Four Very Basic Tips For Painting Or Drawing Landscapes From Photos (With An Example)

2014 Artwork Landscapes From Photos article Sketch

Well, although I’ve copied quite a few old paintings and practised copying photographs over the past three or four months, I’d never really tried painting landscapes from photographs until a couple of weeks ago when I decided to make a series of watercolour pencil paintings based on some old photos I took of Aberystwyth in 2009 (as well as my memories of this amazing town).

Although I still consider myself an absolutely beginner when it comes to painting landscapes from photos, I’ve learnt a bit from simply practising it repeatedly and from some of the skills I’ve picked up from copying old paintings. So, if you’re completely new to this, then I can provide four basic tips which might come in handy.

For the examples in this article, I will be using a painting from my “Aberystwyth Series” called “Aberystwyth – Gloom Descends” – which is based on this old photo that I took of the Old College and the Pier:

Well, at least a smaller version of the original photo...

Well, at least a smaller version of the original photo…

And here’s the final painting (after some rather hefty digital editing):

"Aberystwyth - Gloom Descends" By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Gloom Descends” By C. A. Brown

So, let’s get started:

1) Use a ruler: If you’re drawing or painting from a photograph, then a ruler is essential. No, not for drawing perfectly straight lines, but for working out proportions.

Unless the paper or canvas that you’re working on is the exact same size and aspect ratio as your photograph, then you are going to have to scale things down or scale things up so that they will still look vaguely the right size. So, how do you do this?

Simple – firstly, you measure the height and width of your paper or canvas. Then you take a look at your photo and work out roughly how tall, wide or long the key parts of your photo are in terms of fractions (eg: “that building is half the height of the photo”, “The edge of that mountain is one quarter of the width of the photo away from the edge of the photo” etc..)

Once you’ve worked these fractions out, then take a look at the measurements of your paper or canvas and divide them accordingly (use a calculator if you have to – it isn’t cheating). This will give you the approximate height and/or width that the key parts of your painting should be. Here’s an example from my original sketch for my painting:

Obviously, your own sketch will look different to this unfinished sketch. But I hope this gives you a good idea of what to do.

Obviously, your own sketch will look different to this unfinished sketch. But I hope this gives you a good idea of what to do.

2) Outlines: There’s an excellent book called “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain” by Betty Edwards which explores this whole subject in much more detail. But, for people new to copying pictures by eye, it can be difficult to work out how to draw everything realistically (eg: so that it looks like it’s 3D).

The thing to remember here is that, although a photo is a picture of a three-dimensional scene – it is actually only a flat two-dimensional image. And so is the paper or canvas you are drawing or painting on.

So, don’t feel daunted about working out how to make your picture look 3D – after all, the photograph itself has done all of this work for you.

All you have to do is to look at the basic outlines of everything in the photograph and – however strange they may look – try to copy them accurately. Remember, these outlines are what a three-dimesional scene looks like when it’s “squashed” into two dimensions.

Likewise, pay careful attention to the exact angle of every line in the flat two-dimensional photograph in front of you. If you need to use a protractor, then use one – but try to copy the angles of these lines as precisely as you can.

Don’t worry, after quite a bit of practice – drawing “three-dimensional” pictures will become almost second nature to you.

Once you’ve copied the outlines and lines, you should end up with something which looks vaguely like this:

The lineart for "Aberystwyth- Gloom Descends".

The lineart for “Aberystwyth- Gloom Descends”.

Well done, you’ve already finished the most difficult part of painting from a photograph.

3) Simplification and accuracy: Remember, if people want a totally accurate depiction of somewhere, then they can look at the original photo.

As an artist, you have a lot more room to be inaccurate. As long as your painting vaguely resembles the photo you’re copying, then you’ve done well. People who know the location shown in the photo will still recognise it and people who don’t will probably still appreciate your painting on it’s own merits.

If you have to change a few things to make your painting better, then change them (eg: in my painting, I had to “squash” the Old College building slightly in order to fit it onto the page). Since your painting doesn’t have to be as accurate as the photo you’re copying, then you need to focus on what works best in artistic terms – even if it isn’t completely accurate.

Likewise, don’t worry about copying every tiny detail of every part of the photo. Just copy the important details and fill in the really small details with simple shapes, squiggles etc… which look vaguely like the details in question.

I’ve written about this in another article but, when it comes to small details, never underestimate the fact that your audience’s imaginations will often “fill in the gaps” as long as the main parts of your picture are clearly recognisable.

4) Know when to use your imagination: Finally, if you’ve got an idea of how to make your painting look cooler or more interesting than the original photo, then follow it.

Part of the art of painting a landscape is knowing when to just copy things and when to add something new.

For example, the photo which “Aberystwyth – Gloom Descends” is based on is a very … .well… grey photo. To me at least, this colour scheme is about as dull as you can get.

Grey... lots of grey...

Grey… lots of grey…

Whilst I liked the gloominess of the original photo, I wanted my painting to stand out a bit more – so I changed the colour scheme very slightly and added some orange and yellow to the sky and made everything slightly brighter.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

Although it isn’t entirely “accurate”, it makes the painting into something better than just a simple copy of the original photo.

Just remember, if someone wants an exact copy of a photo, then they can use a photocopier or a computer. If someone wants a piece of art based on a photo, then they’re looking for something more than this. So, don’t be afraid to use your imagination.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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