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Painting From Photographs: How To Achieve More Realistic Results

Updated on October 8, 2014
My original oil painting, "Still Life with Olive Oil Bottle" (right) and the original photographic reference I used to complete it (left).
My original oil painting, "Still Life with Olive Oil Bottle" (right) and the original photographic reference I used to complete it (left). | Source

Painting From Photographs: Photorealism vs. True Realism (and Why It Matters!)

Like many artists, I often find myself needing to create paintings from photographs when I don't have access to a live model - or if I want to work on a detailed still-life where my subject matter would turn rotten before my painting was anywhere close to finished! Yet painting from photos presents many unique challenges as well, if you want to create work that looks genuinely realistic and not "photo-realistic". Do you know the difference of photorealism vs. classical realism? Are you aware of the ways photographs can distort what we see - and thereby what we paint? Or how what makes for an interesting photograph does not always translate well into a beautiful painting?

I began as a primarily self-taught artist, at least until I reached a point with my work where I knew I needed more advanced, hands-on instruction. As proud as I was of my art, I knew there were certain elements missing from my work that hopefully a proper art education could fix. I began taking adult education classes in art approximately 7 years ago. Upon showing my figure drawing instructor a portfolio of previous work, the first comments he had for me were, "You have a great eye for detail, but you work from photographs, don't you?" I didn't understand how he could see that so quickly, and what was making my work "photorealistic" instead of what could be called "truly realistic."

It took working with this instructor, and several others after him for a number of years, before I began to truly understand the difference.While there is nothing wrong with photorealism as a specific genre of art, many of us who paint from photographs want our images to not simply look like the photographs from which we are painting. If your goal in art is true visual realism, closer to what the eye sees instead of that the camera sees, read on to learn more tips and secrets to achieving realism even when forced to use photo references. These tips can be applied to all forms of realistic artwork, from portraiture and landscape to floral and still-life.

Drawing and Painting from Photographs: Your Experience - A Poll For All Artists Visiting This Website: I'd like to first know about your own working methods whe

Painting from life vs. painting from a photograph
Painting from life vs. painting from a photograph | Source

Do you ever draw or paint from photographs in your work?

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Portrait of John Sheppard
Portrait of John Sheppard | Source

Learning How The Camera Lies when Painting from Photographs - Example Painting: Portrait of Stargate SG-1's John Sheppard

Forget that old saying about how "the camera never lies," because the truth of the matter is, it does. Cameras distort and flatten images, and when you work from photographs, you must learn how to correct and adjust for these distortions if you want your artwork to be closer to how the human eye sees.

Wide-angle lenses can make tall buildings bend and warp all out of proportion. Flash photography or strong photographic lighting flattens the features of the human face. A camera can take a photo with a level of detail and sharpness far beyond typical human perception. Colors also can lose their natural vibrancy and interaction with the eye. These are all some of the ways in which, when we paint from photographs, our works can be affected and end up looking like a photograph instead of "real life."

The image shown to the right is a painting I created just when I was beginning to take art classes, yet before I had really studied art theory, anatomy and classical realism extensively. It was painted from a photograph, and what are some of the photographic flaws?

My facial anatomy is not perfect, as the strong lighting used on the central figure obscured and confused facial planes and I had not yet studied anatomy enough to realize this. The jacket, which many people complemented me on for the high detail, is too strongly contrasted and lacking in real volume and depth. Also, the figure is entirely drawn in precise detail with sharp edges. As one instructor told me, "There are no sharp edges in nature" - and that includes the human figure.

Even the way the background is completely blurred while the foreground is in complete sharp focus is typical of photo-realism, where either everything is shown in sharp focus, or one object is tightly focused upon while everything else is a blur. This is still a painting I like, but it is certainly photo-realistic, not classically realistic in style and execution.

Richard Estes: Photorealism in the Extreme - Examples of PhotoRealist Artwork

Richard Estes
Richard Estes
If you are interested in learning more about photo-realism as a specific artistic movement and style, be sure to spend time with the work of Richard Estes. The hyper-realism of his urban landscapes is a prime example of how an artist can utilize photo-realism for a specific aesthetic result.
Portrait of Stewart Copeland
Portrait of Stewart Copeland | Source

Sample Portrait Painting After Learning to Correct for Photographic Distortion - Portrait of Stewart Copeland, Painted from Photograph

The image here is another portrait, again done from a photograph but after I had spent a great deal of time studying realistic painting techniques. You can read more about the steps used in painting this picture in my tutorial "Paint a Portrait Like a Renaissance Old Master."

