Making photos work


Dear Artist,

Last weekend I attended an exhibition of the work of a wide range of painters. A lot of it was photo-derived — some of it really crackerjack — others not so hot. Why is it that some people can take photographic reference and make it exciting, while others only succeed in reproducing a photo?


“Abandoned Village, River’s Inlet, B.C.”
oil on canvas 1947
by E.J. Hughes (1913-2007)
AMS Permanent Collection, UBC

A lot of it has to do with the analysis that an artist gives to the reference prior to picking up the brush. Here are a few ideas you might find useful: When you’re looking at a photo that you think might be made into a painting, clarify in your mind what was the main area or interest in the photo that attracted you in the first place. Will this focus area make the transition into paint? Which areas are worth keeping and which are to be left out? Will other elements need to be added? How and where can more “spirit” be added to this reference material? How can the final work be made to sing?


“The Seashore at Crofton”
1998 woodblock by E.J. Hughes

Now spend some time hunting down and making decisions about the innocent weaknesses in the photo that can lead to “photoism” in paintings. These may include lineups, convergence, homeomorphism, dead shadows, poor composition, detail overkill, amorphous and formless elements and problem areas in general. Sort out the elements that don’t look right and that will have to be re-designed. Also, don’t let yourself be distracted by colour. Local colour is often arbitrary and can be changed. In your mind’s eye, reduce your reference to black and white or some other narrow range. Now make a decision about an efficient order that you might work your way through. This requires sitting, looking and thinking. Focal areas — particularly difficult focal areas — ought frequently to be tackled first in order to give courage to the balance. On the other hand, an overall monochromatic lay-in goes a long way toward solving future problems. I believe in a holistic approach — here, there, everywhere, like a bee going to flowers. As well as the above, it’s a fresh and painterly look that shoots down the photo-paralysis, but that’s probably just a personal prejudice.

Photos, when processed through a creative mind, are the finest of servants. When they take control they can become miserable and demanding masters that are capable of ruining an otherwise joyous day. Have a good one.


Tugboats at Ladysmith Harbour” 2004
oil on canvas, 81 x 101.6 cm
by E.J. Hughes

Best regards,


PS: “One way to get beyond the photo is to take a lot of photos of one subject. This helps you to see all the nuances as if you were painting from life.” (Theresa Bayer)

Esoterica: In the 19th century, painters like Corot and Courbet were both intrigued and intimidated by the artistry and truthfulness of the early photographs. It took the likes of the Impressionists to realize that painting had to make a turn and do something that photography couldn’t. E. J. Hughes said, “It is mostly due to the invention of the camera that all this design and emphasized paint quality have come into painting.” The camera is a brilliantly innocent device that inevitably forced modernism to happen.

This letter was originally published as “Making photos work” on June 3, 2005.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.” (John Berger)



  1. My recent en-plein-air painting of milk-weed plants illustrating the short story I wrote will be published in my spring-summer newsletter in the next week or so. My website has newsletter sign-up form for anyone interested in following along with me. Ciao!

  2. A friend will tell me, “That’s the way it looked like in the photo.” Unless your goal is to produce a facsimile of the photo, you should produce a work of art by interpreting the reference material, make it yours. This is more stimulating than a facsimile.

  3. Mary Manning on

    We are artists. If you want to take a photo, go ahead, but the painting becomes more important than any photo I take.

  4. Overcoming the photographic essence of a picture can involve cutting it up and collaging the print. I can do with photoshop but anything that intrudes on the perfect image, including drawing on it, can help make it a servant of the painting. I’ll also put the pic away so I don’t look at it constantly.

    • Great ideas here, Jim Stewart! I do this with my writing of lyric essays by cutting and pasting pieces into a text and using words to swarm around them.

  5. A good plan is to work from life for a long time before using photo references. Even a simple still life offers the opportunity to see how things work in “3D”, and to sense how to translate that to “2D”. I grew up in a time before artists were widely using photographs as references and drew and painted from life. I once gave a workshop on working from photographs and tried to emphasize working from life and using photographs as follow up and distant references. I felt the time I had with my students was too short in a workshop to impress upon them the importance of learning to see in 3D and interpret that to 2D, but some of them liked it. Our world is too fast moving to allow the time to really learn how to draw and paint well from life. And then there is the computer and its magic.

  6. John Francis on

    I make photographs of my paintings. Controlled lighting. The first time I set an ‘acrylic on paper’ Abstract on my Light Table was the day I stopped using brushes. Am I ‘swimming upstream’? One might only hope. No, I do not ‘Photoshop’.

  7. I’m a figurative artist and work both from photos and from life. I find that they’re complementary. In working from life, I get a feeling of the subject’s mood, personality, and who they are as a person that I can’t get from a photo. It seems like I sense things about the person that carry over into the work. But I also feel a “tyranny of what’s there”: a need to record things that I see because that’s the way they are. The subject may be wearing a blue shirt, so I paint a blue shirt, even if another color would be better for that particular composition. I find it difficult to step back from the artwork and see it as a 2-dimensional creation that is separate from the person. With photos, there is an emotional distance from the subject that is built in. The photo is a 2-D object, not a living/breathing human being, so I feel more freedom to change things. Another factor is in the details. I see things in a photo that I might miss in real life: the way a shadow from the chin curves along the neck, for example, so then I can look for them when the living model is in front of me again. The end result is that working from life gives me an understanding of the individual personality that can carry over into working from a photo, while working from the photo gives me some freedom to change things around for pictorial purposes, while also showing me some details that I should look for the next time the model is there.

  8. Don MacWatt on

    Such an important letter to remind me of the dangers of following photographic guides too closely. I also appreciated the comments left by others. Thank you all for taking the time and kindness to share.

  9. As a photography instructor, this makes me smile. So many think that making good photographs is an easy task, and yet, Robert points out that many are not so good… ;)

  10. Continuing on a bit from the comment by Skip Rohde, a photo is not only a 2D object, but captures what is seen through a single viewpoint – one lens. We have come to believe that a photograph captures the true reality of what we are seeing, but it only shows what the camera sees. We have two eyes, and what we see combines two slightly different viewpoints, giving our viewpoint a 3D , more realistic reality. I can almost always tell when a photograph has been used as the painting reference because of a kind of brittle, surface quality that comes from too much emphasis on getting the image to look like the photograph.

    • 40+ years ago when I wanted to learn to paint with watercolors I used as my inspiration old black & white photos that were taken of my mother & her family by her 16 year old sister. I loved the stark shadows and simplicity of the photographs. I believe the lack of color enhanced the process, in fact it made me more aware of the varying shades of gray to the point that I could almost intuit what the color was.
      Since then I have painted many portraits both animal and human all from both black & white or color photos and find that I prefer the old black and white photos. For me they more gently hold the innocence of the time.

  11. Chris Lathrop on

    Wonderful insight from all into using photos as references for paintings. Having just finished teaching a drawing class, I especially appreciate the information, which backs up what I have learned over the years.. I tried to stress to the class to make the drawings their own interpretation and not a direct copy of the photo reference (when we were using one).

  12. I’ve noticed when using photos that I get most of the info I need early in the painting, half way though or so I rarely look at the photo anymore. The painting has taken off by itself and you just start doing your own thing. I always paint from life with my still life paintings, but I need photos for the landscapes as I only paint in the studio.

  13. Great advice for plein air painters also. Beginners like myself find it hard not to include everything we see. We try to match nature’s color and have to learn to create distance, etc.

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to’s salvation
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60 x 122 cm

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Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.


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