Armona by Dan Johnson

Tips on painting from photos

I touched on this briefly in a recent post, but I wanted to share some practical tips that you can use when painting from a photo, to keep your painting from looking flat and lifeless. So, in no particular order:

  • Simplify everything.
  • Don’t paint everything. Play with cropping the photo in different ways to find a pleasing composition.
  • Reposition elements in the scene to make a more pleasing and balanced composition.
  • Experiment with the rule of thirds.
  • Have a clearly defined focal point, or centre of interest, which the viewer’s eye should be¬†guided towards.
  • Keep your edges sharper in the focal point, and softer outside of it (in general).
  • Emphasise the sense of atmospheric perspective in a landscape by making objects lighter in value and less saturated the further away they are.
  • Add more colour to your shadows than you can see in the photo (but not too much).
  • If you take a photo to use as reference, make notes about the colours you see while you’re there, so you can inlcude them in your painting later.
  • Simplify everything.
  • Use HDR mode on your camera to capture a greater range of hues and values.
  • Don’t have any sharp edges leading your eye out of the painting.
  • Avoid uniform, repeated patterns (except on manmade objects), even if they appear that way in the photo, you can create a more pleasing effect by making them irregular.
  • Consider greying down a bright blue sky to keep the attention on the focal point.
  • Merge shadow shapes together if they are a similar value.
  • Don’t worry about matching the the exact colours, but do try to get the value and temperature relationships right.
  • Don’t paint all the detail you see in the photo, instead try to paint it as if you were looking only at the focal point in real life, so everything else would be slightly out of focus.
  • Simplify everything ūüôā

That’s all I can think of for now. Please feel free to share your own tips in the comments.

How to mix greys

On the subject of mixing colours rather than using tube colours, one colour I haven’t yet used from a tube is grey.

Payne’s Grey is a fairly popular pigment, but I’ve always found it more effective to mix my own greys, so here I’m going to show you some common ways of mixing different greys.

Black and White


(Ivory Black + Titanium White)

Too obvious! This is the way we all¬†learn about as children. Black and white makes grey. It’s true, but the grey you get will always be the same, with no variation in hue, and if overused it can get pretty dull.

Two Complementary Colours


(Cadmium Red + Viridian + White)


(Ultramarine Blue + Cadmium Orange + White)


(Cadmium Yellow + Violet)

This is a much more interesting way of mixing greys.

When you add any colour to its complement, you desaturate that colour, effectively ‘greying it down’. So you can mix any two complements together to the point where neither one dominates, and you have a grey. I mixed them all with white in the examples above so you can see the hue more clearly.

As you can see, each grey has subtle shifts in hue, and the beauty of this method is that it’s really easy to make a grey warmer or cooler, just by adding more of the warm or cool colour out of the pair.

For example, with red/green, to make the grey warmer you add red, to make it cooler you add green.

Orange: warmer – Blue: cooler

Yellow: warmer – Violet: cooler

All three primaries


(Cadmium Red + Ultramarine Blue + Cadmium Yellow)

If you think about it, this is really just the same as adding two complementaries, because any two of the primaries mixed together, makes the complement of the third:

Red + Blue makes Violet, which is the complement of Yellow

Blue + Yellow makes Green, which is the complement of Red

Yellow + Red makes Orange, which is the complement of Blue

The same theory applies to the secondary colours. You could get a grey by mixing Orange, Violet and Green.

So throw away your Payne’s Grey, and keep the Black and White under wraps, and see what beautiful greys you can get in your paintings by mixing colours!

To mix or not to mix?

Another nice benefit of getting involved in the WetCanvas forums, as I mentioned yesterday, is it gives me ideas for new blog posts!

I spotted a post earlier today discussing whether it was ok to use greens and purples/violets straight from the tube, or better to mix them from primary colours.

To explain why this is even a question worth asking, we need to consider at the colour wheel.

The three primary colours are Red, Blue and Yellow.

The secondary colours are Orange, Violet and Green.

