Try Plein Air Painting This Summer… Get Outdoors!

Summer and the longest days of the year have arrived; it’s the perfect time to get out for some fresh air, to relax, and to paint. Painting outside in nature can be fun and different, whether you make it a field trip to the woods, a park, a nature preserve, or just sit out on your own doorstep. If you’ve already planned a trip to the beach, gather your sketchbook and paints to take along. Take a few painting supplies when mountain climbing. When you reach the summit, you could rest while doing a quick sketch and painting of the view. Or sit on the dock at the lake to paint the clouds and water. A change of scene can encourage close observation and inspire us.

Ocean view inspiration.
Summit View Inspiration.

MATERIALS.

Before starting out, consider your supplies. Keep your art kit on the small and lightweight side since you’ll be carrying it with you. Pack it in a bag ahead of time, so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right. 

In my kit I include a small sketchbook (that I use to record color and weather observations, to create thumbnails, to make sketches and contour drawings, to experiment with color matching (i.e. as a test sheet), to make notes of ideas). I also pack a small ‘block’ of watercolor paper (which is easy to hold on my lap for painting). I suggest including a watercolor travel palette like this one from amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Winsor-Newton-Cotman-Water-Colour/dp/B000PD3LY4/ref=sr_1_23?crid=1T41EILMKX301&keywords=winsor+newton+watercolor+set&qid=1656615455&sprefix=winsor+neton%2Caps%2C128&sr=8-23.  (When the paint in the small half pans has been exhausted, I refill the pans from watercolor tubes in my choice of colors.) The above set includes paint, a travel brush, and small water pots as well as a water container. If your paint set doesn’t include a brush or two, water in a container, and a water holder (for painting and cleaning your brushes), you will need to add these to your kit. If you prefer, water brushes (which have a water reservoir attached to a nylon brush) are available, so added water would not be necessary. I have some water brushes, but personally I don’t find their quality to be very good. A pencil, eraser, paper towels (or tissues), a viewfinder, perhaps some water-soluble drawing pencils, and watercolor pencils are also good to bring along. Depending on how far I will be going, I might also bring a hat, a folding chair, and something to drink. 

I enjoyed making my own small accordion sketchbook to take on outdoor sketching trips recently. I cut a full sheet (22X30″) of watercolor paper into three strips, attached them to each other, and used two pieces of leftover mat board for a cover. I keep it closed when not in use with a covered elastic headband. The finished sketchbook size is 4X6″; it opens into a continuous painting area of about 6X72″, or 18 pages on one side, and 6X64″, 16 pages, on the opposite side.

Handmade Sketchbook With Mat Board Cover.
Handmade Accordion Sketchbook Opened.

HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO PAINT.

When you arrive at your destination, look for a comfortable, interesting spot. The first part of your process involves looking around to get familiar with what’s in front of you. Look closely and think about what draws you in. Take your time. If you have a viewfinder, use it to help you pick your subject for painting. (You can make your own viewfinder by cutting a rectangle out of white card stock.) Looking through the hole, move the viewfinder closer and farther away from your eye to “zoom” in and out.  Wait for a composition to come into the frame that appeals to you. 

Wood Pile Inspiration.
Bare Trees Inspiration.

You can also plan a composition by drawing several quick thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook to begin to translate what you see into two dimensions on paper. See this blog post for more information on the advantages of thumbnails: Hold Your Horses!, (7/17/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/07/17/hold-your-horses/ . Sketch out various viewpoints or arrangements of the scene to find your preferences. Pick one of your thumbnails to paint, without overthinking.

TIPS.

There is no need to include everything you see in your painting. In fact, your picture will be stronger without including every detail. Observe the scene closely, but allow yourself to improvise, be spontaneous, even play, using what you see as your starting point. Feel free to paint smaller and quicker than you usually do, since the light will shift and the weather can change unexpectedly. If desired, use your smartphone to snap a couple of quick pictures of the light or colors just in case you need the information later.

