How to Use Photos As Reference for Oil Paintings

Painting can often be made easier by the extensive use of reference material. This article will take a look at using photos as reference for oil paintings.

In today’s modern age, artists have more resources to draw on while painting than ever before. Not only do we have books, magazines and photos that we snap ourselves for reference; but we can also find images on the internet.

Painting directly from a photograph (using the same composition, color, etc as the photograph to “copy” it) can come with copyright issues if you didn’t take the photo.

Once you’re past those issues, remember these pointers:

1. Crop your photo to the same ratio as your canvas, or you’ll have problems fitting everything in, or filling in blank spaces at the edges of your canvas.

2. With large projects, divide your photo and canvas into sections using a grid. This will help you to focus on one spot at a time without becoming overwhelmed.

3. When painting a portrait from a photo, try turning the image upside down to paint it. This confuses the brain’s preconceptions about faces and forces you to pay attention to shapes, shadows, colors and other details that you would otherwise miss.


4. Over-exaggerate colors that you see in photos. Photographs don’t show all of the colors that you would see in real life and if you only paint what you see in a photo, your painting will end up looking flat and lifeless.

E.g. Bananas aren’t only yellow – they also have brown and green in them. The same goes for shadows: Never paint a shadow black. Rather, create darker tones by mixing the color of an object with its complementary color, or with gray.

If you are planning to paint a portrait, then it is a good idea to take as many photos of your subject as possible before settling down to paint. Take photos from different angles, using different lighting and from different distances. This way, if your model changes position at some point, you will easily be able to direct them in how to pose correctly again.

You will also be able to use your reference photographs to paint from while your model is resting or away from the studio. Just make sure not to rely too much on your photos, if you do have a live model to work from consistently, as details and colors can be unintentionally lost in a photo.

If you are doing a composition piece using elements from different photos, places, other artworks and more; then photographic reference can be a vital tool. Resizing photos, cutting them out and organizing them on your canvas can help you to decide on composition in advance. It can also be useful for making sure that your elements are in proportion.

However, when you’re using reference photos in this way, don’t get caught out by the different angles that objects are seen from (e.g. it wouldn’t make sense for an elephant to be seen from above directly next to a teacup that’s seen from below) and by shadows that are cast by different light sources – be sure to give your different elements a sense of synchronization.

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