working from photos - drawing from reference images

It may seem a bit strange to start a series of pastel lectures with Photography. Why not drawing?  - one might ask? This course is grounded in the realities of the 2020s where we are bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of photo images every day. We have restricted time to devote to our passion - art. Gone are the days of long drawing apprenticeships - unfortunately. Academic drawing used to be the backbone of any aspiring artist. Good or bad, this is not todays reality and with so much technology, the reliance on digital media is inevitably. I will not pretend that we are still living in Monet's time. On the contrary, we will investigate technology and embrace it as long as it resonates our internal creativity.

None the less, drawing is a fundamental skill in any artist. Every artist needs to have at least a decent grasp of drawing, ideally a very good grasp. It is not the scope of these Lecture notes to teach drawing here. For that there are a multitude of online courses, books, and far better physical drawing schools, one-to-one teachers and groups. 

If you missed the train for academic drawing lessons in your past, do not despair. The next best thing is En Plein Air painting, and/or live drawing groups. These are groups made out of friends that have fun with drawing while not taking the matter too serious to send the uninitiate hiding away. Search your local area for such groups, they always exist in some form or another. These groups are often shy of the outside world, but often accommodate fellow artists. 

Finally, some training (formal and informal)in photography is also an excellent asset. There are courses that encourage you to see and evaluate. Do not confuse snapshot-taking with the much more considerate photography. Photography evaluates many parameters, including tonal values of shades, light, colour, composition and a myriad of other parameters. The idea is simple, the better the reference image, the better the drawing skill, all the better the success of a great outcome of our final pastel artwork.  

Photography and the artist have a relationship that stretches way back to the Impressionists and beyond.

Unless one is doing still life, live portraits, or en plein air work, chances are that you are drawing upon a reference picture. You need the best possible picture for the purpose. Below is a checklist of what constitutes a good reference image:

1) Who took the photo? Do you have rights to use it?

2) Is it clear, focused and has enough detail?  Has it got good lighting?

3) Is the image too detailed and busy? 

4) do you need to change elements in it? For example change colours

5) Cropping - do you need to depict only a part of the whole photo? 

6) Are you composing your pastel painting from several reference images? 

1) Who took the image? This is a first and very important question. Everything is solved and approved if you paint from your own images that you snapped yourself. Henry paints exclusively from his own images taken by his digital camera, film camera, and his own drone. One might argue that for practice purposes, a pastel student can get away with painting for image of other photographers. This is certainly not a practice that can be approved. First of all photographers are fellow artists and command our respect, second that have copyright laws protecting from copying. One may spend years using the images of others without bothering to ask for consent, getting away scot free, but one day that artist may face court for copyright infringement. Also if your art career flourishes, critics will start reviewing early works and will inevitably come across infringements. 

There is more reason why using the images of others is not a good idea. These images lack the intention and composition of the artist using them. The artist is detached from the original scene, only attracted by the convenience of that found image. This ''lack of intent'' will very likely be picked up by the viewers after seeing the finished pastel piece. 

Royalty-free image websites could be used for inspiration and reference - some are free or you can buy images for a small fee. Again, such sources should be used very sparingly if any at all. 

Another way to go about using images of other artists (photographers are artists too) is to get their consent - in writing, for example via email. This is very often the case with commissions. The commissioner provides an image - for example, a picture of the family cat. At such a level, it's harmless to assume that the author of the photo is the commissioner himself or the immediate members of the family. But on occasions, some clients turn up with obviously professionally shot landscapes. I such cases this should send alarm bells ringing and it is to be made clear that you need written consent ( from the original photographer) to go ahead and use that image. The artist should archive written consents for very prolonged periods of time. 

Another way to work with images of unknown authorship is to use those images very loosely and interpretatively such as the resulting pastel piece is detached and practically unrecognisable - when compared to the original photo. 

