How to Use Photo Editing to Help You Paint Details

I’ve been working on a painting for a family member, based on this photograph I took in Oregon.


That’s my husband and three year old son standing in front of Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach.  I made a post earlier on using masking tape to make horizon lines, and I’m picking up where I left off there to show you another one of my favorite tricks.

As a self-taught artist, most of my art education has come from doing custom paintings for clients from photographs.  This has been a fantastic way to get out of my comfort zone and discover new technical skills through trial-and-error. 

Along the way, I discovered that I’m much better at painting than I am at drawing.  I can eventually sketch the right shape and perspective from a photo, with a lot of time and erasing. but that’s not really feasible on a painted background.  For small, precise details like the two figures, I use a system of digitally resizing and tracing with carbon paper.

First, I crop and resize the photo detail I want to reproduce in a photo editing program.  I eyeballed my canvas and decided that the figures should be approximately 2″ tall, so I made them that size in the file and printed them out.  You might want to experiment with the size by printing it a few times until it’s just right.


Once I had my figures printed out to the right size, I positioned them on the canvas with a piece of graphite paper for tracing, and taped the stack in place with masking tape (again, only do this once your background is 100% dry).


I used a pencil to trace the figures onto the canvas, then moved the picture to the side to use it as a guide while I painted in the figures over my pencil markings.  Same result as if I did it freehand, but much faster and cleaner…


Finished!  Working from photos also gives you the opportunity to improve on composition and coloring.  Don’t get frustrated trying to copy your reference photo exactly.  I made the figures smaller than in the original, and moved them clear of the rocks at the horizon for a nicer layout.

cb_detail cb_finished

Father and Son, 16″x 20″ acrylic on canvas, copyright © Kathryn Beals

You can find this painting in my Etsy shop as a digital print or canvas print.  The original painting is not for sale.

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