photo on Pinterest at this link:

I loved helping my friend troubleshoot this painting.  She lives in a different state, so this was a virtual critique.  I often do virtual critiques for my students in between their weekly classes.  If you ever want help with a painting, please reach out.  Critique services are included with weekly class fees, or can be purchased separately for $45/hour.     

Happy painting :)