Notice big shapes and a range of lights and darks. Look for patterns, color combinations, or shadows, for instance, to focus on. For more information about how to think about shapes in your artwork, look at Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, (7/16/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/

Barn Shapes Inspiration.
Purple And Green Cabbage Color Inspiration.

YOU GET TO CHOOSE.  

Outdoor painting is a good way to start moving beyond copying because you don’t use others’ photo references. You get to decide your own subject and your own focus during your painting session. Paint what you find most interesting. You can choose to include or leave out whatever you wish. Since you will be in control of determining your main concept, edit out anything that is not important to the story you will be telling in the painting.

MANY APPROACHES.

There are many ways to approach outdoor painting. Generally, outdoor paintings tend to be done more quickly and loosely than studio paintings because time available is limited. So, simplify and try not to get bogged down with details. Instead, one way to begin painting is to use light washes to block out the main areas of color on the paper. Then work on the lightest areas first. You can gradually build up and intensify colors as you proceed to create depth and detail. 

One artist I know begins by loosely painting colored shapes first, then drawing line and detail later when the original colors have dried. She uses various materials for these later layers, sometimes choosing more watercolor, or perhaps Pigma micron pens, Faber Castell Pitt pens, or Caran D’Ache Neocolors. Another artist friend will start with a loose, very light pencil sketch before applying any paint. Yet another artist I know makes a lot of separate watercolor marks (squiggles, dashes, dots, lines, blobs), but no washes of color to describe the scene, much like pointillism. When the color on the paper has dried, this artist lightly softens marks to merge colors, fill in white space, and create shadows.

FINALLY.

Give plein air painting a try, especially if it’s new to you. You may just fall in love with it. It can be fun to experiment with something new and different. 

Paint what inspires you. And when your painting session is done, your outdoor painting can stand on its own or become the basis for a later studio painting.

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Find Your Inspiration And Create Original Work!

When first learning to paint, I wanted my paintings to look exactly like the references I used. I desperately hoped to acquire skills and technique so I could recreate the work of other artists. I searched for watercolor instructors to take classes so I could learn how to copy! After all, isn’t that how we learn? We copy and practice, taking advantage of another artist’s suggestions about color, style, and composition. Over time, I became an excellent copier, and I became more confident in my painting skills. However…

MOVING BEYOND COPYING.

Copying started to bore me. Ugh! My paintings were technically well done, but there was not much of me or my personality in them. For instance, my painting of a luna moth on tree bark was accurate, but now it seems a bit flat and static to me. At some point I realized that there had to be more! 

Luna Moth On Bark Watercolor Painting.

Things definitely got more interesting to me when I began to alter and interpret references. In a painting of Boston Marathon runners, for instance, I removed some runners and transformed one into one of my sons, who ran cross-country. I painted my first granddaughter as the young girl on a carousel. Another granddaughter I painted with a pile of gingersnaps that she had absconded with. This was a much more satisfying way to paint!

Wren and Gingersnaps Watercolor Painting.

I really began to want to move beyond copying. I soon yearned to learn how to design my own work and tell my own stories in my art. At the same time I continued to study watercolor technique and composition, knowing that I still had more to learn.

PERSONALIZE.

I don’t think anyone can tell you how to create art work in your own style. No one can tell you what issues are important to you. You have to do that for yourself. We are each unique individuals who see the world based on our own experiences and interests. Your style, like your handwriting, cannot help but come out. But style is more likely to emerge when we stop copying every last detail of an image and begin to interpret references.

Listen to yourself (notice your feelings) to better understand how to create work that has meaning for you. Worry less about whether your art is ‘good enough’ or what others will think of your work.

HOW?

