Are You a “Photocopier”? There’s a Better Way

This article is the second in a series. To read the first article, “Is My Painting Done?”, click here.

In the next few articles in this series, I’ll introduce some ideas you can use to help you plan paintings that are more expressive, powerful and meaningful to you.

What do I mean by being a “photocopier”?

I want to start with suggesting a few improvements to the common practice of “painting from a photo”. (Even if you are doing a bit of editing, moving a few things around, changing some colors, maybe bringing in some elements from another photo, the suggestions in this article will still apply.)

For reasons of convenience, it’s fairly common for students in beginning watercolor classes to start off by copying photos. But many people continue copy photos long past the beginning stage, without ever considering whether there might be better ways to plan their paintings than simply choosing a photo and doing a little editing.

What’s the problem with painting from a photo?

When you paint from a photo, the photo essentially is the plan. This is great in some ways, because you can skip right to the painting part! But it also often ruins the opportunity to create a painting that is distinctive and personal.

Painting from a photo means many creative decisions—format, composition, viewing angle/perspective, story, mood, focus—have already been made. Usually, any conscious planning that takes place is about how the photo will be copied: what to paint first, whether to mask anything, what colors to use, and so on.

There’s little consideration of why you might want to use this photo as the basis for a painting. You already know the photo interests you, so what’s to think about?

Start by asking, What drew you to that photo?

If you typically work from photos, I encourage you to pull out a recent painting, and the photo(s) it was based on, and follow along with the rest of article, thinking about how the examples might be applied to your painting and photos.

When I ask someone why they have chosen to use a particular photo as the basis for a painting, the response is often something like “Because it’s just so beautiful!” or “Look at all the colors in that sunset!”

Take a minute to think about what your response would be for your photo.

If you find it difficult, here a little exercise that might help: If this photo was a postcard, what two or three phrases or sentences might you write on the back to describe why you find it interesting or beautiful? (Bonus points if you include emotions, sensations or thoughts that aren’t represented visually.)

Here’s my short description for the photo below: “I came around the corner and saw these daisies peering up at me like a crowd of innocent little faces. They remind me of a gaggle of kids on a field trip, some of them paying attention, some whispering to their friends, some daydreaming or looking at interesting bugs. It made me laugh out loud!”

How do you use that “why”?

It’s likely that without my little description I’d dismiss this photo as a poor candidate for a painting. But with the description, I can imagine choosing daisies with different poses to create a humorous composition that plays with the idea of them as a gaggle of kids on a field trip.

Seeing the flowers as “faces” gives me a strategy that helps me simplify the scene. I can use the “gazes” of the flowers to subtly direct the viewer’s eye, and create an arrangement that exaggerates the flowers’ poses to make them seem even more like kids on a field trip.

If I want to keep the echo of little faces looking up, then I’d keep the perspective of looking down from above. But I certainly don’t need the chain link fence or the posts, unless I want to turn them into the kinds of sights kids might see on a field trip (a zoo enclosure?). I also don’t need to suggest the confusion of grass in the background. I could leave the grass mostly out of focus. I probably don’t need quite so many daisies, but the irregular arrangement works for me. It might be better to use a horizontal format painting, so I can put more attention on the various attitudes of the “faces” and less on the overlapping stems, buds, and so on.

See how having an idea behind the painting informs my choices?

Now that I’m thinking in this vein, I might even decide to create a whole series of flower paintings in which I arrange the flowers as though they are “faces” in a group of people.

The pansies in the next photo look almost like people waiting for a bus. Some in conversation, some looking down the street for the bus, some studying their phones.

You don’t have to make your “why” obvious to viewers.

Even if I don’t do anything to make it clear to the viewer that I’m using this strategy to arrange the blooms, our natural affinity for faces will make it work to direct the viewer’s eye and help me create unusual, interesting and compelling compositions.

