References, Please!

One of the reasons I don’t do plein air painting is my concern that I’d never be able to accurately paint the scene before me. When I made a remark to that effect at an art club meeting one evening I was assured that it didn’t matter, really. “Your painting isn’t supposed to look exactly like the scene,” several artists pointed out. I nodded in understanding, but my concerns go far beyond simply painting a scene that looks a little different. I’ve been known to start out painting a rocky ledge and end up with a seascape. Or I might try painting a seascape and end up with a rocky ledge! And that’s when I’m working from reference photos. This is why I save myself the embarrassment of trying to paint plein air, especially with other artists around.

So, for me, reference photos are an important part of my studio work. While truly I have been known to end up with scenes that are far, far different from the image I’m working from, I am getting better. When possible I enjoy taking my own reference photos. At other times, I turn to one of the online sites for artist reference photos. 

But whether I use a personal photograph or one from an online source, one of the most important things to keep in mind, I’ve learned, is that not all reference photos are created equal. I’ve learned to look for specific qualities before I select a photo.

  1. Effective compositions should have three or four distinct masses and/or “value areas”.
  2. A good reference photo should have a well-defined focal point.
  3. Directional elements in a reference can add interest.
  4. An aspect of harmony should be suggested.
  5. Principles of asymmetry and balance should both be present. If not, we’ll need to make adjustments.
  6. Shapes should be simple and easy to identify.

Following these criteria, I found this landscape reference photo at Pixabay:

An Oak Tree In A Beautiful Rolling Landscape In The Cotswolds, England

Using a photo-editing program, I removed all color from the image. Here you can see that there are several distinct “value areas.”

An Oak Tree In A Beautiful Rolling Landscape In The Cotswolds, England

Now, about that focal point. I think we’d probably all agree that the oak tree is quite an attention-getter. Definitely that will be my focal point when I paint this “beautiful rolling landscape.”

Directional elements? Yes. Notice the pathway leading toward the focal point. The gentle slope of the hills on either side help guide the eye toward the tree. The burst of white clouds does the same.

A “unifying device” I see present in this scene is the “rolling” aspect. I see a lot of curved lines throughout the photo.

And simple shapes? I think the reference photo passes the “shapes test”, too. I could take a Sharpie and outline several distinct shapes on the picture.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I’ve grabbed a canvas and have started laying in the basic shapes. You’ll see how it turns out in an upcoming post. Until then, I hope these ideas and suggestions for choosing reference photos will be helpful to you in your art.


  1. Plein air painting is hard! I find that I want to paint what is before me, and yet in the studio, I tend to “respond” to my work. I don’t want to exactly match the color, etc. from my reference, so I respond to the work that I have done to determine my next step, if that makes sense. For example, I have used “these” colors, so this “next” color makes sense. Somehow I revert to being literal when painting en plein air, probably just because of the changing light. They say knowing the issue is half the battle…

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    1. I first tried plein air a few summers ago, and initially I thought, “Oh, this is fun.” But since then, I’ve become more and more hesitant about it. I definitely would not feel comfortable in a group setting. Going out alone is better, but it’s still a lot of hassle. To me, the inconvenience spoils all the fun. I know it would probably help me become a better artist, but maybe I’m still just not ready for plein air painting.

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  2. Thank you for this post! It has explained an awful lot to a beginner like me in a very easy to understand way.

    Like you have said,I often start off with something in mind but end up with something completely different 😄. All part of the learning curve, though.

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    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sometimes ends up with something completely — COMPLETELY — different from what I intended to paint. Yes, I remember trying to paint a rocky ledge once. It was so awful! I think it ended up being a scene of a lake or a river. Let’s just say it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the original reference photo! As you point out, it is part of learning.

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    1. Going out “plein air” on my own is one thing… no one has to see my mistakes unless I choose to share. Going out with a group… nope, for me, that’s out of the question right now. I’ll go out and take a sketchbook or use my phone as a camera, but I won’t try painting. I’m hoping this summer maybe I can venture out a bit on my own and try to get more accustomed to it. We’ll see!

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      1. I do that at times. Tomorrow, for instance, you’ll see the painting that I made from the reference photo shown here in this post — The Cotswold Oaks. BTW, I’m browsing your blog at the moment and loving both your photography and your art work. Very nice!

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  3. Your story reminded of a tale I heard Peter Blake relate. He was walking along the North Downs and saw an artist painting on the grassy slopes. He wandered over to see what the man was painting. It turned out to be a seascape or some other random subject.

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