How To Know Which Details To Include In Photo-Based Paintings/Drawings

If you’re new to making paintings or drawings based on photos that you’ve taken, one problem can be trying to work out which details to include and which ones not to.

After all, although a photo is almost as detailed as real life, paintings and drawings will often be less detailed than this for a variety of reasons (eg: picture size, time, artistic licence etc..). So, how do you decide which details to include and which to leave out?

The easiest way to do this is to start by sketching the largest and/or most important details of the picture first. If you have time or room to add more details than this, then start adding them (in order of importance) until you run out of time, room or enthusiasm.

The thing to remember here is that a painting or a drawing isn’t a photograph, so it doesn’t have to contain literally every detail. It should give a general impression of the scene in the photo, whilst also being a little bit creative too. So, focus on the most essential and noticeable details first.

For example, here’s a comparison of a photo I took last year and the digitally-edited painting I made based on it.

Two images of an empty street side by side, a photograph and a painting. The text beneath the photo reads "This is a photo I took of some disused shops in Waterlooville in May 2018". The text beneath the painting reads: "This is a digitally-edited painting I made that is based on the photo (the full-size photo will be posted here on the 15th April).  As you can see, the basic shapes of the buildings and several other details (eg: the cannon, the soldier etc...) have been kept, but the painting is less detailed than the photo."

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] This is a chart comparing a photo I took and the painting I made based on it.

As you can see, I’ve kept the really noticeable details – such as the shape of the building, the cannon etc.. but I’ve also left a lot of smaller details out. In this particular case, this was mostly for time reasons (eg: I only had 1-2 hours to make the painting) and for practical reasons too (eg: most of my paintings are 18 x 18cm in size, so there isn’t room for lots of ultra-fine details).

So, yes, you need to be able to prioritise when choosing which details to copy from a photo.

And, if you’re having trouble with the idea of leaving details out, then one way to get around this problem is simply to set yourself a few limits.

For example, if you set yourself a time limit, this will mean that you’ll have to pay more attention to the more noticeable details in the photo (since you won’t have time to copy the smaller details).

Likewise, if you try making a smaller drawing or painting than usual, then this will mean that you’ll have less room for detail – so, you’ll have to focus on the scene as a whole and try to give more of a general impression of it (by focusing on the most important details).

So, yes, try to find a way to focus on the most important and/or immediately noticeable details – since they matter the most when making a painting or a drawing based on a photo.


Sorry for such a short and basic article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

How Much Background Detail Should You Include In Your Art? – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about background detail and how much of it you should include in your art. I ended up thinking about this topic because I made a silly (and heavily digitally-edited) time travel-themed painting a few hours before writing this article. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 20th February.

Although this painting had many influences, one of the inspirations was my favourite webcomic (“Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree). Although I mostly took inspiration from the eccentric way that this webcomic handled time travel, I also tried to emulate the comic’s tendency to include lots of amusing and random background details.

However, this part of the painting didn’t really “work”. In the entire painting, there are maybe 2-5 amusing background details at most. Although I’ve had some practice at disguising undetailed backgrounds, this one is still quite undetailed (eg: just take a close look at the empty buildings in the background etc..). But, why?

Well, it’s because of time, practicality and inspiration. Generally, I tend to be at my best when I’m making smaller (eg: 18 x18 cm) paintings relatively quickly (eg: within 1-2 hours). Likewise, when I get inspired (or when I don’t), I usually try to make a painting in a single session. These factors mean that most of my paintings generally tend to have a fairly low level of background detail.

In some way, this approach is a good one since it means that you can produce more art more regularly and it also means that you have to think more carefully about what background details you want to include. For example, this is one of my most detailed paintings – but there are only about three really interesting background details (eg: the computer screen with BASIC code on it, the portrait and the “Backup Brain” billboard).

“Slow Night” By C. A. Brown

Taking this approach (especially if you know how to disguise less detailed areas of the background) forces you to only include important background details and to make sure that each one actually matters.

This “low-detail” approach can also be used to either draw the audience’s attention to the foreground or to ensure that the audience looks at the painting as a whole (in a vaguely similar way to old impressionist paintings). But, whilst this means that your painting makes more of an initial impact on the audience, it also means that your audience will spend less time looking at it because there’s less to see.

On the other hand, the main advantage of highly-detailed backgrounds is that they invites the audience to look closer. It means that people can notice new things every time that they look at the same picture (because there’s so much stuff in the background). Not to mention that highly detailed also a good display of technical skill and imagination too. It also means that you can include lots of amusing in-jokes and additional visual storytelling in your artwork too.

However, making this type of art takes quite a bit more time and planning. Not to mention that, in order to cram a lot of background detail into your art, the original image usually has to be fairly large too. This can cause issues if, say, you only have an A4-size scanner. Likewise, if you’re posting the art online, then you’re probably going to have to shrink it (or let it be automatically resized) for file size and/or computer screen size reasons.

What this can mean is that all of the amazing background details you’ve spent so long drawing can be rendered almost unreadable. Although some sites, and most image viewer programs, have a “zoom” feature, this isn’t always there. So, you can sometimes end up wasting time adding details that no-one will be able to see properly. This is especially frustrating for the audience since they can tell that something is there, but they can’t quite tell what it is.

But, at the end of the day, each artist has their own preferred level of background detail. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, and each approach has both advantages and disadvantages. So, choose a level that works best for you in terms of time, overall “look” and practicality.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why “Detailed” Art Is Often Less Detailed Than You Might Think


Although I’ve talked about how to make art look more detailed than it actually is before, I thought that I’d look at this subject from a slightly different perspective today. This is mainly because of the artwork in a really interesting free computer game called “The Last Night” that I reviewed yesterday.

If you haven’t played this game, then it uses 1980s-style “pixel art” graphics. What this means is that the individual pixels are large enough to be clearly visible. Given that the game itself is played within a small browser window – there are probably no more than 1000- 2000 pixels on screen at any one time. For comparison, the little sketch at the beginning of this article contains 145,800 pixels (albeit much smaller ones).

So, with a game like that, you would expect it to look fairly primitive and undetailed and, yet, it actually looks more detailed than you might expect. It certainly looks more detailed than the little sketch at the beginning of this article. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this screenshot from the game:

This is a screenshot from "The Last Night" By Tim & Adrien Soret.

This is a screenshot from “The Last Night” By Tim & Adrien Soret.

So, how did they do this and – more importantly – what can this teach us about art in general ?

Even if you are creating photo-realistic art, then your art is going to be less detailed than real life. Even highly realistic paintings from the 16th-18th centuries are less detailed than real life. In fact, the true test of an artist is how they are able to visually represent things using less detail than can be found in real life. No piece of art (and not even an “ordinary” photograph) can be as detailed as real life.

But, although art is less detailed than real life, we still instinctively separate artwork into “detailed art” and “undetailed art”. Why do we do this?

Well, it all comes down to how much an artist tricks us into using our imaginations – regardless of whether we notice that we’re doing it or not. Although I haven’t studied the neuroscience of this in any huge level of detail, the human brain is the best image recognition system available to us. As soon as we know what something looks like, we can usually recognise it very quickly.

For example, here’s a blurry, slightly badly-drawn and very undetailed image that I made in MS Paint. Which famous landmark/capital city is it supposed to be?

You can probably guess what it's supposed to be.

You can probably guess what it’s supposed to be.

Even though it isn’t a very realistic image of the Eiffel Tower in Paris – you were probably be able to work out what it was fairly quickly. After all, even though the picture might not be a “perfect” image of the Eiffel Tower, it still looks similar enough for our brains to recognise it and “fill in the gaps” for us. Once we know what something looks like, then images of it – however realistic or unrealistic – are more like symbols than anything else.

Of course, whilst a truly lifelike image of the Eiffel Tower would be nearly impossible to replicate (unless you had an extremely high-resolution camera or made a very large painting) – an artist can make a slightly less detailed version of it that is still instantly recognisable as the Eiffel Tower.

