Thinking through Photos

Posted June 19 2017

Originally Posted on: Jun 25, 2012 by: Lynn Powers

A photo is a reference tool. You don't need your photo to be perfect. You are using it as a reference, not as law. This monthly series helps teach beginning watercolorists how to look at a photograph and prepare to paint it.

When I first look at a photo, I think about what I like. I like the angle I have to the subject. The angle creates interest. I like that there are some interesting things happening with reflected light. Notice how in the windows just to the left of the stop sign, one of the windows is yellow and one is brown. I like that the house has nice shadows. Shadows are an incredibly wonderful source of information as shadows describe the shape of the object really well. (If I had taken the photograph at noon on a cloudy day I wouldn't have had these shadows.)

This is Powers' orignal photograph before cropping.

Now let's walk through what I will change about the photograph. There is a lot of visual clutter in this photograph, and much of it I will take out when I create my drawing. (Remember, you are not a slave to your photograph! It is only a reference.) I'll remove the stop sign. I'll take out the blue house on the left side all together and use that space to bring down the sky. Speaking of sky, I'll move the telephone pole behind the house as a way to break up all that blue. I will also change the cropping. I don't want to move it too far in from the right because then I'd be left with a large dark shape on the right of my drawing. Such a shape would pull my viewer's eye out of the picture. So I'll leave a little of the light building. On the left side, I'll extend it out even further so that I have a chance to elongate the fence and add the fence gate. That way I can deal with the fence.

Fences can be a bit tricky in a painting for several reasons. First, they create a psychological barrier between the viewer and the subject. By adding a gate, the viewer has a way to access the painting. (Pretty amazing, right?) The second tricky component of fences is that especially in the case of this white picket fence, it's just a lot of drawing. I'd adjust the spacing so that I didn't have to draw as many.

Cropping is a great way to adjust your photograph. (Left) This was my first crop. I didn't like that there was so much dark on the right side. (Right) I added back in the white wall. I'll extend the fence-line even further left although I won't be able to have a photograph that shows it.


On the right side of my painting, the fence provides a neat opportunity to play with darks and lights. I'll add a green shrub between the fence and the house, which will create a wonderful light on dark on light pattern.

In terms of techniques, I'll work mostly in local color (the color you see in the painting: white of paper, blue sky, brown roof, etc.) I will use predominately flat washes to create smooth areas of pigment. I'll paint wet into wet for my background and to create clouds, and I'll use graded washes to introduce a touch of warm to the underneath side of the eves for a bit of reflected light.

You can see all of these ideas in motion with Lynn Powers watercolor DVD workshop, A Solid Start in Watercolor,  from Creative Catalyst Productions.