Sometimes you don’t know where to start to create ‘original’ art. I remember not knowing how to design a painting or even what I wanted to paint. I felt at a loss and uncertain. I had to get to know myself better and become more confident even while I was learning more about art. I needed to reconnect with my own intuition and become more aware of my own preferences and feelings. And trust myself. That kind of growth is not likely to happen all at once – it certainly didn’t for me. I often felt that I knew better what I didn’t like than what I did like. Gradually, though, I noticed being drawn to some topics, some compositions more than others. I found myself wanting to eliminate certain parts of a reference or to combine two reference photos to build a scene more interesting to me. I was even excited to take some of my own photos to use for reference. With time, I began to acknowledge my own independence and value my own opinion. It remains an ongoing process; it isn’t always easy. I continue to wean myself from over-dependence on others’ photo references. 

LOOK INWARD.

To begin to reduce a dependence on copying and using other artist’s ideas, start to look inward. Look for your own inspiration. What  interests you? What excites you? What gives you joy? What kind of painting do you enjoy seeing or creating? 

Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction. (Rumi)

Experiment and try new things. Notice where you lose track of time and fall into the enjoyment of painting. Are you fascinated by landscapes and paintings of the outdoors? Do you prefer flowers, or a still life? Could you spend all day exploring colors? Does it thrill you to see paint flow? Or would you rather paint lots of details close up?

There is no formula. What do you want to create? What would you paint if no one was looking? What makes you happy? What do you always return to in your art? That is your inspiration.

What do I like? I find I really enjoy painting landscapes, the outdoors, or scenes relating to the disappearing traditions of New England. I seem to be searching for the forgotten, the lost, the answer that’s always right around the corner – I always seem to be searching. I’m drawn again and again to images of dirt roads, doorways, windows, streams and rivers moving on, distant hills, fog and mist. 

Flowing Forward Watercolor Painting.
Tristan’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

DON’T FORCE.

You cannot force insight or creativity or intuition, but you can be open to them. Find a place of calm inside yourself, not of fear, self-doubt, or anxiety, to better notice your thoughts and intuitions. In other words, a fearless open mind will invite creativity in. 

Personally, I find it hard to ‘let go’ of striving, to create a place of acceptance and calm in my mind. My tendency is to keep pushing, to produce results, which doesn’t always end very well. I have to keep telling myself that things happen in their own time, on their own schedule, sometimes when you least expect it. After all, some of my best painting experiences happened unexpectedly when my hand and my brush took off and left my ego behind; then the painting somehow flowed and took on a life of its own. 

Pitcher and Pears Watercolor Painting.

You could describe this letting go and being open as Annie Dillard did in Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. She describes one way of seeking not “as actual pursuit” but as putting “myself in the way of“ what is being sought. She adds “Something might come; something might go.” Roger Ebert said it another way. “ The muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.” In other words, keep on painting but don’t try to force anything.

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. (Pablo Picasso)

HOW COULD I DO IT?

A helpful resource to build for yourself is a FILE of inspiring images. You can cut out pictures from magazines (of colors you like, shapes that might work in your art, interesting people, beautiful vistas). Photos taken on a walk could be added to your inspiration file. Gather online images from Pinterest, Facebook groups (such as ‘Landscape References Photos For Artists’ or ‘Free Reference Photos For Artists’ ), or websites of copyright free images (pexels.com , unsplash.com , https://publicdomainarchive.com/index.html , watercolor world (https://www.watercolourworld.org/), Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/), British Library Copyright Free Images (https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/albums)) . Check museum websites for copyright free images ( for example, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/the-collection ).

You can file or organize images by topic to make later retrieval easier.

I look for inspiring images from my photos taken on walks, by scrolling various online copyright free sites, in books, and compiled images from  several of my photographer friends. I search for shapes, colors, themes to adapt for my art.

You could visit museums near you to look for inspiration. Start sketching, whether everyday objects, shapes, or the view out your window, to create images to inspire your art work. Go for walks (and snap your own photos) in the woods or parks, around your town or city. Notice and take note of what interests you.

IN PRACTICE.

