Use your own photos for reference – there are so many reasons for this but the best reason is that if you took the photo, you were there and were attracted enough to take the shot!  You’ve already done some work in composing. Photos don’t have to be (and maybe shouldn’t be) fabulous photos to be used as a photo reference!

Ten Hints to Using Photos

1. First of all, figure out what attracted you to the scene in the first place.

2. Edit and simplify – don’t copy. The more you copy the less your own feeling or   impression will be conveyed.

3. Break it down to three to five bigger masses. Add details later.

4. What is the basic value pattern? Don’t rely on the values from the photograph as they are usually too contrasty

5. What’s your focal point? What do you want to say?

6. Another is, remember not to be a slave to your photo. You can make changes!

7. Just make a nod to your photo – once you have all the information you need from it, put it away or at least don’t look at it constantly.

8. Do your thumbnails!! Then use your thumbnail at least as much as your photo.

9. Try different proportions.

10. Finally, Crop!!

Here are a few examples of some photo reference I used and how I cropped and simplified. Notice in this one, the trash bins in the left corner! It doesn’t have to be the perfect shot and maybe shouldn’t. There should be room for you in there! I used what attracted me to the spot and I edited out what I didn’t want. Don’t make stuff up; that can get you in trouble. I did change or exaggerate the color and I moved things around to suit me. I cropped it as a square and made what I think is an interesting variety of sizes of shapes. Making the foreground larger allowed me to make the building more the focal point because of the contrast in scale.

There were quite a few things in this photo that I really loved; the light catching the top of the large tree and the tree on the left, the band of light in the distance and the cloud shapes. Because I edited out the road, added a suggestion of water, these were emphasized.

(I used a different photo for this), and I exaggerated the color. Notice how I exaggerated the scale of the foreground tree and made the background tree smaller. Some students have commented to me that they are reluctant to change things because you can’t improve on nature and I think that is very true, however we can improve our paintings!

This one is fairly faithful to the photo in it’s arrangement of the elements. I cropped it as a square. Can you tell I like squares? Painting rocks is something I don’t like so I edited them! The thing that I really had fun with was the color! It has quite a bit of exaggerated color but notice it also has a lot of neutrals which serve as the stage for the intense color!

Hope this mini-lesson gave you some ideas on how to use your reference.

With Warmest Regards,


Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

These “mini-lessons” grew out of my blog. I love sharing my experience behind the easel, so these are free. I write a new one every two or three weeks, so please feel free to share with artist friends.

​These lessons are mostly written text with graphics…short but useful tidbits from the foundations of painting that touch on subjects such as aerial perspective, simultaneous contrast or using negative spaces. I guide you through different aspects of painting and art that will get you comfortable with using pastels. You’ll gain confidence to attempt work that you might have otherwise been timid about.

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