1. Design & Illustration
  2. Theory

Learn Digital Painting Concepts From Photo References

Read Time:6 minsLanguages:

Painting in Photoshop can seem like quite a challenge to take on. An idea may be vivid in your mind but hard to translate to canvas. To help out this process, many artists use photo references to understand the elements of their pieces such as lighting, composition, and perspective. In this article I'll show you what you can learn from referencing photos as well as how to apply those concepts and techniques to your digital art.

Questions You Should Ask Before and During Your Painting

When I attack a new painting, I plan it out as thoroughly as possible in order to understand how to approach it the best way. I draw mini sketches of different compositions, write lots of notes about its symbolism and key details to remember, and try out various color tests with the final sketch until I'm satisfied. Knowing which questions to answer as you're painting will train you in noticing and implementing incredible detail to your work. These answers also prepare you for researching the best photo references to guide you to your desired result.

Here are some basic questions for your next piece:

  1. What is the focus of this painting?
  2. Where is the light source?
  3. What is the mood? (includes symbolism)
  4. What is the composition? (Portrait, perspective, etc)
  5. What is the color scheme?
  6. Which brushes and/or PS tools will I need and for what?

Photo References

Once you understand these basic questions you can gather up as many photo references as you need to help execute your work. I have chosen three very different sxc.hu stock photos to learn essential painting concepts in Photoshop, and in these next sections I'll show you how to effectively apply these ideas to your art.

Photo Reference #1: The African Plains

Let's say you want to create a painting with a beautiful sunset like The African Plains. Feel free to continue to ask questions during this process in order understand the components of your reference. For instance, are these trees black? No, but they appear black because the light source of the sun has fallen behind them creating a silhouette, while negating nearly all the details of the trees.

What other details can you notice that might help your composition? Looking real closely, you can see both the sky and the grass create lots of slightly angled lines while the trees bluntly separate the two. Training your eyes to see this will help you create visual continuity in your paintings.

Executing This Style

When trying to execute this sunset, it's safe to say you can stay with the normal soft and hard round brushes. Use a very soft, low opacity round brush to paint the clouds with the colors melting into each other, a hard high opacity round brush to create the blunt, textural strokes of the trees, and a slightly hard, mid to high opacity brush for the grass. Consider the role that organizing your layers plays in Photoshop too. You can effectively compose a similar background, middle ground, and foreground by creating the layers as grass, trees, and sky (from top to bottom).

Also realize that a significant story is being told in the photograph. Day is now turning into night, and you can utilize this concept for perhaps a powerfully symbolic painting about one chapter ending and another beginning.

Photo Reference #2: Jack The Cat

"Jack the cat" is as adorable as can be posing for the camera, but which techniques can you see in our furry friend's photo? The key to painting animals is to highlight the features we love the most, a technique done well in the photo referenced below.

Cats are known for their prominent ears, gorgeously mysterious eyes, and lovely thin whiskers, and if you look closely at this reference, you'll see that the body of the cat as well as the background of the photo is blurred, while the head still remains in focus. The camera's viewpoint is above the eye level of the cat where we can see the top of its head, but not too high that we would see either the back of its neck or the top of its body--an important idea when understanding character position.

Executing This Style

Have you noticed that the composition of the reference favors the right side, making it almost appear heavier on the right as opposed to the mystery and openness of the background to its left? In fact we have many things favoring the right side of this photo, from the position of Jack's head, to where he's looking, as well as an additional light source far beyond the camera's reach.

A beginner to painting may think that tiny, incredibly thin, and wispy brush strokes are necessary to conveying the look of animal fur, but this isn't always true. What's crucial is to understand the directional path of Jack the cat's lovely coat. Rather than the porcupine hair it's most often mistaken for, the cat's coat follows the contours of the face while moving outward and backward in several directions stemming from the nose and the eyes. I would use a blunt, round brush to convey the look of Jack's fur on his face, while incorporating softer, round brushes for the rest of his body, as well as the background.

This photo is creating an interesting story that can be easily implemented for a painting. Discovering the mystery behind what exactly has Jack's attention also adds to the image by inviting the viewer's intrigue.

Photo Reference #3: Black And White Portrait

This last reference is a striking black and white portrait we can learn a lot from. How would you approach a painting with such a powerful singular light source? In order to understand this lighting setup, study the bright spots and directional path of its source located to the bottom-right of this scene.

Notice that the shadows are organic in form, so instead of painting with sharp angular lines, paint with soft, curvy shapes to effectively illustrate them. What about her body position? Initially, she looks like she could be sitting back in a chair, with the photographer taking the shot from high above especially because the photo is upright. But the dead giveaway that she's lying down on a surface is that her hair folds beneath her head.

Executing This Style

Large portions of the woman's body reside in the negative space where the strong shadows fall, so roughly sketch out her entire body before painting the light and shadows. Looking closely, the photo has a slight blur to it, so softer, mid opacity round brushes would be used for her face and body. However, working out the other details such as her hair and lace top, may require a harder round brush.


We are able to pick up all these details with our eyes because they are in obvious in a photo, but developing a strong, original composition from your mind is much harder than it seems. Luckily, we have this wondrous world of photo referencing to bail us out of "painter's block." Remember to keep asking yourself questions during the process, and soon you'll know exactly how to execute your next painting. Which other concepts or techniques do you think you can learn from these photos?

One subscription.
Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads