Using a Photo Reference for a Landscape Painting

Editor’s Note: Join Johannes for Paint Along 28 LIVE: Establish Moods for Successful Landscape Paintings. Learn how to use a photo reference in his guest blog post here, then register for his course for in-depth instruction!

In this blog I decided to show you the before and after from photo to painting so you can see how independent an artist can be from relying too heavily of photo references. My criterion is if you cannot improve the photo then don’t paint it. I have been teaching live online classes to hundreds of students for over 5 years. One of the points I emphasize the most is to teach them to free themselves from photo dependency and rely on artistic truth rather than literal truths.

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Photo reference A – PIN this article on Pinterest!

Photo reference A: The rock colors are dull and boring. There’s too much white water with absence of color, and it lacks depth.

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting A

Painting A: The visual movement alongside the rocks, which I designed into abstract shapes, is more interesting. The fog separates the middle ground from the background. Viewers are rewarded with a progressively receding background.

 

Photo reference for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Photo reference B

Photo reference B: The mountain has a boring shape. As with photo reference A, it has too much white water. The leafless bushes are void of color and the pile of stones is too busy.

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting B

Painting B: I borrowed the mountain from another photo. I made the warm pink bushes more vibrant, switched the greenery to warmer colors and simplified the flat stones.

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Photo references for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Photo reference C

Photo reference C: The angles of the buildings have excellent angles, but the sky is too large and will rob attention and the scene is too mundane. Also of note, the shoreline is exiting the painting on the side.

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting C

Painting C: I more or less respected the angles of the houses, and yet the shoreline has a more interesting line and it sends you deeper into the landscape painting. The mood creates a unique scene and the lonely seagull was a last-minute touch of life.

 

Photo references for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Photo reference D

Photo reference D: In this example there’s practically no atmospheric perspective. The foliage is too dark and lifeless, and the photo is crowded and confusing. The man with his dog was not in the original scene, so I added them with Photoshop to give more life to the image.

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting D

Painting D: The whole scene is high-key and misty, which is easier on the eye because the extreme value contrasts are subdued. The line of the snow on the street is slower, and the warm sky removes the cold feeling of the scene.

 

Photo references for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Photo reference E

Photo reference E: The tree in foreground is the same value as the ones behind the bridge, merging the planes together. The gray bridge is flat and the line is too straight.

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting E

Painting E: The three planes are now well separated and distinct. The convex line of the bridge is better. The transition from snow to ice to water is pleasing and the orange touches in the snow warm up the scene.

 

Photo references for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Photo reference F

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting F

Photo reference and Painting F: Turning daytime scenes into nocturnes is easier to depict than rendering the details of the daylight version. When everything gets darkened you don’t need to worry about defining. You can hide mini-details within the dark masses. I had to keep the lines formed by the foam subdued by keeping the value contrast to a minimum. This was favored by the time of night or the eye would become glued to these lines and move too fast.

 

Photo references for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Photo reference G

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

Painting G

Photo reference and Painting G: My experience has given me the ability to totally revolutionize a scene and even change the season as well as the time of day. In this example, I relied on the backbone of the photo of the cabin as far as its layout, but felt the summer scene was just too ordinary.

You also can turn mundane photos into winners the same way. Put a vision into your artwork. My upcoming online art course, starting August 27, will give you the keys to do this. You would be surprised how much easier it is to turn a summer landscape into snow, add a sunset or create night scenes. The whole point of this tutorial is to encourage you not to document scenes but create a story. Think like an illustrator for Pixar studios. I’m sure you agree the paintings are way better than the references.

Photo references for painting | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

As far as landscape painting, it isn’t easy to find photos that will give you all the elements needed to do a painting in one photo. You can very much expand horizons if you add two or more photos (above) and combine them into one composition. I call this a Frankenstein composition. If you remember, Frankenstein is a subhuman build by body parts of several dead humans. The term fits quite well.

Painting from photographs | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

In this example, the painting is a far cry from the photos. The linear movement and the warm sky got my attention while browsing through my reference photos, yet, I felt there was no reward at the end. I preferred the foreground rocks from the first photo. I looked out my window and saw that sky with the sun rays. In that moment the painting filled my mind. So I combined three scenes into one Frankenstein composition. I consider this a quite successful painting.


“Landscape Painting Essentials” and other video courses are available at NorthLightShop.com. North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at http://improvemypaintings.com.

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One thought on “Using a Photo Reference for a Landscape Painting

  1. marymarin

    Great article, Johannes. Truly demonstrates why paintings are, in my opinion, so much MORE than a photo can ever be! I want to show you a viewfinder set I invented for making better compositions. My set offers pretty much ALL of the commonly sold canvas ratios (8×10, 12×16, 16×20, yada yada yada) yet weighs almost nothing and can’t break. Some of my customers also pointed out that they use the cards as templates for thumbnails in their sketchbooks prior to painting. I never even thought of that! Here is a link to learn more: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MasterView?ref=hdr_shop_menu. I would love to know what you think about it. Mary Marin

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