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.

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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.

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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).

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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…

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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.

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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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