Bad Photos Make Great Paintings

Some of my favorite landscape paintings came from the worst reference photos. I can still remember the days of film cameras. We had a vintage Pentax and I wasted so much film trying to figure out the shutter speed and aperture, and when the photos came back I inevitably found myself with a handful of washed-out, bland images! I think this is the stuff we get to tell our kids, “When I was your age, we only got 24 chances to capture a memory, and it cost 8 bucks to find out if it worked!”

Today I’m going to the back of my closet to pull out my old photos and negatives. It’s time to declutter and since my kids are home from school today, they’ll enjoy seeing photos they’ve never seen before of their parents’ early years of marriage. My mom kept our non-album-worthy photos in an old power tool box and leafing through the stack and laughing at their clothing was my favorite pastime!


Bad reference photos can be a great tool for an artist, however. Think about how disappointing it can be when you are painting from a calendar-perfect reference photo. To try to get the painting to measure even close to the beauty of the scene is an incredible challenge, and because the photo is so stunning, it feels as though our artistic input isn’t needed. What can an artist add to a perfect scene?

I have found that my very best photos are the ones I am least likely to turn into a painting. I look at those photos and they feel like enough. So I’ve been turning to my less-than-perfect (and sometimes downright bad) photos for my inspiration, and I’m having so much more fun!

Bad photos offer room for interpretation.

When I take a bad photo, I know it’s bad because it doesn’t match my memory. The sun was brighter, the clouds more dramatic, the colors richer. To paint that scene means I get to work to depict an experience that the photo falls short of sharing.

Bad photos need “fixing up.”

Photos often flatten elements of the scene. I’m not a good enough photographer to really catch the depth of field in a vast panorama and so I’m motivated to paint it to try to share the experience of being there.

Bad photos have missing information.

If the photo is blurry, or the focal point fails to stand out, I can correct that with my painting. And I feel so much freer to make corrections and changes when my original reference is falling short.

Midsummer Dreams, watercolor by Angela Fehr

Midsummer Dreams, watercolor by Angela Fehr

Reference photos are a tool for the artist.

Whether your photo is good or bad, you get to choose how to use it in supporting the painting you are creating.

When I was a new painter, the reference photo was my teacher. I learned to observe and render the details that I saw. Aside from leaving out the elements that felt too complicated, I seldom took liberties with the subject matter, leaning heavily on copying the image. I was learning to use technique to accurately depict detail.

As my painting skills grew, I started to think about style, making changes to the painting to reflect my interests and personal voice. This has been the most engaging, rewarding, confusing and relentless part of my artistic journey! Every time I hold a new reference photo in my hand, I am challenged with the need to paint it to reflect the ME I am today. I don’t get to rely on how I might have painted that scene in my artistic style of last year, but instead I lean into a new territory, continually seeking to paint my experience and infuse emotion and my personal point of view into my painting. If it feels raw and a bit scary, I’m probably doing it right!

How I Develop a Landscape From a Reference Photo

  1. Start with a quick sketch. I usually try to paint a scene without preliminary sketches or studies. This first attempt shows me what I don’t know.

  2. Do the research. Failing at step #1 reminds me to slow down and work more intentionally. Thumbnail sketches, notans, value studies, color studies, practicing focal elements on scrap paper, all form part of this exploration.

  3. Seamlessly flow to paint the scene. I want to paint loosely, so I start painting sessions with a warm up, and when I start to feel really connected to the creative process, I try to seamlessly flow into the “project” I want to work on. Reminding myself, “This is an experiment” helps me to keep the painting loose.

  4. Repeat, but rebel. With a version or two of a scene already attempted, the next painting is a reaction to the previous painting. It usually comes with a stern “pep talk” to remind me not to make the mistakes of the last painting, and with that, I try to work to the other extreme; i.e. if the last painting was overworked, I try to paint a version that is minimalistic.

  5. Put the reference photo away. After 5 or 6 versions, expect that you know the scene well enough that you will be able to paint it competently, and that the photo being out of sight will help your creative self to emerge more fully and add depth to the scene.

  6. Commit to authenticity. Somewhere along the way, I quietly made a personal commitment to repaint a scene as many times as it took to get the most authentic representation of myself on the paper. This is hard to define; think of it as creating a painting that your gut says, “This is the one.” I don’t always get there with every reference photo, sometimes I have set one aside and decided that I needed space from the subject and would find it again in the future, but for the scenes that matter most, I have found my voice by sticking through 5, 10 or even 20 versions of that painting.

  7. Let go of “should,” and chase “what if.” This is the secret sauce that has transformed me from “stuck” to inspired. When you are painting a scene multiple times, there are certain elements that feel like essentials to help the painting hang together. If I am stuck in the painting process and just don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere, I like to challenge those “have to’s” with a “who says?!” Try a version where you leave out the “essential” elements and see what happens! And always, always follow the “what if” risks, no matter how risky they feel. The times when I was closest to making a decision that would ruin my painting are the times when I have painted my most powerful work.

Join my new landscape course, Heart-Led Landscapes when it opens June 1, 2019. Click here to sign up for more details and the information session May 31st. 

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