Be open to new ideas. When you choose to adapt a reference, use your intuition and imagination to create something original. A reference can be a mere starting point for your painting. This approach often works for me because I think of each painting as a kind of puzzle to be solved. I enjoy the ‘detective’ work of figuring out how I might approach and create a painting. 

Try to notice your own reactions as your work progresses. Does it feel right when you eliminate parts or simplify details? Do the changes make your statement stronger? Could you combine several photos into one painting? Rearrange objects to emphasize your center of interest? Make sure to include both soft and hard edges, maybe lost edges, to encourage the viewer’s imagination? What if you change the mood, season, or time of day? Try to include some visual energy in the painting. Varying the quality of light can create contrast or a glow so that you are not recreating a flat, dull scene. Change the viewpoint by zooming in for a closeup or pulling out to create a distant vista. Altering your color choices can also give a very different feel to the work. Or you can totally shake things up by taking only colors or shapes from your reference to create abstract paintings. You can even paint completely from your imagination, without any reference.

FINALLY.

Experiment. Ask yourself, is this painting working for me? Take credit for taking action even if it doesn’t work. Then keep going! Finding your own inspiration can be exhilarating!

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From Pretty Good To Better Composition!

Only occasionally, as artists, do we discover a perfectly designed composition we’d like to paint. More often, we find an appealing image that needs some improving and editing to make it more effective. Editing allows an artist to interpret a scene and tell the picture’s story in a stronger, more personal way. All the information may be there in front of us, but we may want to re-organize some of the parts. We might want to combine several reference photos, or totally remove some distracting information. We know we don’t want to just copy a reference, but how would you go about ‘improving’ a composition?

Joe English Hill Photo, Spring.

Here is an image that appealed to me. Let’s evaluate the composition though – it does have some problems. It’s hard to tell what this picture is about, isn’t it? It probably wouldn’t make a very good painting, as is. What attracted me to this scene in the first place? I was drawn to the dramatic cliff (barely visible in the photo) rising steeply behind the vibrant, early spring colors. So, my first decision would have to do with figuring out what I want my center of interest to be, and then deciding how best to emphasize it. 

I decide to make the cliff my center of interest. How could I simplify some of the shapes or eliminate unnecessary detail? There is too much information in this reference photo. I certainly don’t have to include all of the trees from the photo. I will remove some of the smaller trees blocking the view of the cliff to uncover it. I will also eliminate a few trees on the far right, but leave one tree to help frame the cliff. This tree on the right would also function to stop your eye from following the line of the top of the far hill right on out of the picture. While I think the large green gold trees on the left also function as a frame of the cliff, I want to move them more to the left to further open up our view of the cliff. And I want to increase the height of the trees on the left, hoping they appear closer to the viewer and increasing depth in the picture. And finally, I plan to exaggerate the size of the cliff to make it even more prominent in my painting. 

Early Spring Color, Joe English Hill, Another View.

Color will be important to give the picture the feel of the new leaves and grasses of springtime. Spring is a time of fresh growth, when buds and flowers burst forth. Fields and forest floors are becoming free of frost and snow, and bright green shoots begin to appear. I hope to exaggerate the brightness and variety of colors in the final painting by using bright complementary colors. Reds and greens (complements) will be used for newly emerging leaves, and yellow and green gold leaves will complement purple-tinged rocks and purplish shadows. Muted grays and browns are planned to contrast with the bright colors.

I hope to make use of differences in color temperature as well. Cooler colors on the distant hill (and minimal detail) should help it recede, increasing depth in the painting. In contrast, warm yellow greens in the foreground field and trees should advance.

Values (lights/darks) in the reference photo seem to be much too similar. By looking at this black and white version of the reference photo you can see there is very little contrast in values. If there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. I will need to create more contrast to make the picture work better! Good value contrast (with light values close by and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest.

Black and White Version of Reference Photo.

After experimenting with several small thumbnail sketches to find a better arrangement of strong lights and darks,  I chose this arrangement. 

Final Thumbnail Sketch.

