Painting with Photos

Armand Cabrera

I’m a big proponent of working from life or memory. There are so many benefits from working from nature that it would be hard for me to list all of them and how they affect your painting. Having said that there are times when working with photos can be helpful.

Because of the lens, the background appears larger than it really is
Photos are great for capturing fleeting effects, movement or details and when used as a tool to help in the completion of a painting, they can save time. Using photo-like processes as an aid in painting has been around for probably close to two hundred years.
one type of lensflare
There are drawbacks though and one of the biggest problems with a reliance on photos is you never really learn to paint or draw. Painting and drawing from life is translating three dimensional objects onto a two dimensional surface. Using a photo is just copying, it doesn’t matter if you change it so it doesn’t look like the photo, you are still just copying two dimensional shapes and making other two dimensional shapes. This will always limit your ability as an artist.
Depth of field blur; the background trees were only a few feet away
Photos are not a substitute for thinking, so if you use photos you need to understand what the problems are with them. Watch out for mechanical photographic effects in the image; focal length exaggeration from zoom lenses which will cause the background to look larger than it really is, lens flare, and depth of field blur; these are caused by the equipment and should never be included in your painting. Shapes can be distorted too; this is usually from being too close or at an extreme angle to the object or objects. Knowing some perspective and how to draw helps correct these problems.
 perspective distortion and extreme value shifts

Watch out for values; the range is small for cameras and so the low or high end gets lopped off and things turn black in the shadows or white out in the lights. It is better to look at the relationships of the lights and darks and use that as your guide instead of copying them exactly.

the camera can’t capture the value range in this scene so color is washed out

Digital cameras use interpretive algorithms, so color is not accurate either. They have to take what are essentially continuous tones and colors of nature and chop them up into little squares of color and value, to do this they average things, sometimes this works but most of the time it doesn’t work well enough for painting things only from a photo. It is better to use photos for shapes and details and outdoor sketches and observation for color and value accuracy.

I painted the background for this painting on site marking the color notes of the boat as it passed by; 
 in the studio I painted it again on a new canvas adding the boat using photo reference for details and my outdoor painting as a guide for color

Most of my paintings are done from life or memory. When I do use photos I limit them to the things I know they are good for and use them in conjunction with color sketches and drawings. They are never a substitute for painting from life but in their proper place they can be another effective tool for your art.

And Now For Something Completely Different

As many of you already know I started my art career as an illustrator working in science fiction and fantasy. This was back in the mid eighties and before computers were tools for artists. Computer games looked like pong and pacman not like a blockbuster movie.

I still work in games and in Science Fiction and Fantasy and recently had the opportunity to contribute to a book called SciFi Art Now. John Freeman is the editor and has a blog where he is interviewing some of the artists for the book. My interview is here with a link to a download of this step by step demo in .pdf format.

My piece in the book was made digitally using my own photo reference and 3d models and combined and painted in photoshop. For this piece I painted right on the plate (photo) although this isn’t always how I work digitally it is an effective tool to quickly sketch ideas and bring them to completion. The following is the step by step process I used to make Marooned.


I started with a photo I took on a painting trip to the Sierras in Eastern California. The sandstone looked melted and gave me the idea for a crashed spaceship. I got down on the ground to shoot the small sandstone rocks from a worms eye view.


1. I  separated the foreground from the sky into two layers. Using a hard brush, selecting local colors and the eraser tool I began to make the framework of the spaceship.


2. I created a third layer for my figures around a fire and established some color to get the general feel of how it will fit in the scene.

3. Next I painted some walls with portholes to make the ship seem familiar, again using the local colors in the photo to keep the sense of light.


4. I continue to add more hard edges and machine like shapes and establish a horizon line with mountains in the distance.
5. I rough in the figures around the fire on another layer. I paint them all in warm hues so they will stand out against the rest of the scene. I make one figure female and the two sitting figures male to create a subliminal tension for the scene. Next I created a sky gradient on another layer. This will be my basis for the stars and planetoids that come next.
6. I create stars by using the noise filter then selecting a limited color range and copying and flipping the selection. I do this a couple of times adding a layer each time and make a color pass over each version to vary the look of the star field. The last thing I do is go in and hand paint selected stars with the airbrush tool before collapsing the layers back down.


7. I build and light the planetoids in 3ds Max and then import the images on to their own layer in Photoshop. At this point I collapse all of the layers except the figures and fire and then manipulate the colors and values to harmonize the scene. I want everything to be covered in dust to give the sense of the passage of time, unifying the color does this and I choose a color that will compliment the tones in the fire.

8. To finish the painting, I collapse the whole image and adjust the color for the figures and add more detail around them. I work all over the image fixing and adjusting where I think things need it.

Workshop Barn Demo


Armand Cabrera
This is one of the demo’s I did for my last workshop. Each day I tackle a specific problem in about an hours’ time to show the students how an organized approach and a firm grasp of the fundamentals will give you a solid painting. My approach is the same whether outdoors or in the studio working from sketches or photos. This was painted from one of my photos.


I started with the drawing. Using a medium sized brush I sketch right on the canvas any changes I make from the source material for size or placement happen at this stage so that when I am painting I can focus on color. If I have to continually correct my drawing in the painting stage I am dividing my focus.
Once the drawing is complete I choose some element of the painting to key everything to and block it in. Sometimes it is my darkest or lightest note but not always, whatever component I am the most sure of about its color and value is where I start. Then I block in everything else relative to that first notes color and value.
In terms of order I usually paint back to front, large to small, and dark to light.
Once the block in stage is finished I flesh out the areas adding interest and details. I am careful to preserve the large division of light and shadow throughout the painting.

The finished demo Sky Meadow Barn 9 x 12. Painting time about an hour and a half