It’s a bit of a common misconception that “good artists” don’t use reference pictures, but that’s not true at all! In fact, I would recommend drawing and painting with references because it makes up an essential part of any art study and practice.

If you’ve never painted from a photograph before or would like to learn how to make the most of your art studies, then keep on reading – I’m sure there’s something for everyone, even if it’s just a refresher!

Composition Breakdown

One thing a good photo can show you is how to build a good composition. Composition is the building block of all art pieces, which means it’s pretty important to have a good understanding and to practice it!

We’ve touched on this before in several blog posts, which you can check out if you have the time.

A breakdown of a breakdown: 

1. Divide the photograph into a 3x3 grid. Where is the focus? It should almost always fall into one of these sections, with something that contrasts with the focal point falling into a different section. It is also known as the “Rule of Thirds”.

2. If there is more than one main subject, they are often featured in groups of odd numbers. This is because symmetry (which can be done with even numbers) makes it difficult to know where the eye should focus, and is usually not a very interesting composition.

3. Break down the main subject(s) into basic shapes. How are they interacting with each other? What positive and negative spaces are carved out that make the composition work?

This is especially important when you have more complex subjects, such as a group of people or a flower bouquet.

4. Add layers and/or vanishing point(s) for depth. Most good compositions have at least a foreground and a background, so it’s always a good idea to think of your composition in terms of these different layers that are of varying distances away from the front.

If there’s some sort of angled perspective, that will add to the illusion of depth as well. It’s even better if the vanishing points adhere to the “Rule of Thirds” as well!

If you find it difficult to get a good grasp on good composition, do an image search of good photography – either from your favourite photographer or still shots taken from movie scenes.

Next, pick one and study it by applying those 4 points – by drawing a 3x3 grid on top, identifying the main subject(s) and outlining basic shapes, then dividing the different layers and/or pinpointing the vanishing point(s). Rinse and repeat for several other photos, and you’ll soon find that many of them will share similar traits!

The more you repeat this study and break down the elements of a composition to their original form, the better “feel” you get for how to position the subjects in your art. You could even experiment by shifting different elements around, especially if you’re working from a photo that has a different main subject than what you want to have.

Tip: While the guide above is a good one to get a general idea of the “rules” of composition, there are many photographs out there that break the mould while still having a great composition. This is because the composition should also match the atmosphere or emotions you’re trying to evoke.

For example, you could create an unnerving or even sinister atmosphere by having the focal point be just so slightly off-centre, or in a jarring or awkward place that makes it uncomfortable for the viewer to look at. But the main point here is to study all kinds of composition!

Thumbnail Experiments

Once you’ve broken down the photo’s composition, you can do some thumbnail sketches. As mentioned before, this is where you can experiment with moving around the different elements in your composition.

You could even combine elements from 2 or more photographs together! Just make sure to be selective, as you don’t want to overwhelm your artwork with too many things.

Similar to how there can be multiple ways to make the same cake, you’re taking the essentials and combining them in a way that best suits what you’re trying to achieve. Again, it takes a bit of time and practice to get a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, so don’t hold back during this phase! 

Once you’re done with your thumbnails, you could take it a step further by adding a bit of shading in pencil to make sure you understand where the highlights and shadows are.

If the photograph isn’t very clear on this, you could adjust the contrast levels via an image editing programme, or squint while looking at the photo. This will help enhance where the shadows are, and hopefully, give you a better idea of where the light source is coming from.

Bonus tip: You can also give your thumbnail sketches a few light washes of colour, just to test what kind of colour scheme you want. Again, you don’t have to follow your photograph to the tee – you could use more muted colours, or more earth tones, or more vibrant versions of the same colours.

But even if you are using the same colours as the photo, it’s good practice to see what colours you’ll need, and how to layer or mix them to match what you’re seeing. 

Painting (Finally)

When you’ve settled on the composition, you can outline a quick sketch on your watercolour paper before painting. Since you have already done a pretty thorough breakdown of the photograph in your planning phase, it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick up from there, though you’ll be spending more time in terms of layering your paint.

Like with most watercolour paintings, I recommend working from top to bottom, left to right (or right to left if you’re a leftie), from the background to the foreground, and from light to dark (except for cast shadows). Work to build up your layers as well, so that there’s enough contrast to make your main subject(s) stand out.

Tip: “Contrast” doesn’t only mean in terms of light and dark, but it could also mean contrast in terms of colour (e.g. complementary colours), textures, shapes, or even techniques used.

From here, the world’s your oyster! Feel free to apply your own unique style or twist to the painting, or go for a photorealistic painting if you so wish.

The main point is that by using a photograph as your reference, you learn to build on top of this basic foundation. Everything from the ground-up is for you to decide, to practice, and to create.

As always, enjoy the process! Having a photo reference is always a good starting point for any painting, so go ahead and give it a try – it’s a good way to learn, and to improve your art practice.

What photo references do you gravitate towards? Do you tend to put your spin on things, or do you stick to the original image? Feel free to let us know in the comments below!

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.

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