• Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Improving Upon Your Reference Photos...

A great thing about being an artist is that your do not have to faithfully reproduce a photo in your painting. Instead, you can improve upon it. Our mission, as artists, is to make a beautiful painting, more than being technically accurate. After all, who will ever hold up the photo to your painting and say; "Wait a minute! That sky wasn't yellow!"


Here's a reference photo I shot in Taylor Park, Largo, Fl. I cropped it and zoomed in on the trees. I love the lacework of the trees against the setting sun.

Most photographers are not painters, so they crop their photos differently. When you reproduce a photo exactly, you're painting the photographer's composition and not your own. Whenever possible, it's best to work from your own photos, or at least interpret a photo, and use elements of it, but not the whole shebang.


When I work from photos, I usually combine elements of multiple photos into one painting. Rarely do I use the same focal point in my painting as in the photos. Here's a painting I did based on the above reference photo.




One of the elements from the photo I used, is the repetition of the trees, tree reflections and grasses. I love mark-making and texture differences in paintings. Some of the coloration remains the same. I decided to go with a yellow/purple palette, with a splash of orange. Look closely at the darks and you will see rich violets and greens (Mount Vision Pastel colors). I added a sunburst through the trees with red violets and oranges, and a new focal point in the hunting egret (from another photo).


Now, interpreting a photo is very different than painting a photo. Reference photos should be just a starting point, not a complete painting. The camera lens is vastly different than the human eye. Cameras focus on one area and blur out the background. This can be a beautiful effect in some cases, but usually you will want more detail and interest in a painting. This is clear in most portraits. The head is in high detail, the background is nondescript. Sometimes, a good camera will capture a great deal of detail in the background. Maybe more than you want to paint.


Here's a photo I took from a kayak of a ship in the Anclote River, Tarpon Springs, FL.

I fell in love with the red/green palette of this photo and used it in the painting. I exaggerated the height of the ship, as I remembered it from my kayak low in the water. I also added a whole flock of seagulls which wasn't in this photo, but are common on the river, and broke up the central shape, and made a more interesting composition.


This is my interpretation of the same photo, with my edits and improvements. Probably the biggest thing I did differently was to change the color pattern and play up the complements.


Ok I know you are all thinking, "she just keeps adding birds!" but its not just adding a strong focal point that helps rescue a weak composition.


Here's another example. This is a photo of a farm in NY at dawn. The photo is beautiful all by itself and works beautifully as a work of art. It is a photo by my friend Tim Timke and I asked his permission to paint it.


Having lived in NY, near this farm, and plein air painted this same farm, I know that this time of year is fall, hence the harvester. But in the spring when the disc harrows are first used, there are still dried cornstalks sticking out of the rows, and a chill in the morning air often causes a mist to linger close to the soil. I feel an emotional connection to these elements so I include them in the painting...


In my opinion, I improved the sense of perspective by adding cornstalks and furrows. Not sure if simplifying the tractor and disc harrow worked or not, but I like the mist clinging to the soil in the first light of the morning.


Please keep these ideas in mind, and use your reference photos as a place to begin a painting, not the sum total of a painting. If you would like to learn more about working from photos to make pastel paintings, join me for an online class this fall "Pastels from Photos" on Tuesdays in September. Click "online classes" above to see it.

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