But let me point out some of the ways this picture differs from the previous portrait painting:

1. Blurred Edges. Notice how, while some objects in the foreground may be in sharp focus, most of the rest of the painting blends softly to create a more natural look. Sharp lines and edges are softened to create the feeling of a figure turning and receding into the background. Facial planes blend smoothly into hair lines, neck or shadow.

2. Greater Sense of Volume. Even though, again, this figure is dressed in a costume with great detail, notice how there is more of a sense of volume and depth. The side in shadow feels more as though it is turning away from the viewer. Individual metallic pieces on the costume have different overall values of light and dark, indicating their orientation and reflection of light. These effects were achieved by forcing myself to look at overall values and forms first, before being distracted by detail as often emphasized in photographs.

3. More realistic facial structure. Although I was again working from a photo where the camera had "flattened" the facial features, I filled in missing details through my understanding of the bone structure and musculature underneath the skin.

4. Better color usage. Whereas a photo can bleach out strong color, leaving areas of flesh near white, that is not the case in natural light and how the human eye sees.

Photorealism vs. Classical Realism - Do you have a preference?

While the bulk of this article is about making your paintings look more like classically realistic work instead of photorealistic work, some may prefer the latter over the former. Which style do you like better?

Which style of realistic painting do prefer?

Drawing the Human Head
Drawing the Human Head
This book is a must-have for any artist interested in portraiture. You absolutely must learn about facial proportions, musculature and skeletal structure in order to know how to correct for flattening and distortion in photography. Detailed examples throughout this book examine every facial feature (nose, eyes, mouth, ears) and how to structurally build them properly in your artwork.

Creating a Portrait from a Photo Reference? Study Facial Anatomy First

Learning to See What's Missing in a Photograph

Any artist interested in portrait painting needs to spend time studying human anatomy, particularly the anatomy of the human skull. This is true whether you are working from life or from photographs, but is critically important when working from photographs so you know how to correct for photographic flattening and flash lighting.

Even if you can't "see," in your photograph, the deep socket of the eye, the shadow beneath the brow, or the protuberance of the cheekbone, you need to know these skeletal structures are there in order to adjust for them in your painting. Studying anatomy will help you better see when this important information is not visible in your photo-reference and intuitively how you can correct for it.


Take a Life Drawing or "Plein Air" Class

Creating a Painting from a Photograph Becomes Easier with "Live" Experience

One of the best things any artist can do is to take at least some basic figure drawing, portrait drawing, or landscape painting art classes. Even if you will continue to be working primarily from photographs in your work, drawing from life is the best way to learn how to "see" the world as an artist instead of just mimicking what is in a photograph. While books and DVDs can instruct to a certain extent, nothing is better than having the chance to work with a professional artist or teacher who can critically examine your work, and explain theory and anatomy in person.

Taking art classes does not have to be an expensive endeavor. Many art leagues and community centers offer open figure drawing sessions for a minimal fee or membership. Community colleges and art schools offer continuing education classes in art, often geared toward fundamental subjects such as figure drawing. You can also find countless workshops in art listed in magazines such as International Artist or The Artist's Magazine.

NYC Skyline
NYC Skyline | Source

Perspective Distortion when Painting From Photographs

Correcting Perspective for Better Painting Results

Tall buildings don't typically curve - yet in photographs they often do! If you wanted to paint a version of a photographed skyline or other image including many geometric shapes, you'll often have to adjust for photographic distortion in order to achieve correct perspective effects.

Many digital imaging software programs have functions to allow you to stretch, skew, distort and otherwise manipulate photographs to correct for these camera-caused distortions. Not doing so will definitely leave your painting or drawing looking "photo-realistic" instead of truly realistic.In order to learn how to make these corrections accurately, however, one should study and understand one-point and two-point perspective. Perspective was an important discovery in the Renaissance which helped artists make a huge leap forward in being able to draw and paint spaces, rooms, buildings and skylines more realistically. Whether you are just using photographs for a partial reference or trying to reproduce a photographed image in a painting, knowledge of the theories of perspective in art is a must.

