Cindy Briggs


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How to Paint from a Photo

How to Paint from a Photo 2 © Cindy Briggs

How to Paint from a Photo

Do you wish you knew how to paint from a photo? Sometimes, you want to paint but you’re not in front of a stunning view or a beautiful subject.

Paint from a Photo on your Phone

Don’t get stuck, look through your phone. To get your creative juices running, all you need is a good photo to use as a reference, and you probably already have one. I have an iPhone X and that’s all I take on my trips now. It’s so easy to take photos to paint from later on when I’m in my studio on a snowy day in January.

Select a Photo that Inspires You

Start by selecting a photograph that inspires you, preferably from your own collection stored in your phone’s gallery.  Look at it carefully. How can you simplify the scene? Crop it differently?

As you draw it out you might even simplify it more to just the essence of what drew you to the photo. Before painting, remember you are not limited to the colors and values you see in the photo.

Photos Tend to Make Shadows Black

In fact, it’s important to remember that photos tend to make shadows black. I usually avoid black in most of my paintings – it screams “beginner” when used in the shadows and skin tones. I like mixing some of my colors and planning them out before starting to paint.

Be Sure to Get Permission

I’ve found that it’s helpful to use a photo that has recognizable shapes and great light and shadow. If you use someone else’s image, you should get permission.

If you are just using someone’s photo as a loose reference photo for an idea, consider changing it in at least 3 major ways and make it unrecognizable from the original – like a photo from a magazine of the Statue of Liberty – see what you can do to make it your own; change the colors, flip it, elongate the shapes, cut it into pieces and rearrange it. Or maybe you just want to use a reference photo of a subtle Mt. Fuji behind some cherry blossoms.

Case Study

With one of my photos of 3 kids on the beach, I changed it from 2 girls and a boy to 3 girls. I changed their hair colors, swimsuits, and took out all the beach chairs.

How to Paint from a Photo 1 © Cindy BriggsIf you’re painting using a photo as a reference, try to simplify the details. You can take out the clutter that you don’t need and add other items – for example – beach toys. You can even make the figures look like someone that you know, perhaps like your daughter or anybody else special to you.

Make the Photo Your Starting Point

Remember to just make the photograph the starting point and expand from there.  Play with the colors, shapes, and values. Remember, it’s not about copying a photo, it’s just a starting point.

I often take photos of random things to add into some of my paintings later on. For instance, when I’m traveling, I’ll take a photo of a market, then take close-up photos of the products, the people, the flowers, the umbrellas… so I can compose my own design.   I share many of these photographs (with permission to paint them) in my online and studio classes, but, as always, it’s best to paint from your own photos.

Happy photographing and happy painting!

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