In theory, it should be possible to mix any secondary colour from a combination of the three primary colours:

  • Red +¬†Yellow = Orange
  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Blue + Red = Violet

However,¬†in practice, there are certain colours, such as bright greens and¬†violets that can’t be mixed from the three primaries, so if you’re painting, say, a bright purple flower, then you may need to use a purple tube colour to make sure you can get a bright enough colour. If you try to get the purple by mixing blue and red, it’s likely to end up too dark, and then if you try to lighten it with white, you’ll reduce the saturation, leaving your purple looking chalky and washed out.

So this is one argument for using secondary tube colours, although it’s rare that you’d need them when painting a landscape. Even if there are bright green trees or purple flowers in your scene, they will very rarely be as bright as the colour that comes out of the paint tube.

The other reason it can be useful to have these tube colours is for mixing with other colours. A cobalt violet can do a nice job of greying down a cadmium yellow, for example, or you can add viridian (green) to cadmium red to reduce the saturation.

So while it may be rare for you to need these colours as they appear out of the tube, they can be used to great effect when combined with other pigments.

As for me, I do have tubes of Viridian, Sap Green, Pthalo Green, and Cobalt Violet. Up to now I’ve never had a use for the violet, but I occasionally use the greens if I find them useful. Pthalo is great for a tropical green sea (knocked back with a bit of red of course!) and Sap Green can be handy for grass/trees at times. But in general, if I can mix a colour easily from the primaries, I find that it usually results in a more harmonised colour scheme.

The benefits of joining an art community

Ok, there’s 10 days to go in this daily blogging challenge, and it certainly is becoming a challenge to think of post topics every day. I’d love to get more suggestions from you, if there’s anything you’d like me to write about – just leave a comment and let me know.

I’m off work next week, so hopefully it’ll be a bit easier to find the time then.

Anyway, today I¬†made¬†a couple of new¬†posts over at WetCanvas, the largest art community on the web. I’ve been a member there since 2007, but I rarely log in. In fact I’ve only¬†started 15 threads in the last 7 years!

Well that’s about to change. I intend to get much more involved in the online art community, starting with regular interaction on WetCanvas.

Creating art at home can sometimes leave you feeling a bit isolated, which is why it’s so beneficial to post your work in online art communities.

To begin with, it’s a great place to discover new¬†artists, and connect with artists whose work you admire.

You can also post your own work for feedback, and if you’re worried about criticism, there are three separate gallery forums, one for if you don’t want your work critiqued, one for open critiques (anyone can comment), and one for structured critique (only registered critiquers can comment, with more technical feedback). It’s a great way to get feedback on your work, whether you’re just looking for some positive encouragement, or you really want help to improve your skills.

There’s a Learning Center forum, where you can get advice on any aspect of art you can think of, as well as forums organised by medium or subject so you can always find¬†the most appropriate place to post. And there are general discussion forums for chatting about art history, creativity, or just art in general.

One of my favourite things, that I just discovered, is a monthly landscape challenge, where you can join other artists in painting from a selection of photos provided by a volunteer user. I plan to participate in this very soon, possibly this month, and as much as I can in future.

So why not join me over at WetCanvas, and get involved in the community! Hope to see you there.

Final Painting – Finishing off

Ok, for better or worse, here’s the finished painting of the Golden Gate Bridge:

IMG_5893 copy

Here’s a side-by-side with the previous stage, so I can describe the changes:

IMG_5884IMG_5893 copy

So first of all, I still wasn’t quite happy with the sky, so I worked on that some more, making it even brighter, and emphasising the warm glow of the sunrise.

Once that was fixed to my satisfaction, I finished detailing the bridge, adding the final highlights on the left of the bridge itself, and an indication of the vertical cables against the sky on the right. For those I just used a slightly darker version of the sky colour, as they¬†shouldn’t stand out at all. They’re just an indication of what is there, and your brain does the rest.

I then worked on the detail of the mid-ground landscape. Looking at it now, I think I may have gone a bit too detailed and it’s ended up looking a bit messy. That’s something I need to work on – simplify everything!

