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Do you paint from a photo?

Do you paint from a photo?

Yes, I do paint from a photo! As an artist, I need a reference photograph to paint from. I do not (or VERY rarely anyway) paint live subjects, it is just not practical anymore to have people sitting for hours for a portrait.

What type of photo is needed for a painting?

I need a good quality photograph: preferably high-resolution so that I can zoom in to see all the fine detail. The ideal photograph should be:

  • Well lit
  • Displaying the accurate hair and eye colour of each subject
  • No harsh, dark shadows or lit by a flash.
  • No Instagram filters or “weird” editing

I do however realize that it is not always possible as sometimes, especially when the subject is deceased, you might not have a good quality photograph of the person. In a case like this, I will try my absolute best to complete the portrait with whatever photos you have at your disposal.

I thought that being a portrait artist it would be quite fitting to paint my parents a Christmas gift; so I painted this family portrait painting of my parents with both my paternal en maternal grandparents.

I will use this painting as an example to explain the difference between a good and bad photo as a reference:

a portrait oil painting by celia van niekerk portrait artist

My maternal grandfather (far right) passed away in 1982 already – the best photograph that I could find of him was a photo taken on my parents’ wedding day in 1978. The photograph was only postcard size and his face was very small, I could not see any detail at all (See photo on the right). Luckily my parents still have the negatives – so I reverted to scanning the negative and blowing it up digitally. The photograph is still a very bad quality for a reference photograph as I cannot see any of the fine detail. I mirrored the photograph to fit better into the composition of the painting (photo left).

an example of a bad quality reference photo
An example of a poor quality reference photograph.

My paternal grandfather passed away about 15 years ago before digital cameras became popular. I had to photograph a framed portrait of him that hang in my grandmother’s bedroom. (You will see the reflection marks on the photo.) This photo is also a good example of a bad reference photograph! He is photographed, lit by a direct flashlight casting a very dark shadow to the right of his face.

How does a good photograph look?

The photographs of my grandmothers are both excellent examples of good reference photographs – high-resolution, well-lit, you can zoom in to see all the fine detail. You can accurately reference their eye and hair colour. (These are professional portraits, I took of them when I still earned my bread and butter as a Professional Photographer.)

If you compare the two sets of photographs below you will clearly see the difference in quality in terms of detail and colour. My Grandfathers’ photographs below are good examples of bad-quality reference photographs.

example of poor quality reference photographs
Poor Quality Reference Photos of my Grandfathers. They have been lit by flash. Flash casts dark shadows and cause hard facial lines. Grandfather on the right’s colour is not accurate.
example of a good quality reference photograph
Very good quality reference photographs of my Grandmothers – clear, well lit with accurate colour.

The above BAD examples are still good quality in comparison to what clients often send me to paint from. Photographs downloaded from Whatsapp, Facebook, etc. are low resolution and sometimes cannot be used. Photos that are blurry and out of focus can also not be used.  I can only draw and paint the detail that I am able to see in a photograph, therefore if a client supplies high-quality photographs as an artist I will be able to add more detail as I am able to see more detail.

Can you use photos taken with a cellphone?

Most cellphones nowadays have very good cameras. I can most definitely use cellphone photographs as long as the photographs are good quality in terms of sharpness, detail, colour, etc. as explained above. This photograph of my parents was an impromptu photo taken with MY cellphone. I was able to use this cellphone photographs to compile a decent reference photograph for my family portrait painting.

composite reference photograph for a family painting portrait.
The final reference photograph for my family portrait painting.

Please take note that photos taken with a cellphone camera are most often much better quality than photographs you gave received via Whatsapp. Photos received via Whatsapp, even though they have been taken with a cellphone camera, are LOW QUALITY. Whatsapp and (Facebook too) compress photographs to reduce the size and help you save on data cost. If you send me cellphone photos, please send me the ORIGINAL photograph, taken with your cellphone camera. Photos should be EMAILED to me NOT Whatsapp, to ensure that I receive the highest quality possible.

If you require more information about combining different photographs in your painting, you can read my previous blog post: Can you combine multiple photos into one painting?

As mentioned earlier in this blog post, I do realize that it is not always possible to send me high-resolution reference photographs, especially when the subject is deceased. In a case like this, I will try my absolute best to complete the portrait with whatever photos you have at your disposal.

If you are unsure about the quality of your photographs, please EMAIL me what you have and we can discuss the useability from there.

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