If an “undetailed” image includes even a few extra “undetailed/unrealistic” details (eg: the trees surrounding the tower in the example are just green blobs etc..), then this gives the audience’s imaginations even more things to work with. So, the picture will appear to be more detailed – even though it isn’t.

So, by adding lots of these fairly “undetailed” details to a picture, it can quickly appear to be more detailed than it actually is. Going back to the game screenshot earlier in this article, the buildings in the background are just a collection of angular shapes and differently-coloured squares. Yet, because we all know what a building looks like – our brains automatically take those basic details and mentally add a lot of extra details that aren’t actually in the picture.

So, yes, this is why “detailed” art is often actually less detailed than you might think it is.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Making The Locations In Your Art Look More Realistic (Plus An Art Preview)

2016 Artwork Realistic Backgrounds article sketch

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this topic before but, since I can’t think of any other ideas for today’s article, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about a mistake that people who are new to making art can make (and which I still make occasionally too).

I am, of course, talking about making the locations in your artwork look too “perfect”. It’s an easy mistake to make – after all, it’s easier to draw a pristine room or a perfectly-organised bookshelf than it is to draw something a bit more realistic, for the simple reason that “perfect” locations often contain a lot less detail.

Yes, there are some situations where using “perfect” locations can be justified, but there aren’t that many of them. One example of a situation where even a more experienced artist might use “perfect” locations is in a daily comic. Since there is a strict time limit, the emphasis is on getting the art finished as soon as possible – so, making all of the locations look “perfect” can be a good way to speed things up.

But, for stand-alone works of art, the background locations should actually look like places that people have actually, well, lived in.

So, how do you do this?

There are several ways to do this. The most simple is just to add clutter and mess to your artwork. Draw a few everyday objects lying around randomly, like they might be in somewhere that has actually been inhabited by someone. Here’s a preview of part of one of my upcoming paintings that contains an example of this:

Notice the random piles of books lying around on the floor (the bonsai tree might have been a bit too much though).

Notice the random piles of books lying around on the floor (the bonsai tree might have been a bit too much though).

Another way to make your locations, especially outdoor locations, look a bit more realistic is to make everything look a bit worn-down. In other words, if you’re drawing or painting a city street, then don’t make everything look new, clean and/or “shiny”. Show the advertising posters on the walls, show the rubbish on the ground, show the chaotic crowds etc…

With rural locations, remember that every tree should look at least slightly different and remember that, in the wild, the grass isn’t usually neatly cut to a single length. Basically, when drawing natural locations, add some variety and variation to all of the things that are growing there.

The thing to remember here is that “perfect” locations don’t usually exist in real life. When they do, they’re usually the exception rather than the rule (which is why they can look so strange and/or creepy).


Sorry for such a short and basic article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Making The Art In Your Webcomic Look More Detailed Than It Actually Is – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Sneaky webcomic tricks article sketch

I know that I’ve probably talked about this subject at least a couple of times before, but since I was busy making a webcomic mini series (which is a follow on from this one) at the time of writing, I thought that I’d briefly talk about it again .

Although you should obviously try to make the art in your webcomic as good as possible, if you’re making a webcomic update every day, then you’re probably not going to have the time to produce elaborate artwork for most or all of your comic updates.

As such, you need to focus on simplicity as much as possible – I mean, there’s a good reason why daily newspaper comics either don’t have backgrounds, or they have very undetailed backgrounds.

If you’re making a comic every day, then the focus needs to be on the writing more than on the art.

If the writing is good, then people are a lot more likely to ignore simplistic artwork. To use an example that I’ve used countless times before, just check out a very popular webcomic called XKCD. The artwork in this comic mostly consists of relatively simple stick figures and yet, thanks to great writing, it still has a very large readership.

Of course, the real trick with making a webcomic is to make the artwork look more detailed than it actually is. There are lots of sneaky tricks (mostly involving the backgrounds) that you can use for this and I’ll give you an example from one of the more art- intensive comics from my mini-series.