Finally, some art by other artists (often long dead) enter the realm of iconic status of art. For example a student wants to interpret the Mona Lisa in pastels, or the King Tut mask, or much more recent works. In such cases the finished pastel work has to result in a shift from the original work and not signed at all or sighed by the pastel artist - but never copying the signature of the original artist. A note at the back of the painting should ascertain the original artist as the originator (if known).

2) Is it clear? So you decided to go ahead and use a specific image to work from. Now not all images are born equal. Some images may have a great view or portrait but they are actually dismally shot. Dim, unfocused, gritty and grainy, lacking contrast. The pet portrait pic supplied my be of dismal quality - you cannot differentiate the cat from the couch. Remember that reference pictures need to have much more information than you plan to put in the actual pastel.  Figuratively speaking....If want to paint a pastel ,say with a detail level of 5, you need a reference picture with a detail of 7 or more. You cannot achieve a pastel detail of level 5 from a picture of level 4. Very few artists have the genius to multiply and fantasise details above and beyond the referend photo. 

The solution to inferior images is simple - reject them. Walk away from a situation where you have not even started and the odds are clearly stacked against you. Can you go and take the images yourself? Or on another day with more light? Improving in art is all about getting busy and smart. Convivence breeds complacency and that is a fast slippery road that we do not want to subscribe to. 

3) Too detailed, too busy? On the other extreme of the scale some reference picture are incredibly detailed and need simplification and calming down. This requires experience to be done successfully. Again, a beginner might have to acknowledge that some images are 'unpaintable' with the current skill set. That said, reducing and simplifying is more achievable and with a squint of the eyes one might glimpse a reduced ghosted image that is more likely to be able to be interpreted in pastels. 

Compositions that make up a reference image are discussed in detail in another Lecture Notes - Advanced - Composition and Storytelling

4) Changing elements. Ok, so you have an image that you kind of like, it is clear, well lit and with good usable detail, but there is something not right...there are too much trees on the left, there is a haunting looking individual in the landscape, the dog image supplied is missing its hind legs...

A good artist does not need to slave away at an image, furthermore, one is obliged to improve on it. Photography copies the world mechanically, warts and all, artists can alter and infuse values that humanise that same image. It's a great opportunity to further one's feelings. Beginners might opt not to dare rock the boat - and that's fine. Eventually, experience teaches us to venture a bit further afield. 

I call this play of photo elements and preparation, between the photo image and the adaptation onto the pastel surface, the conceptual phase. The artist has endless opportunities now to edit and be creative in a way that will no longer be possible once the final drawing is committed onto the drawing surface.  

The conceptual phase is a weak spot in many artists. I cannot stress enough how golden this rather small window of opportunity is. 

Ok - so we have selected and thought about a really good image - what's the way ahead? The conceptual phase is nearing completion and we have a good idea of where this is going.


In some form or another, we have to transfer the photo image, that information has to migrate onto our pastel surface. There are many ways how to do this:

  1. Freehand drawing

  2. Squaring/tracing/transfering/projecting/gridding/pantography

  3. Cartooning

1)Freehand drawing requires a lot of skill and is extremely valuable. Drawing a lifelong pursuit for any artist and can pay huge dividends when mastered to at least at a decent level. The artist can sketch freehand, unaided, directly onto the pastel surface, with a pencil, while having the reference image in front. 


2) Squaring


3) Cartooning is a very powerful technique as it squeezes the last drops of creative juice from the conceptual phase. It reveals errors before they happen. Cartooning has nothing to do with Walt Disney, it’s a technique used since medieval frescos and possibly as early as the Egyptian tomb decorators.

This concludes the exploration of a photographic image used for reference material. Some purists may argue that drawing from reference images is 'sinful' in art, others may argue that reference images are ok, but for example, using the squaring technique may be a 'cheat'. Some self-appointed critics see themselves as gatekeepers, judging the threshold of assistance that one can get. It is my opinion to keep gatekeepers where they belong, fixed to their gatepost. You the artist can roam free from nonsense and shackes, liberated to experiment and enjoy art as you see fit.