I added some reflections I had missed in the water, below the rocks on the left, each piece of land jutting out, and below the far bridge tower.

Finally I added some detail in the foreground, with the bush on the right, and some warmer areas where the light is hitting the ground closest to us.

I’ve signed it, and I’m calling it finished for now, unless I spot anything that needs fixing in the next few days.

Overall, I’m reasonably pleased with how this turned out. I know the notan and value studies I did initially¬†helped a lot with getting the final painting right, so that’s something I’ll be trying to do a lot more of in future.

Let me know what you think, and if you have any more questions about the process, just leave a comment below.

The pros and cons of painting from photos

I must confess, I always paint from photos. I’ve never painted plein air landscapes. It’s something I’d love to do at some point, but first I’d like to improve to a point where I feel I could do it justice.

Some purists would argue that you should never paint from photos. Others (like me) only paint from photos. And some people paint from life to begin with and then use photos as reference to finish their paintings in the studio.

As with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to painting from photos.

The obvious advantage is that you can paint from the comfort of your home or studio. You don’t need to stand out in the cold, or worry about changing light or weather conditions, and you can take as long as you need. Painting from a photo is simply much more convenient than painting from life.

The main disadvantage is that a camera is unable to capture all the subtle colours that we can see with our eyes.¬†Most photos will make the darks too dark, and the lights too light. Especially in scenes with strong lighting, it’s difficult to¬†capture what we can see, using a camera.

Dark areas in a scene often have lots of colour in them when you look with your eyes, but when you take a photo, the shadows might look flat and uninteresting.

One way to get around this (to an extent) is to use a camera with an HDR (high dynamic range) setting.¬†This mode takes two separate photos for each scene, one exposed for the lights, and one exposed for the darks, and then makes a composite of the two images, so that the lights and darks are well balanced, and more like what you see in reality. It’s not a perfect solution, but it definitely helps.

The most important¬†thing you need to do is make sure you don’t become a slave to the photo. Don’t paint everything exactly as it appears, but use your artistic license and your knowledge of the limitations of photos to adjust things as you see fit. Paint the colours that you can’t see in the shadows, but you know are there. Tweak¬†the saturation in your painting (because photos often aren’t as saturated as they should be). Move things around for a more pleasing composition.¬†Use the photo only for¬†reference, not as an exact image that you have to replicate.

I’d love to hear how you feel about painting from photos. Leave a comment and let me know which you prefer and what the pros and cons are for you.

Why people think you’re better than you are

I’ve heard it many times:

“You’re paintings are so good. Why don’t you do it for a living?”

“These are amazing, they should be in a gallery.”

“You could sell that for thousands.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered to hear things like that, but I know that the reason these people think my paintings are so good is that they aren’t painters themselves.

This isn’t just me being modest either. I know I may have a tendency to be over-critical of my own work, as many people do who are trying to master a skill, but I also know my shortcomings, and they are the things that non-painters probably wouldn’t recognise.

It’s related to a cognitive phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is where unskilled individuals rate their ability consistently higher than it actually is.

I believe that unskilled painters may also rate an amateur painter’s skill as higher than it is in reality, because they don’t have the experience to know that the artist still has so much more to learn. They are seeing things from a different frame of reference.

This may also be the reason that so many untalented people apply for talent shows like X-Factor, only to be humiliated, because their friends and family have always told them what an amazing singer they are.

The converse also applies with the Dunning-Kruger effect Рvery skilled individuals tend to rate their skill level as lower than it really is, wrongly assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others. This is something I experienced when I spent three years learning Chinese. As I became more fluent, I started to wrongly believe that beginners would be able to understand much more than they actually could.

I think I probably suffer from this in painting too (not that I’m highly skilled), but I’m probably better than I think I am. My advantage is that I’m aware of this phenomenon, so I can account for it when trying to judge my own ability.

I know that I probably underestimate my own skill, and others probably overestimate it. I guess the truth lies somewhere inbetween.