"Damania Resurgence - Like A TV Show" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – Like A TV Show” By C. A. Brown

If you look at the left-hand side of this comic, you’ll see that one of the panels is in greyscale (since whenever Harvey is alone, he sees the world in greyscale – like an old movie) and you’ll also see that one panel has no background whatsoever. Because the emphasis is on the characters and the writing in this panel, I could get away with not making any background art.

For another example, just look at this comic:

"Damania Resurgence - Film Night" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – Film Night” By C. A. Brown

As you can see, the backgrounds in the six panels of this comic are incredibly simple. Three of them are nothing but a solid red wall, two of them contain limited details and one if them is just a dark background with a simple silhouette.

If you’re making a webcomic in colour, then filling your backgrounds with a solid colour is a remarkably simple way to make your comic look very slightly more detailed than it actually is. If you’re making a webcomic in black and white, then adding the occasional solid black background can also have this effect.

In fact, I actually did this for most of the background in the second panel of this comic:

"Damania Resurgence - Raven" By C. A. Brown (And Edgar Allen Poe)

“Damania Resurgence – Raven” By C. A. Brown (And Edgar Allen Poe)

These are just a few of the many sneaky tricks that you can use to speed up making the art in your webcomic, whilst also making it look more detailed than it actually is. But, the important thing to remember here is that good writing (or even just ok writing) distracts from low-quality art.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Some Thoughts About Art Styles And Detail Levels – A Ramble

2016 Artwork detail and art styles article sketch

Although this is an article about drawing and painting, I’m going to have to start by talking about films (Blade Runner” again, no less!) for quite a while. As usual, there’s sort of a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Anyway, when I was working on one painting in my cyberpunk series, I decided to get in the mood by watching some of the special features on the DVD boxset of “Blade Runner” (what else?) that I got for my birthday quite a few years ago.

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’m a massive fan of this film. In fact, I consider it to be the best film ever made and I’ve seen it at least five or six times. Anyway, since I wanted to get into an artistic mood – I started by watching the features about the graphic design for the film (and, later, features about the costume and poster design too).

This basically contained lots of photos of numerous small specially-created background details (eg: keycards, magazines, street signs etc…) and interviews with one of the people who designed all of this stuff. The most interesting part of this feature was when one of the designers pointed out that most of the stuff that he made isn’t even really particularly visible in the film. A lot of it was apparently “deep background”.

My first reaction to this was something along the lines of “what a lot of wasted effort! Why is all this cool-looking stuff being hidden in some obscure corner of the background?

As regular readers of this site know, I don’t tend to include that much detail in my artwork. Yes, I have a few tricks that I use to give the impression that my artwork is more detailed than it actually is. But, since I make small paintings (formerly 18x 19cm, but now 18 x 18cm sometimes) in a relatively short period of time (eg: 30mins – 2 hours), I usually have to be fairly economical when it comes to small details.

Still, after watching some of the special features about how much effort and thought went into every tiny detail in “Blade Runner”, I looked at the cyberpunk painting that I was working on and it seemed barren, empty and simplistic by comparison:

"Cityship Bridge" By C. A. Brown

“Cityship Bridge” By C. A. Brown

So, for my next painting, I decided to make something a bit more detailed. I decided to draw and paint an original cyberpunk street scene that had a level of detail that was at least vaguely close to the level of detail in even a single frame from “Blade Runner”.

The painting that I made took about two hours to make and it was surprisingly fun to try to cram as much detail as I could into it. I went online to translate Japanese text for one of the posters in the background, I added lots of small flyers to a lamppost in the foreground, I filled the picture with several times as many people as usual, I added small details through one of the windows etc…

Here’s the painting that I made:

"City Noise" By C. A. Brown

“City Noise” By C. A. Brown

But, the funny thing about it was that it didn’t look that different from some of my “undetailed” paintings and I think that I know why. My art tends to be fairly gloomy – I mostly make gloomy art in order to make the lighting stand out more and because it feels kind of weird to make any other type of art . It’s pretty much an integral part of my art style.

