Painting from Photographs

My current set-up in the studio.

My current set-up in the studio.

As a landscape painter, I really dislike painting from photographs. The obvious reason is that one of the top attractions to painting landscapes is being outside, but I also really find it difficult to be inspired by a photo in the same way as I do standing in front of the scene. Winters however, I do have to spend a lot of time inside and over the years I’ve tried to figure out how to work successfully from photos.

Last year I bough a DLP projector from Dell and experimented with using it in the studio with much better results than any attempt in the past. First, the large size of the image helps greatly when you’ve been trained to work from life like I have. More importantly however, I think that the poor image quality of the projector works as a constant reminder for me not to trust the image. The real problem with painting from photographs, in my opinion, is that they should only be used as memory aids, or for a detail here or there.

When using modern color photography in painting you can’t trust the values (especially with a light-based projection), you can’t trust the colors, and you really can’t even trust the shapes (which are often distorted). I think when painters have used photography successfully in the past (Zorn and Sorolla come to mind), it was because their approach was to create a painting using years of experience from life, and not just to slavishly copy the image.

The photo above is my set-up at the moment. I’m reworking the sky and foreground from a large landscape I finished from life earlier this summer.


  1. It is great to hear a practical perspective on the use of photography. I am an art historian who has done a great deal of research on Sorolla and other nineteenth-century painters who worked with photography. Your approach is very similar to theirs. For them, nature and observation came first. For Sorolla, Zorn, Eakins, and a number of the British Pre-Raphaelite painters, photography was available after they had already gone through formal training. As a result, it was a support to their already substantial skills.

    Whie it is true that too many artists–experienced or not–rely on photography in lieu of direct observation, too many purists dismiss the practical use of photography in their work.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Thanks Micah.

    I read your blog regularly and one of these days, when I get around to it, I wanted make a post on the best blogs for artists out there and the Bearded Roman will be at the top of the list.

  3. Hi Marc,
    here’s a few questions for you as regards the use of the projector.
    Are they digital slides from a camcorder.[ stills]..
    or are they slide photographs from a manual camera. an S.L.R.
    and what projector if any would you recommend………and why.?
    As you can tell iam not technically aware of these things and would appreciate your view and advice..

    Your paintings are so beautiful, and so full of colour.Love your work.
    Thanks a lot

    • Hi Deirdre,

      I have the projector hooked up to the computer and it projects the photos opened with Photoshop so I can zoom. I don’t really change the photos at all.

      My digital camera is a Panasonic/Leica. Its not great to be honest so I wont recommend it. I bracket the photos (meaning I take 3 quick pictures at different exposures so I can see in the shadows in the over-exposed pictures, and in the lights in the under-exposed pictures). I only paint from photos if I have a sketch done from life of the image, so I don’t use the photos for the values or colors.

      I bought a Dell 1800 MP projector and my only requirement when researching was the resolution. Its expensive to get computer equipment in Italy, if I was in the U.S. I would have gotten one from Edit: just noticed your email is Irish, so maybe you’re in the same boat.

  4. Not a painter in the same regards as you, but I found the video projection technique curious. Have you considered shooting high definition video and projecting a, say, 2 hour loop of the same seen shot from a tripod to emulate some of the alternating views that occur outside? Part of the problem painting from photographs is their stagnant and lifeless quality.

    • Hello Matt,

      I have thought of looping a video to get the expressions I want in a portrait. Especially as many people are happy to sit once or twice but wont do more than that. At the moment though I am fortunate in that I manage to get enough sittings from life to avoid having to use photographs for my portrait commissions. If a client ever insists I work without sittings I’ll try it and let you know. The only problem I can foresee is the terrible color quality of projections, I would still need a sketch for the values and colors.

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