Painting Landscapes from Photographs

Steve Stento has tried to capture the Arizona desert landscape that surrounds him but has never been satisfied with the results. That’s because his real muse lies in Europe. In his vibrant depictions of Italy, for example, the viewer might imagine the waters of the Mediterranean gently lapping nearby or Tuscan sunlight pouring over a hillside. “It’s that same old thing: You have to paint what you love,” he says.

Maison Provencal (watercolor, 22×15)

Often paintings done directly from photographs appear a little convoluted. They might run over with unnecessary detail, or maybe there’s a lack of focus. Either way, it’s clear the artist failed to alter much of anything from the photograph. While all the realism may seem impressive to the painter, the overabundance of detail can serve to overwhelm the viewer.

“When I see a painting that’s obviously done from a photograph, there’s one of two things wrong,” says Stento. “There’s either too much information or the light isn’t right—it looks flat, without the volume it should have. It helps to keep in mind that painting from photographs is less about recreating the scene in front of you and more about conveying a mood,” he says.

From Photo to Finish:

1. Covering white paper
I started with the sky, as I often do, because it’s typically one of the lightest areas in a painting. Next, I went after the sunlit parts of the leaves around the door, with the lightest area being the white of the paper. Around those highlights, the leaves are almost pure yellow. At this point, I was blocking in my major shapes, like the blue shutters. I added a pair of the shutters on the upper window to tie the top and bottom together.

2. Finishing the first layers
With the basic block-in finished, I pick a spot to start developing. I chose the downstairs window because I knew exactly how dark I wanted it to be. I added a darker brown for the fabric of the curtains, then I painted the negative space behind them and the folds of the fabric with an almost black mixture. I paint wet-into-wet wherever possible–it’s one of watercolor’s biggest advantages over other media.

3. Building up darks
One of the perks to painting old buildings is that they don’t have to be perfect–irregularities add to the overall effect. Sometimes I painted the negative space between the bricks with rapid, imprecise strokes and, other times, I painted the bricks themselves. I darkened the space under the roof just slightly–part of an ongoing balancing act. When you darken one area, you may find that other areas look too light. For the reflection on the upstairs window, I used dark, abstract shapes. As a general rule, reflections are darker than the objects being reflected.

4. Finishing touches
This final stage of Maison Provencal (watercolor, 22×15) is about making sure I’ve achieved my original vision and created a good painting. I glazed over the door to darken it and warm it up a bit, then, while it was still wet, I added dark sections. I added another shot of blue to the sky to spice it up and made the shadow on the ground bluer. Pumping up the color is a great way to make your painting more interesting than your photograph. Finally, I added just enough darker stones on the ground to capture the texture of the street.

To read more of “The Perfect Exposure”, see the January 2006 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Steve Stento of Anthem, Arizona, studied drawing and design at Virginia Commonwealth University and Scottsdale Artist’s School. He’s a signature Coatimundi member of the Arizona Watercolor Association and a juried member of the Sonoran Arts League. An award-winning artist, his work appeares in the compilation books Splash 7: Celebration of Light and Splash 8: Watercolor Discoveries (North Light Books). Visit his Web site at

See more work by the artist here.
Find out how to paint amazing watercolors from photographs.

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