Perspective in Action: An Example from the Renaissance - Raphael's "School of Athens"


Here is a classic example of perspective in action, in one of the great works of Renaissance art by Raphael. Notice the realistic sense of depth and structure created by the precise application of theories of perspective in this fresco painting. Raphael certainly didn't have a photograph to work from in painting this - yet even if he had, he would have needed to use theories of perspective in order to reproduce how the human eye would actually view the scene, and eliminate camera distortion.

To learn more about perspective, check out these two easy to follow tutorials on one-point and two-point perspective.

Choosing Good Reference Photos to Paint

Creating Landscapes, Still Lifes and Portraits from Photographs

Selecting the right reference photo or photos is a very important step, of course, in working from a photograph. There's only so much a digital imaging program or knowledge of anatomy and perspective can do to correct a bad photographic reference. And if you have the opportunity to take your own photo references, here are some tips for getting good results:

1. Use natural light as much as possible. Avoid flash photography or heavy photography lighting for reference shots when you can. Natural light will result in references with the best atmosphere and color for painting, and reduce the appearance of a painting being based so obviously on a photograph.

2. Don't crop in your shots too closely. While close-ups can be useful for detail work - say on a face or a particularly ornate object - the best paintings rely on compositional balance between foreground and background elements. If you're taking a photograph of a person for a later portrait, a good close-up is fine for detail work on facial features but try to get an overall shot for composing the actual painting. One of the easiest ways I can always now see when a painting is based on a photograph is that the composition is all wrong and too closely cropped in on the main subject, instead of utilizing a good balance of positive and negative space.

3. Get the right angles for still life and other compositions. It's best not to have objects just touching or too separate, but to appear to naturally overlap. Otherwise, you may have to do some image manipulation to get a better composition before proceeding. A good still life is no so simple as just tossing a few apples or onions on a table, so if setting up a still life at home to photograph for a painting, take many different angled shots and move around your objects. You might get only one truly good photo references from 20-30 test photographs.

For More Information on Painting from Photographs - A Useful Reference by Art Instructor Johnnie Liliedahl

Photo-Imaging for Painters
Photo-Imaging for Painters
This wonderful book by artist and instructor Johnnie Liliedahl will provide you with further, specific detail on how to utilize photographs effectively for realistic painting. Examples are given on various subjects including composing multiple photographs into a single reference image, adjusting light and contrast, correcting for distortion, and much more.

My Other Art Tutorials on HubPages:

Creating a Classical Still Life Oil Painting
The image to the left is an oil painting I completed entitled "Still Life with Two Pears." People are often amazed by the depth of color and realis...

Getting Started with Oil Painting: Recommended Materials and References
Although acrylic painting has become increasingly popular in the past several decades, for many artists it is still no substitute for oil painting. Oil paint...

Paint a Portrait Like a Renaissance Old Master
There's something about the classical portraits of the Renaissance era that still holds great fascination and awe for today's art lovers. Yet the techniques ...

Reproduce a Renaissance Portrait Painting
Creating a reproduction of an old master or Renaissance portrait painting can be a fun and educational experience for any artist interested in realistic pain...

Tips for Painting Realistic Flesh Tones in Oil
Ask any artist who does portrait or figure painting and they will tell you that mixing and applying realistic flesh tones is one of the hardest challenges th...

Using Grisaille and Glazing Techniques to Reproduce an Old Master Painting
Grisaille is a fine arts term applied to a monochromatic, grayscale style of painting. Grisaille painting is often used in decorative art or to reproduce the...

What is Verdaccio and How To Use It In Your Paintings
Verdaccio is an underpainting technique - and specific paint color - which originates from the Italian fresco painters of the early Renaissance. Created trad...

Why Reproducing Art is an Important Learning Tool for Artists
Many beginning artists scoff at the idea of reproducing other artists' work, especially when first presented with the idea in an art class or workshop. Of co...

To Learn More About Painting from Photographs... - Good Books on Going from Photos to Paintings

Check out these titles for more specific information on working from photographic references in your artwork. These volumes can be terrific tools depending on the mediums and methods of your choice.

"Carnival Squash" - Oil painting by Nicole Pellegrini
"Carnival Squash" - Oil painting by Nicole Pellegrini

To See More of My Artwork...

