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  • Writer's pictureSean Burnley

Tips for good portrait painting and image sources.

Success or failure of an artwork hinges on the quality of the reference source. Here are some tips for newbie artists looking to create better works.

I often get people send me pics from their phone asking if I can paint the subject from that image. Unfortunately, those images are usually low resolution and don't have enough detail to work from. Now some phone photos have been known to produce decent works of art so I'm not saying it's impossible. But usually an artist needs a high-res image to work from and phone photos are just too small. It used to be that the subject would ‘sit’ for a painting for hours on end. In today's fast-paced world, sitting for long periods while the artist works is not feasible and everyone values their time.

Having someone sit for a portrait is going to be impractical so you will more than likely be working from a photograph. So what makes a good photo to work from? An image with good lighting and a good light source is ideal. One that has good light direction with shadows. You want something with drama that models the face and the features well with light and shadow. Try to avoid washed out faces often caused by flash photography. A lot of magazine photography shows more flat and fully lit faces which does not work as well for creating paintings.

If you are not making a finished painting commercially available, you can work from found images in magazines, books, online and elsewhere just for your own practice. In addition to shooting your own photographs, there are unlimited resources on the internet where you can purchase images for a small fee in order to paint from. Sites like,,, and more sell royalty free images. Just do an online search for ‘royalty free stock photography.’ “Royalty free” generally means that once purchased, the image can be used for your purposes in creating ads, designs, artwork, online posts, and more. There

are almost always exceptions to their use so read the fine print when you purchase these royalty free stock images.

Ideally you want to create your own reference sources by taking your own photographs. So based on your knowledge and experience of painting, try to capture images that have a good light source. The best practice is to get shadows mixed with highlights and light areas. You can defuse the light and shadows somewhat by shooting in the shade if you do not want too harsh of lighting on your subject.

You may have heard of ’North light’ especially when it comes to still life painting. That's because North light is light coming from the north which is usually defused. This defused light creates a pleasant modeling on the subject and drama. Painters will set up their still lifes near a window which faces north to work from. The same will work for your reference photographs.

I hope this sheds some light (pun intended) on what makes for a good reference image in your portraits and paintings. Until next time, go out there and paint with passion.

Sean Burnley

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