Taking a Long, Slow Look at a Reference Photo Before Painting

You’ve got your reference photo, so you stick it up next to your canvas and start painting away enthusiastically. But, really, like doing thumbnails before we start, taking a long slow look at the photo to think about what’s in it, and what we might include in a painting, is time well spent.

The photo below is a page in my sketchbook where I made notes as I looked at the reference photo for this month’s painting project. (Click on the photo to see a larger version.)

I started writing from the right-hand side of the page (I’ve no idea why), considering one aspect at a time of what I see and what I might use in a painting. So: elements I could include, colours in the photo, paint colours I might use, mark making possibilities, format, position of horizon, things to emphasise. (Elements to leave out could be another.)

Working through a photo with one aspect in mind narrows your focus, concentrates your attention, and can pull you in deeper and deeper with that one thing. If you made a spreadsheet with multiple headings and tried to consider them all together, it may seem faster, but it’s multi-tasking which means it’s harder to do to the same depth.

It’s not something you need to spend hours doing, nor do your notes need to be detailed. It’s about encouraging yourself to slow down for a bit, to look a little longer. Photos are taken in no time at all. What we decide to include or leave out needs a little longer consideration.

Certainly, I don’t always do it, and I don’t always move thoughts about a photo from my head onto paper. I justifying not doing it to myself by saying I use my own photos anyway, so I’ve already seen the scene with my own eyes and have visual memories. Ideally it’s something I’ll have done on location, but second best is to do it from a photo. The more I look, the more I see.

4 Replies to “Taking a Long, Slow Look at a Reference Photo Before Painting”

  1. Your article on using a photo was so helpful! Thank you 🙏 for your wonderful ideas, instructions and inspiration!❤️👏🙏⭐️

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