drawing from a photo reference

How To Paint From A Reference Photo

Gone are the days when it was uncool to paint from a photo. Some of you may have no idea, but painting from a photo was frowned upon once – or still is frowned upon by certain artists. Their reasoning is that you won’t learn how to create composition, pick colors, or that you might develop a habit of copying rather than creating your own work.

But I’m going to toss that rigmarole outta the window. There is no reason we need to add extra pressure when you’re trying to get started in painting – or even if you’ve been painting for years (like me!). There is absolutely nothing wrong with painting from a reference photo. I do it all the time.

Back in the day, before cell phones were easily available (or even cameras) many artists would paint a still life (someone might sit for them) or a Plein air (outdoors, usually a landscape). And, if they wanted to continue their painting later (say, back in their studio), they would create a detailed sketch they could work from as a reference. (I share more about how to create a sketch here.)

But today, we DO have cameras and cell phones. So, why make life more challenging? If you see something you’d like to paint in a photo, then paint that darn thing! 

Now, if your goal is to learn how to design composition, then don’t look at a photo. Or take just one element that you’d like to reference, and design the rest of the composition on your own. 

But inevitably, most of us will need to look at a reference photo to paint specific things – be that a toucan or the famed vista of Denali. Unless you have access to tropical birds or are planning a trip to Alaska, there is no other way.

I could list 100 reasons why painting from a photo will boost your confidence as an artist, but let’s save that for another post. You’re here to learn about HOW to paint from a reference photo.

Let’s get to it! Here are 3 ways to draw from a photo:


    If your photo reference is too small for tracing, you can have a larger print made from a store like OfficeMax or FedEx. Or, you can enlarge and print your image in sections and tape them together. Then, use one of these methods:

    A SUNNY WINDOW – This works well if you’re painting on paper or any other surface that's transparent enough to see your reference photo underneath. Tape your reference photo to a sunny window. Hold up the paper and lightly trace the reference photo with a pencil.

    TRANSFER PAPER – If you don’t have a sunny window, or you’re painting on canvas or another opaque surface, you can use transfer paper. Place your transfer paper (graphite side down) between your reference photo and the surface to be painted. Trace the reference photo with a pen or pencil. Be mindful if the brand of tracing paper you use is erasable. Some tracing papers leave a very dark imprint that can be hard to remove.

    TRACING PAPER – Trace your photo onto a sheet of tracing paper. After you’ve traced your image, flip the tracing paper over and cover your lines with a graphite pencil. Make sure to cover the lines completely, even covering areas outside the lines. Flip the tracing back over and place it on the paper or surface you’re going to paint on. Trace over your image to transfer the graphite to your surface.

    LIGHTBOX – You can purchase a light box if you think you will be doing a lot of tracing. Light boxes come in different sizes and types and are a great alternative to worrying about sunny days or the mess of graphite. You can also find ultra-thin light boxes that are easier to store.

    COMPUTER / IPAD / TV SCREEN – One of the best and easiest ways to transfer a reference photo to your paper is to use your computer monitor, iPad, or TV screen as your light source. Simply tape your reference photo to the screen using a low-tack tape, place your paper over the screen and trace your image.


      Grid method technique for drawing an image

      The grid method involves creating a grid-work of lines on your reference photo. Use a ruler and draw a grid with a 1:1 ratio directly onto your photo.  Then create a grid on your paper (or painting surface). The boxes on your painting surface do not have to be the same size as the boxes on your photo reference, but they should be in a 1:1 ratio.

      For this, use a thin light pencil, such as a mechanical pencil, so you can easily erase the grid when finished. 

      Now look at the reference photo, and draw the corresponding shapes into the coordinating square on your painting surface. By looking at each square individually, you're forced to dissect the larger image into bitesize chunks. 

      This method takes away preconceived ideas of what you think an image should look like and shifts your concentration onto drawing smaller shapes. And while it may take longer, the grid method is an excellent way to learn how to analyze proportions and draw them to scale.


        copying artwork from a photo

        Perhaps you only find one object in a photo that you’d like to paint. That’s great! This forces you to be more creative with the composition.

        If you only want to paint one (or a few) items from your photo, you will need to consider the rest of the space so you can add extra interest to the background. You will also need to consider color and look for ways to build color harmony. Read more about color theory here.

        Another area you could consider is adding a mix of values like shadows, highlights, and mid-tones. These values add extra interest and move the eyes around a painting.

        While there are many approaches to painting from a reference photo, just know there’s no right or wrong way. Always do what’s best for you. Art is subjective, and your confidence in your art is what matters the most. So, take steps that will boost your confidence, and push you to learn and grow from every painting you create.