Painting from Photos

Q: If I’m painting from a photo, shouldn’t I put everything that’s in the photo into my painting?

A: If your goal is literally to copy from a photo, then why don’t you just frame the photo and save yourself a lot of time? Photos should only be used as a reference. We really shouldn’t depend on a photo, but rather on the feeling we felt when we took the original photo. What feeling are you trying to convey to the viewer? The light? The mood? The color? Happiness? Sadness? Write it down in pencil before you paint at the bottom of your painting and never lose sight of your goal!

Paintings are about expressing our feelings, not copying photos. You must paint from your heart. Here’s an example of what I mean: Two years ago, I taught a workshop in Vermont on how to compose a successful watercolor. After my lecture, I asked the students to paint something that they knew and loved. They had no reference photos to paint from, as they weren’t supposed to bring any to class. I gave them one hour to do this. Panic set in. When they finished, I had them display their paintings in the front of the class. One by one, the paintings went up; they were unbelievable and all from the heart! When a painting entitled Juno went up the whole class seemed to smile in unison. The student, Karen Lawaetz, had painted a picture of her dog, Juno. You could feel the love she had for her dog. Karen described Juno as the happiest dog she’s ever had; Juno always held her head up high in the air and was always wagging her tail. Karen had nailed it! The painting said “happy.” I liked it so much, she gave it to me as a gift.

I cannot count the times I’ve heard one of my students exclaim, “But, it was in the photo!” when I question him about something I didn’t quite understand in his painting. I’m usually commenting on something the painter just wasn’t sure of, so he just stuck any old thing into the painting because it was in the photo. When you look at a reference photo, ask yourself if the shapes in the photo will translate well in your painting. If not, leave them out or change them. Remember the old adage: Less is more. Stick to your goal—what you are trying to say in your painting. Don’t worry about anything else that will distract you from your goal. Remember, you’re translating a scene from a photo to paper with watercolors, not Kodak colors!

So, to answer your question: No, you don’t have to put everything in the photo in your painting. That’s not your goal. To convey a feeling is the artist’s one and only goal…always.

When not creating her own art, Kathy Gulrich coaches other artists on the business of art. Her new book, 187 Tips for Artists: How to Create a Successful Art Career—and Have Fun in the Process! is available at her Web site,, and at She lives and works in New York City.

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