However, one side-effect of making gloomy art is that it leaves a lot of detail shrouded in darkness and left to the audience’s imaginations. This is great for covering up less detailed parts of paintings (and making them seem more detailed than they actually are) but it also means that more detailed paintings can look less detailed than they actually are.

To show you what I mean, here is the “work in progress” line art for both paintings that I included earlier in this article. As you can see, one of them is significantly more detailed than the other – even though both of the finished paintings look as detailed as each other.

"City Noise (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“City Noise (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

"Cityship Bridge (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“Cityship Bridge (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

I’d never really thought about this much before, but it’s surprising how much impact that an art style can have on the level of detail that we see in a painting.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How Gruesome Should Horror Art And Horror Comics Be?

Damned if I know - I use watercolour pencils rather than traditional paints for my paintings...

Damned if I know – I use watercolour pencils rather than traditional paints for my paintings…

Although I’ve already talked about how gruesome horror fiction should be, I thought that I’d ask the same question about horror art and horror comics today.

Since this is an article about the horror genre – I should point out that, although there are no gruesome images in this post and relatively few gruesome descriptions, reader discretion is advised.

The first thing that I’ll say is that, most of the time, just using lots of red paint or red ink does not automatically put a comic or painting into the horror genre.

A good horror comic or piece of horror art doesn’t disturb people by using large quantities of blood, it disturbs it’s audience through clever storytelling. Yes, you heard me correctly, storytelling.

Even if you’re making a stand-alone horror painting, then storytelling is still an important thing to think about. After all, if you’re going to scare, unnerve and disturb your audience then your picture has to look like it’s part of a terrifying and innovative story.

For example: you could paint a zombie covered in blood – but that wouldn’t be particularly scary on it’s own. After all, everyone has seen pictures of zombies before and most people have seen comics, movies and/or videogames with lots of blood in them before. So, your blood-drenched zombie painting probably won’t really be that creepy.

However, if you were to -say- turn the zombie into something a bit more unexpected (eg: a zombie bus driver) and show that zombie actually doing something disturbing (eg: trying to drive a school bus), then your painting will still be disturbing regardless of how much blood and guts you decide to include in it. Why? Because it tells a disturbing story.

Any blood or gore that you include in your picture should only be there to emphasise the disturbing story you are trying to tell and not as a substitute for it. Yes, it’s perfectly possible to make a genuinely chilling horror comic and/or painting without using a single drop of red paint. Likewise, it’s perfectly possible to make a boring horror painting using lots of red paint.

However, there is one major exception to this rule and it all comes down to the level of detail in your painting and/or comic panel. And this is one of those things that art, comics and animations can do – but movies, videogames and novels can’t really do.

One of the interesting things about gruesome horror art is that it can often be far more graphic than it’s more “realistic” cinematic equivalents.

Why? Because artists can include a lot more grotesque detail in a drawing or painting than a film-maker can do in a special effects prop or a novelist can do in a few sentences. Not only that, even the most gruesome image in a film might only be seen by the audience for a few seconds, whereas a painting or a comic panel tends to be viewed for a lot longer than this.

So, if you’re going to scare your audience based on gruesome images alone, then you have to make sure that those gruesome images are as detailed as possible. You have to make your audience wince with revulsion by showing them literally every tiny detail that you can.

If this all sounds slightly confusing, then good examples of this technique can be found in a comic called “Return To Wonderland” By Raven Gregory (et al) or in the manga adaptation of “Battle Royale” (which somehow manages to be three times gorier than the original film, despite only using black and white drawings).

Likewise, some good animated examples of this technique can be seen in a film called “Dead Space: Downfall” and, if I remember correctly, in an anime series called “Deadman Wonderland”.

So, to sum it all up, coming up with a disturbing story for your comic and/or painting is far more important than whether or not it’s gruesome. But, if you can’t think of a good story, then you can still make your gruesome horror art look disturbing by including a ridiculous amount of detail.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