Landscape Painting from Photos: Cooper Mountain Run

For years I have resisted the use of photos. But considering my current schedule and the fact that it gets dark her around 4:30 I’m almost forced to do a landscape painting from photos if I ever want to work on landscapes at all. So I think it’s time to learn about the benefits and shortcomings of working from photographs.

I must give credit to a post by James Gurney who writes about Ivan Shishkin and his use of photography.

“… Let me give you one major piece of advice, that underlies all of my painting secrets and techniques, and that advice is — photography. It is a mediator between the artist and nature and one of the most strict mentors you’ll ever have. And if you understand the intelligent way of using it, you’ll learn much faster and improve your weak points. You’ll learn how to paint clouds, water, trees — everything. You’ll better understand atmospheric effects and linear perspective and so on…”

The key to this quote by Shishkin is “understand the intelligent way of using it”. So while Pattie and I were out running through Cooper Mountain Nature Park I was also snapping photos of scenes on the trail that I though would make a good composition. I didn’t just take a single photo though. I would take one regular photo letting my iPhone adjust the exposure. Then I would take two more photos, one over exposed and the other under exposed.

Later at home I pulled all these photos into Photoshop and picked one that stood out as the best and most interesting composition. Then I began looking at each exposure in turn trying to figure out where the photos were lacking. Right away I noticed the much higher contrast then the original scene. The shadows in photos are almost all black and only the over expose photos would show a more accurate shadow area. But along with these over exposed photos the sky had turned almost pure white. Luckily the HDR feature on the iPhone did a lot of work correcting this but I still took the three photos and used Photoshop to merge them together pulling the best from each and making one photo that I could paint from. But I didn’t stop there.

Landscape Painting from Photos: Cooper Mountain Run, photo with cutout filter
Photo with Photoshop cutout filter

One thing about photos is the difficulty I have with looking at their extreme details and deconstructing it into simplistic brushwork. So I used Photoshop to help me out here. Above is the photo I took after applying a “cutout” filter to it. I Though this filter was really nice in breaking up all the details into manageable shapes. This photo I would use for my initial block-in of the painting.

Landscape Painting from Photos: Cooper Mountain Run, photoshop dry brush filter
Photo with Photoshop dry brush filter

This second image is the same photo but instead it has a “dry brush” filter applied to it. This one is nice because it retains a lot of the original color and values but still dumbs down the detail enough so it’s not distracting. While I was painting from these two filtered photos they were a constant reminder to keep it simple and not get too detailed.

Landscape Painting from Photos: Cooper Mountain Run, original photo
Original photo

Here is the original photo, well, its a combination of three photos of different exposures.

Landscape Painting from Photos: Cooper Mountain Run, setup with iPad
Setup for painting with iPad

One issue I notice now after the painting is done is that the iPad really intensified the colors in the photo. The color are not near as saturated in real life or in the photo I took while on location.

Session Details