The lightest values in the painting will be the green gold leaves, road, cliff, some saved light birch tree trunks. Mid-values are planned for the middle distance trees on the opposite side of the road. And the darkest values, which will help to highlight the cliff, will be the top of the hill, dark shadows and tree trunks. 

Below is the finished watercolor painting, and its black and white version, which resulted from the improved composition.

Final Watercolor, Joe English Hill.
Black and White Version of Painting.

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Find Free-To-Use Reference Photographs for Painting…

Before using the following list of online image resources, consider all the dangers and pitfalls of painting from other people’s (or any online) photographs.  (See my February 26, 2019 blog titled “Properly Using a Photograph as a Painting Reference”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/02/26/properly-using-a-photograph-as-a-painting-reference/,  to learn about the pros and cons of reference photos.)

Use caution if an image is not your original work.  You should assume that any image you find online is protected by copyright unless you see evidence that the creator has given permission to use the image in a certain way.  Under federal law, a photographer has the sole right to copy and distribute the photos she or he takes.  You CANNOT use or publish a work without the creator’s consent.  Usage rights tell you whether the image creator has allowed use of that image and under what conditions.

Types of USAGE RIGHTS include:

FAIR USE allows you to use a copyrighted image without permission, either for your personal and educational purposes or for the public good.  You can, however, transform the image into something new!   If you turn a copyrighted image into a COMPLETELY new work, you can use that image freely.

CREATIVE COMMONS NON-PROFIT provides free copyright licenses for creators.  The copyright holder can determine several things with these licenses:

  • whether you need to credit the holder for the image (for example, photos from “pmp.art.com”)
  • whether you can use that image for commercial purposes
  • whether you can modify that image
  • what license you must use if you modify that image.

(Google and Flickr allow you to filter search results by searching for images with a specific creative commons license.)

PUBLIC DOMAIN means that the creator has given up the copyright willingly or that the copyright has expired.  Copyrights expire seventy years after the death of the creator.  Thus, you are free to use PUBLIC DOMAIN images any way you’d like.  (Wikipedia Commons has a large database of images in the public domain.)

Some websites allow you to use “stock” photos.  Some stock photos are available for purchase; others may be free.  When you buy a stock photo, you are buying the right to use a copyrighted image.  Rights can vary, so read a license agreement closely.  (shutterstock.com, stock.adobe.com, and istockphoto.com are examples of stock photo sites.)

Here is a selected list of websites (that I have used in the past) offering free-to-use photos.  Search what you are looking for, and you will find thousands of possible photos that you can use.  (The more specific your search terms, the more success you will have in finding what you are looking for.)

SITES:

 pixabay.com          commons.wikimedia.org                                                 unsplash.com        publicdomainpictures.net                                                 morguefile.com      publicdomainarchive.com                                                 pexels.com              isorepublic.com                                                                 picjumbo.com         picography.co                                                                       reshot.com             mmtstock.com                                                                 rawpixel.com        skitterphoto.com                                                           pikwizard.com             lifeofpix.com                                                       gratisography.com      foodiesfeed.com                                                     albumarium.com        burst.shopify.com                                                     freeimages.com       epicantus.tumblr.com                                                       stocksnap.io              maxpixel.net                                                                   freestocks.org             1millionfreepictures.com                                         shotstash.com             jeshoots.com                                                     freefoodphotos.com     jaymantri.com                                                       barnimages.com

These are just some free sites.  Things change all the time online, though, so expect new sites to appear and others to change.

Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

Christmas tree truck photo refence.jpg  image1.jpg

Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS.

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs DO NOT reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a TOOL like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

Pepperell Relic jpg.jpg

Pepperell Relic.jpg

Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, with photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

IMPROVE ON YOUR PHOTO REFERENCE.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

Maine coast.jpg

FullSizeRender.jpg

Watercolor “Maine coastline”, with photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

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Watercolor “Mulpus”, with photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

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Photo reference for future watercolor.