Photo references

I often work on commission–that is, I paint what someone asks me to paint. This is different from painting what I want to paint. Fortunately, rarely do I find that what I want to paint is at odds with what a client wants.

I normally don’t like to publicly a reference photo beside the painting I made from it, because people will inevitably compare and judge the accuracy of my work. But this post is all about photo references. So don’t dwell on comparing photos with paintings!

Boxed Set: Isabel and William

A good reference photo affects my attitude toward a painting, which in turn affects the work’s success. This one, which I like to call “Boxed Set,” was not a commission, but I wanted to paint it because the photo, taken by the cats’ human, Glenn Court, was excellent. The light is warm and the colours are rich, the shadows and highlights are in high contrast, the details are sharp. The photo is taken at the cats’ level, not their human’s level. And the concept is appealing.

I loved painting this, partly because there was no pressure to please a client. But I love to paint something beautiful, and there was so much to work with from the reference photo.


Another recent example is the painting of Abby, a Jack Russell terrier. This was a commission for someone who wanted to give the painting to her friends, Abby’s humans, as a surprise. But she had only one photo, which, we both agreed, was not a good photo. I wasn’t sure I could discern enough detail to represent a recognizable version of Abby.

I struggled with it, and I felt deflated as I worked. I spent a lot of time on it, anxious to get it right. This is when a commission can feel like a burden. But I learned something as I proceeded and I ended up loving this painting.

The painting succeeds because the photo was taken at the dog’s level; the eyes are clear, with a highlight visible in each eye; the light is good enough that the dog’s nose and collar cast shadows; and the photo captures this little dog’s very sweet personality–not just a typical Jack Russell but something a bit more individual to this dog.

So I focused on getting the shapes as correct as possible, achieving high contrast, and adding extra liveliness through the colour and brushwork of the background. To my surprise, it works (even if it may not be completely accurate–stop comparing!!).

Choosing a good reference photo

A good reference photo:

  • Captures the personality of the subject (which is not necessarily the same as a photo that captures a good memory of the subject)
  • Shows main features clearly, especially eyes and nose
  • Shows highlights in at least one eye
  • Is taken at the subject’s level
  • Is taken in a light that creates both bright highlights and shadow, maybe cast by nose, ears, etc. (Poor light means all the features are similar in tone.)
  • Is appropriate to the size of canvas. A big dog doesn’t work very well on a small canvas, though it is possible.