It also helps me take more useful photos, since now I’ll be on the lookout for interesting “poses” and interactions between blooms, instead of just conventionally pretty flowers. I have a plan for not just one painting, but a whole series.

In fact, I may decide that the poses and interactions are the most important things, so I don’t even need a “background”. Maybe I’ll design all these paintings on a stark white or solid dark background so I can emphasize the shapes and interactions. Not only will this allow me to create paintings that stand out in a dramatic way from other florals, it means that I’ve solved the problem of “what to do with the background” for all of them at once. (I haven’t painted florals in years, but just working through this exercise is making me excited to paint that series!)

Always asking “why” leads to better reference photos.

After you start asking yourself questions like this about your reference photos, you’ll start taking more useful reference photos. Not necessarily better as stand-alone photographs, but more usable to you in creating paintings.

Here are a series of photos all taken on the same day, within a few feet of each other. Notice what different stories they tell, what different moods they suggest. When you make a habit of asking why you are drawn to a scene or why you want to take a photo, you’ll start to see all sorts of specific possibilities for painting ideas, instead of just a bunch of conventionally pretty scenes.

You’ll start to learn more about what sort of scenes you really find interesting to paint. And you’ll be on the lookout for ways to capture shots that are more likely to be a good starting point for a painting that matters to you.

You’ll begin to make more creative choices.

And you’ll start to think more deeply about what information you really need from your reference photos. You might discover that reflecting on the themes that emerge from similar photos leads you to paintings that don’t even require photo references at all, or that are imagined composites built from many similar scenes.

Here are several photos taken on different beaches, on different days, but all about the same theme: the sky reflected in the wet sand. Because I began to realize that this was what attracted me about many of these scenes, I was able to start looking for them. Thinking about why I found them appealing also helped me figure out more about what needed to be included in the reference photos, and what I might need to do to use them as the basis for paintings.

They’re all “beach” scenes, but do I need to figure out how to render the surf? Probably not. In these scenes, the ocean serves more as a dividing line between sky and reflection. It’s really only important to provide a “textural” interest, some variation from all those soft cloud shapes.

And I started to notice elements that helped make them more likely to work as the basis for a painting, such as the inclusion of some dark rocks or a figure for contrast and to help the viewer interpret the scene.

Now that I’ve figured out what really appeals to me about these scenes, I might not even want to “paint from a photo” at all. Maybe what I like is simply the reflected soft shapes with some contrasting texture dividing them.

Some have almost a mirror image, some only suggest a similar pattern of light and color. Do I need the mirror image? Do the particular colors matter, or is it more about the contrast of soft shapes and textural dividing line? Would a long vertical format be more interesting? What about a square format? Should the dividing line be almost in the middle, or should I have it offset more?

Once I start thinking like this, I’m much more likely to design paintings that really excite me. Paintings that aren’t “conventional”. Paintings that emerge from my unique reaction to the world. Authentic, expressive paintings that are meaningful to me.

Keep asking why, keep digging!

Asking “why do I want to take or paint from this photo?” works best if you develop the habit of asking again and again.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t come up with anything particularly insightful the first few times you ask yourself “why this”. Not all of the ideas in this article emerged in the space of a single afternoon. You might find the exercise difficult with a single photo. It takes practice, but more than that, it takes enough data to start to see patterns.

This is a great way to use your sketchbook, by the way. You are allowed to make notes and paste in photos along with your sketches! Having it all in one places really makes it easier to see the bigger themes.

The more you develop the habit of asking yourself probing questions about the photos you take and the photos you use as references, the more you’ll begin to notice relationships that aren’t as obvious or generic as “I like to paint flowers”. You’ll start to generate more creative and more personal ideas for paintings (and series of related paintings).

Instead of painting from a photo, you’ll be painting from an idea (even if you still use photos for information). And painting from ideas, ideas that you discover by asking
“why this?” again and again, digging deep for what really catches your interest, is much more likely to result in a paintings that are powerful, meaningful expressions of your authentic creative voice.

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