One of the best and worst pieces of advice for someone learning to draw/paint is “Just paint what you see.”
In a sense, it’s great advice (if a little simplistic), especially for somebody just learning how to draw realistically.
The problem most beginners have is that they tend to draw what they think they see, rather than what is actually in front of them. As children, we all form symbols in our minds to help us easily identify objects, e.g. the sky is blue, eyes are almond shaped, snow is white etc.
But these symbols can hinder us, getting in the way of how things actually look. Snow is rarely pure white, and eyes can be almost any shape, depending on the angle of the person’s head etc.
So art teachers encourage us to ‘draw what we see’, ignoring what our minds tell us we are drawing, and simply focusing on the shapes, edges and angles that make up the image. It can help to turn the reference image upside down to trick your brain into seeing ‘shapes’ rather than ‘things’.
A great resource for learning to see in this way is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards.
Know When to Break the Rules
The problem with always drawing/painting what you see is that it can become very boring.
I’ve always been guilty of sticking far too rigidly to my reference photo, adding all the small background details, that actually add no value to the painting, and can even detract from the focal point.
Especially when painting landscapes, it’s rare that your reference, whether it’s a photo or a real scene in front of you, will be composed perfectly for the painting you want to create.
It’s likely you could improve the composition by rearranging certain elements, cropping the scene in different ways, and adding or removing elements, to enhance the overall effect of the painting.
Unless the lighting conditions are perfect, you’ll probably also want to adjust the colours in your painting, especially if you’re painting from a photograph, as the colours in photos can tend to look washed out and uninteresting. Just as you might add a filter to a photo you post on Instagram, you could think about doing the same kind of thing in your painting, to create a particular mood, increase the saturation, create a kind of vignette, or blur out certain elements to create focus.
Remember when you were a kid and you just painted things how you thought they looked good? That’s how you should paint, but with the benefit of the knowledge you’ve gained from first learning to draw what you see.