To see more of my own artwork, please visit my Etsy shop to discover works for sale, and also my personal art website for examples of past and present work. My art subjects range from still lifes and portraiture to science fiction themed astromonical paintings and "fan art." I work in numerous media including watercolor, gouache, oil, charcoal and pencil.

Please let me know if this tutorial and guide to photo references for realistic art was helpful to you. Thank you for taking the time to read it!

© 2011 Nicole Pellegrini

Did You Learn Some Useful Tips on Painting from Photographs? - Comments are Welcome

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    • sorayac profile image


      6 years ago

      What a great lens and artwork!

    • GetPhotographic profile image


      6 years ago

      Really interesting. As a photographer I train my eye (I should say eyes) to see like a camera, this gives me another perspective.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Your painting of John Sheppard is outstanding. You have a wonderful gift to create such works of art.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      great lens, thanx for all the info and hard work. keep on painting.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 

      8 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Another very well done article! I did indeed learn some valuable tips when painting from photos. :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      very helpful,I have been painting in oil for just four years from photos mainly because I find it more convenient to be able to pick up where I left off,my subject (being photographic)has not altered . My favourite subject is landscape ,not having the time to get to a location and paint from life I carry a camera when out walkig with the family,my main observation and dissapointment with my first attempts were that I reproduced the photos too accurately,the light and shades of a photo are unrealistic no matter how good the camera,(nikon) so I am trying to set time aside to do sketches with notes to suppliment the photos.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image


      8 years ago

      Very informative. You've made some excellent points here.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image


      8 years ago

      Great idea

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      8 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      This was very interesting and well presented. Some really good information.

    • AceofHearts profile image


      8 years ago

      I am smitten with your paint work and keep revisiting your pages for new tips and reinforcment. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate it so much.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Came back to google +1 this and let you know it is among the 3 featured lenses of yours in my soon-to-be published 'Squidoo people with a good heart - Part IV.'

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Oh, I'm not much of a painter, but I can see you've devoted a great deal of time and care in creating this lens. Thank you for the tutorial. Sincerely, Rose

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      A photograph helps you create a piece more accurately instead of trying to recall it from memory.

    • rob-hemphill profile image

      Rob Hemphill 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      Very interesting lens. I wish I could paint, but have settled for the photographer side. My father is an artist and says he is only able to paint from sketches rather than actual photographs.

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 

      8 years ago from Albany New York

      Very useful lens, and your gallery is wonderful.

    • Gayle Dowell profile image

      Gayle Dowell 

      8 years ago from Kansas

      I've really learned some things from this lens. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I paint many of my paintings in an abstract style, but would love to paint some realistic paintings. I would like to add this to my lens, Squidoo Artist Community, under art tutorials. Blessed.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very informative lens featuring the differences between photographic art and realistic art. I often use photographs for reference in portraits, and they do lie!In one huge mural commission for movie and music stars I was shocked by how little Elvis and Marilyn actually resembled the most iconic photographs of them - they both turned out to be very difficult subjects.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      8 years ago from Colorado

      You are incredibly talented. Painting is not my forte, but I enjoy the exercise. I learned a great deal here. Thank you!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I actually have a filing cabinet full of all kinds of mundane reference photos that I've been thinking of getting rid of, since you can find just about anything on the Internet these days. And then I think, "what if the Internet goes down when I need a photo most."

    • KarenTBTEN profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a very useful reference. I don't do a lot of art, but there's one thing I have done over the years: pastels of cats. It has struck me that, while it is possible to do a photo-real picture (with hard pastels, at least) they don't really look as real as the more impressionistic ones. SquidAngel blessings.

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image


      8 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      Wow, this is wonderful! I can't paint - at all - but truly love looking at art. Thanks for creating such a well written article. =D *Squidoo Angel Blessed!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Wonderful work and wonderful art advice! Thanks!

    • sockii profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Pellegrini 

      9 years ago from New Jersey

      @myraggededge: Thank you very much - it's wonderful to know I was able to present the information in an engaging way.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      What a great article - I'm not a portrait painter (or any kind of painter really) but I was fascinated and absorbed by the information and way you delivered it.

    • FlynntheCat1 profile image


      9 years ago

      This is awesome! I never really get a chance to draw from life, and rely on photo references a bit too much (at least, when I'm painting realistically), so I'll be coming back to this lens.


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