Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785-1787
With digital painting applications, such as Corel Painter or Art Rage, you can create images which resemble traditional paintings. These tools include digital “brushes”, which cause the cursor to mimic traditional media, such as oil, pastel, and watercolor. While the applications do an amazing job, you will still need to follow the rules for good composition, color, and design. In addition, you need to be aware of what it is that makes a painting look like a painting. In order to turn a photograph into a painting, you need to accomplish two things:
- Remove the visual clues that tell the viewer “this is a photograph”
- Add in the visual clues that tell the viewer “this is a painting”
Try this exercise: look at a photograph, and ask yourself “How do I know this is a photograph?” We take photographs so much for granted, you may not find this an easy question to answer. Here’s a start. Photographs are characterized by hard lines. Everything in focus is highly detailed and realistic. The background is typically fuzzy, out of focus. In a painting, however, an artist uses selective focus to draw the eye where he wants the viewer to look. For example, take a look at the Gainsborough portrait shown here. I chose this painting because it’s a rather extreme example of our first principle:
1. The face should be the focus
Look at how sharply defined the face is in this portrait. It practically leaps out at you. Everything else is done in a very loose, flowing style. As I said, this is an extreme example, just to prove a point. You probably won’t want the face in your portrait to be quite so different from the background. But you will want it to draw the viewer’s eye. The subject’s eyes should command attention, followed by the rest of the face, followed by the rest of the figure. The background should play a supporting role, which brings us to:
2. The background should not compete with the subject
This may seem obvious, but when you are painting from a photograph, there’s a great temptation to copy absolutely everything you see there. DON’T. Do some creative editing. Remove things (telephone poles, for example) that don’t add to the picture. Simplify. One trick here is to zoom out from the image. If you’re too close, you’ll paint every strand of hair.
3.Soften hard lines and edges
The most telling characteristic of a photograph is the high level of detail. The more you simplify, soften, and stylize, the less your image will resemble a photograph. Look for the major shapes and forms. You’ll be surprised how much detail you can remove while still retaining a likeness.
Let’s take a look at these principles in action. Here’s a photograph, taken at a Renaissance Faire.
Notice the background in this photograph. It’s out of focus. It has that mechanical, photographic look to it that’s hard to describe, but is very characteristic of photographs. This is definitely an area we do NOT want to copy verbatim. Another “photographic clue” is the unnatural highlight in her eyes, from the camera flash. We’ll replace this with a more natural highlight. The details in her clothing are a give-away, too. Here’s my painted version (created in Corel Painter):
The background here has broad brushstrokes. It compliments the subject without competing. I chose to eliminate the brooch she was wearing, since it was distracting. Notice the flower on the hat: it’s just a white shape, with very little detail, yet you know instantly what it is. This is a kind of visual shorthand, and allows the viewer to fill in the details you’ve left out. It’s important to let the viewer participate in the image. Paintings allow this, while photographs spell everything out.
This next photograph, from the same Renaissance Faire, is more of a challenge. The man’s hair and the feathers in his hat need to be simplified to look “painterly.”
Here’s the painted version:
The hair and feathers are represented by broad strokes, yet they retain their identity. I’ve eliminated some of the details of his costume entirely, while the remaining details have been simplified. The highest level of detail is reserved for the face.
Here’s a close-up, showing the brushwork:
Keep the three principles in mind as you paint from photographs, and work through the other tutorials on the site. You’ll be happy with the results!
(Renaissance Faire photography courtesy of Photography on the Run.)
- 10 Tips for Turning a Photo into a Painterly Portrait with Corel Painter
- Tutorial: From Photo to Painting using Painter’s Quick Clone
- Tutorial: Basic Portrait Painting Technique for Corel Painter
- Inspiration: Painting Faux-Historical Portraits
- Tutorial: Painting the Eyes with Corel Painter
- Tutorial: Preparing a Beach Photo for Painting in Corel Painter
- From Photo to Painting with the Smudge Brush