Guidelines for Selecting Reference Photos

Since we will be working from photos in this class, it is essential that we have good reference material to work from. Please read the following guidelines as soon as possible so that you will have ample time to prepare. If it is not possible for you to gather photos before class, or if the photos you have aren’t good, I have many photos from my collection that you can use. Note: some of the guidelines use landscape examples, but they apply just as readily to still life and figurative subjects.

Ordinarily, I recommend that you use photos you have taken yourself. You will have a more personal connection to subjects that touched you in some way, and they make a more authentic statement about what interests you in the world. Also, working with your own photos is a better learning experience. In terms of painting requirements, you will be able to see what’s right about the photo, or what’s wrong. If you do not have photos, or the photos you have are not good, then you may use those from my collection.

It’s very important that your photos are not previously cropped. Most photographs are, because that is what typically happens when you look through the camera’s viewfinder and press the shutter. For artists, it’s better to take a wider angle shot, to zoom out, which gives you more information. In our exercises, we want the option of being able to crop the photo in several ways, which can only happen if we have that extra information all around the subject.

Any photograph that you like doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a good reference for a painting. A good reference photo, just like a good painting, must include certain essential cues that will help suggest depth and make for a good composition. Not all photos will meet these requirements, but the more they do, the better. At the other end of the spectrum, there are absolutely picture-perfect photos, perfectly cropped and exposed. Those kinds of photos are not good either, because they are an already-resolved visual problem. What’s left for you to do other than copy it?


Differentiation. Always make sure you are able to distinguish one shape from another. Ambiguous passages — places where the form and structure are unclear — are poison to a reference photo. If your painting is to capture spatial cues, the photo must have them, as well.

Select subjects with a clear cross-light. A clear cross-light provides the essential patterns of light and dark that create volume and model form in three-dimensions. Think of the subject as you would any still life, with a ¼, ½ or ¾ light on it. You would never set up a still life that was backlit or front-lit. For landscape painters, morning or late afternoon offers these conditions best, while midday light tends to wash out colors and values. See Optimal Orientation of Subject and Artist in Plein Air.

Interposition (overlap) and scale. In terms of visual perception, it is elements overlapping one another that tells us whether something is in front or behind, near of far. Scale, the relative size of elements, also supports this spatial perception.

Foreground, middle-ground and background. Establishing a foreground, middle-ground, and background is a tried and true method of organizing a composition into spatial layers.

Find perspective cues. Landscapes exert a very strong horizontal energy. Diagonals — and the perspective they create (think: the proverbial railroad tracks vanishing into the distance) are a powerful way to suggest depth. You do not have to be an architect or know how to plot one, two, and three-point perspective to take advantage of perspective. A road, a winding stream, a fence, a furrow in the foreground, or even a few unconnected objects that align at an angle can be all that’s needed.

Avoid problem subjects. There are a variety of subjects that make for difficult translation. They may be scenes that have wonderful color or seem spatial because our natural depth perception, but in fact lack enough spatial cues to hold a two dimensional painting together.

Be wary of backlit or front lit subjects. Subjects without a clear crosslight, such as sunrises and sunsets, can make for some very dramatic paintings; however, the essential cues for volume are compromised and shapes lose some or all of their modeling.

Shapeless walls of trees. Large, complex clusters of foliage or close ups of trees can become an indistinguishable mass of foliage and limbs, especially when there are few other landscape elements to relate to.

Strips of landscape that run horizontal to your field of vision without any verticals or diagonals will impose too much horizontality and minimize other spatial cues.

Patterns of light and dark don’t correspond to the actual forms, such as might be found in a densely wooded area.


Size. 4.5 x 6 inches snapshots are adequate. 5 x 7 enlargements are the optimal size. 8.5 x 11 prints are OK, but sometimes too big to trace from (too much area to trace). If you are unfamiliar with how to make enlargements, here are some suggestions.

  • If your image is digital and you have the capability to print from your home inkjet printer, then you can print out your own enlargements at half letter size or 5 x 7.
  • If you don’t have a printer at home, then you can bring the image file to a do-it-yourself Kodak kiosk. The Kodak printers at Bartell’s are fantastic.
  • If your photo is not digital, and all you have is a print, you can make color enlargements at FedEx Office or another copy store.

Black and white version of the photo. A black and white (grayscale) copy of you image can be helpful. A black and white photo makes it easier to read basic value patterns without the subjective distraction of color. If your image is digital, you can print out a black and white version from your home printer. Or, if you have an existing print, you can simply make a black and white copy at FedEx Office.