David Cunningham
David Cunningham

Painting from Photographs: a cautionary tale

I would like to start off by saying that I love photography both as an art form and as a tool.   However, photography has its limitations as source material.  It should not be considered the gold standard for what reality looks like.  Anyone that studies photography for very long will realize that photographs do alter, edit and manipulate the information from the focused reflected light on its sensors to “capture” a given moment.  The lens and sensor in a camera was designed to mimic the lens and retina of our human eye, but it isn’t the same. Photos flatten, sharpen, and blur.  Color is compressed and values exaggerated.  Interestingly, painters do all the same things with the information they see, but that is a personal choice not mechanical default.  So, here are 3 things to be aware of if you are using photography as your painting source material.

1. Value Range

Our eyes have this amazing ability to quickly adjust to changing light.  For instance if you are looking at a scene with dark shadows and bright highlights, your eye will move rapidly across the adjusting to the correct “aperture” for the amount of light so that we can see details in all areas.  It is like our eyes take multiple snap shots of a scene and then combines these all together almost instantaneously.

2. Edges

One of the things photography does (especially in the hands of the amateur photographer) is create crazy sharp edges indiscriminately.  Edge sharpness creates a visual “focal point” (pun intended) for the viewer and also brings objects forward in space.  However, in photography we often see objects in the background that appear just as sharp as objects in the foreground.  Sharp edges in the background brings those objects forward in space, flattening the composition.  The outside edge of a curved volume (like a sphere) will appear just as sharp as the edge on a object with 90 degree break (like a tables edge).  This results in the sphere appearing flatter and more 2 dimensional because it is bringing the outside edge forward in space.

Furthermore, blur or soft edges can be an issue too.  Low light, slow shutter speed, or simply a moving object can cause blur within a photo.  A shallow depth of field caused from aperture settings can result in exaggerated blur/soft edges as well.

3. Color Complexity

Color complexity is simplified in photography.  The sensor averages the color in a way that doesn’t pick up the same color richness our eyes observe.  For instance, the skin color in photographs often lack the undertones of cool blues and greens one can observe in life.  I find that often I see undertones of the complimentary color in the shadow side of a form in observation, but this is totally absent in the photograph.


Although throughout my art education, I was only allowed to work from observation, I am not near as dogmatic.  I enjoy working from observation, but sometimes it simply isn’t practical. You can click here to see some amazing boston wedding photographers. So hear are some tips if you are painting and drawing using photography:

  • Spend at least some time working from observation.  I do quick 2 hour all prima paintings regularly to keep my eye sharp and it really helps me to “correct” my work when I use photos.
  • Work from multiple photographs, each with different color and value settings so that you can see information that may be missed.
  • I recommend you never work larger than your source photograph.  Yes large photos can be pricey, but I would rather spend the money on photos then waste my time on a mediocre painting.
  • Learn how your camera works and how to shoot with the manual settings to get the result you want.  Poorly exposed or blurry images will never give you the source information you need.
  • Near the end of your painting, go look again at the source if possible.  I like doing this for portraits especially…having the person sit for me at the end of the painting.









  1. Carol McGee - 7 years ago

    Stumbled upon this through Pinterest, what a find! I struggled to get my head round values and your piece nailed it for me and here the info on photographs is invaluable. I intend reading whatever you write,lol.

    • David Cunningham - 7 years ago

      Ah thanks…I am glad you found value in it. Feel free to share the knowledge!