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Sunday, August 4, 2013

5 Tips to Creating Strong Design from Photos

"Cruisin'" - 8x6" value study - oil on linen

Have you experienced how difficult it can be to take a compilation of photos and combine them into a sound and compelling design?

If you like painting life unfolding - you have no doubt encountered several 'moving target' scenes that present challenges due to the number of varied elements landing in different positions in each photo. Some examples are:
  • street scenes
  • restaurant interiors
  • children playing
  • boats in a marine scene
  • groups of animals or birds in motion
  • rapidly changing light in the landscape (such as a stormy day with windows of sun spotlighting different areas)
It would be so awesome if you could get the parts that were working to stand still until the others got lined up and in perfect position, but in any 'series' of photos, there will be elements that you do and don't love in each photo.

One option is to pick a single photo that is mostly good and work with it, finding your way as you go. I have done this often - with varying degrees of ease and angst, unexpected pitfalls, surprise wins, and frequent experiences of wading through confusion wondering how I got myself into this mess.

Good news! There's another way. What can really set you up for success is to choose what you like from each of several photos and combine these elements to create the best possible design before you start painting.

Putting in the time to develop your idea in the beginning can really free you up to play once you get into the final painting, as you will have solved many of the potential problems up front.

1) Let Your Muse Lead You

Begin by getting out in the world and immersing yourself in an environment that captivates you.

For me it's a feeling of fascination, intrigue and possibility - out on the hunt for reference is one of the most fun aspects of being an artist! This kind of enchantment with my subject compels me to find a way to explore my unique vision with paint. If you aren't inspired by your reference, it's pretty hard to get into action in the studio.

2) Sift Through Your Reference

Now that you have collected a series of images that are shot from the same viewpoint, and in the same general lighting conditions, lay them all out in front of you, or put them all up on your computer screen.

This is the 'chaos' part of the creative process, you need to get an overview of all the bits so that you can start to decide what needs to stay and what needs to go. Let your intuition lead you - it will tell you what is calling most loudly in each photo - the key elements that are wanting to be included in your final design.







3)Photoshop Time

Adobe Photoshop is an invaluable tool if you work from photos a lot. You can either buy it as a monthly subscription (one year minimum), or buy the software download as a one shot deal.

It's great for editing photos of your paintings for your website, juried shows, etc. - as well as compiling elements from different photos into one working reference as I have done here.

In the photos shown above, I've used Photoshop to merge different elements from each image to create the design I want. The 4th image (in black and white) is the final composite. This is a bit of a learning curve that I won't get into details of in this post - but if you are looking for an artist specific demo on using PS, here's a super valuable one that Scott Burdick put together.

4) Simplification

Once you have a working photo with the key desired elements composed as you want them - it's really helpful to do a value study in order to help you simplify your design further. By eliminating colour and detail, you will find your way to a strong design.

 "Cruisin'" value study - detail

What I am always looking for in a value study is where I can lose edges by bringing values together in order to connect shapes. Some examples of that here are the edges of dogwalker's hands, parts of the dog's legs and the left side of the middle woman's hat merging with the background value so that it becomes about a connected pattern rather than a bunch of individual shapes.

 5) Play With Paint

Now you get to dive into the final painting, knowing that much of the hard work has been done. Having value and design sorted out frees you up to play with colour, brushwork, detail and paint handling - the other challenges of creating a successful painting. :-)


  1. What a helpful post! Thanks so much for sharing, and I love Your "study". I hope you frame it.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share such valuable information with us. Your blog is such a treasure chest. Best to you!

  3. Karla and Carol - thanks so much for taking the time to comment. This post was in fact quite epic - it took a fair bit of time to put together, so I am thrilled that it is valuable for you - and touched that you took the time to say so.

  4. I agree with Karla and Carol, and I am going to put this exercise to the test on my next painting! You are an inspiration!

  5. Great post, Liz. I find this information very helpful and hope to use it with some recent street photos. I always learn so much from things you write. Thank You!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you! So much good information to be used. You are an inspiration, Liz!

  7. That's a cool little demo Liz, but there are alternatives to the extremely pricey Photoshop. I used Picture Publisher for years (one tenth the cost) and now that I'm on Linux I use GIMP - which is of course, free.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for the tips on alternatives. I have not tried the others so not sure if they have all the amazing features that I use regularly in Photoshop. Do you know if they are 100% comparable?

      It's a business tool and a write off so I have no problem paying for it - and if price is an issue for others they may want to check out your suggestions.

  8. One of the BEST POSTS I have seen lately!
    Kudos to you!

  9. Great post, Liz! Thanks for taking the time to explain your process!

  10. This was so helpful to me. I'm new to painting & tidbits like this are invaluable.
    Just discovered you blog. Really like it. Thank you for sharing.