Painting from a Photograph

Caroline, at To Regions Solitary, had a photograph that one of her students had lent to her. We were discussing how to paint from it and she suggested seeing what I could do. I don't usually like to use a photograph that I haven't taken. So much of my painting is about my own response to the landscape. However I like a challenge sometimes. As this was a bit of a technical exercise, I thought it might be interesting to explain my working methods.

 This was the photograph I had to start with and, as it stands, it wouldn't have made a good painting. The composition is very cramped and unbalanced, and all the colours have an unnatural pinkish hue. I tried to imagine how I might have looked at the view if I had been standing in front of it. Then I made a sketch based on the photograph. This was now a much better basis for a painting.

Materials used


1/4 sheet of Saunders Waterford Extra White, 140lb (300gsm) Rough.


Colours (Winsor and Newton Artists' Watercolours):

Manganese Blue (hue)
French Ultramarine Blue
Permanent Rose
Raw Umber
Burnt Sienna

Stage 1

I began by drawing a few lines to indicate the main forms, but not putting in any detail. Too much detail in a drawing can lead to a tight painting which lacks any expression.

 Stage 2

I brushed clean water over the whole sky and down over the mountain on the right. Then, using the large wash brush, I painted in the clouds at the top with a mixture of Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine. I continued with a wash of Manganese Blue, brushing it into the clouds and down to the top edge of the mountain. This would leave a hard edge where the sun was reflecting off the snow. In places I carried the wash down over the mountain, where I wanted a softer edge. I also painted the water of the loch at this stage. I added a little Permanent Rose to the wash and painted it over most of the mountain, leaving unpainted paper for the snow, and added French Ultramarine for the darker area at the bottom.

The sky area was still damp and I went back and painted in some shadows on the clouds with a stronger, and drier, mix of French Ultramarine and Permanent Rose.

I covered the foreground with a wash of Raw Umber, leaving a slight gap at the top so that it wouldn't run into the blue of the loch. Burnt Sienna, added to the wet wash in places, gave a bit of variety. I was careful not to paint over the trunks of the trees, which I wanted to leave as white paper. This had all been done as one continuous operation and I now let all these washes dry completely.

Stage 3

Next, I changed to the size 12 brush and started to give a bit more form to the mountain. Where the warm light was catching the snow, I brushed in touches of pale Permanent Rose. Then I mixed French Ultramarine with a little Burnt Sienna and painted all the shadow areas. I added a little water and some Permanent Rose and carried this over the rest of the upper slopes, softening the edges with a damp brush. I made a dry mixture of the same colours and dry-brushed some texture onto the lowers slopes. Next, I used Burnt Sienna, with a little Permanent Rose and French Ultramarine, to paint the lower hill and the band of trees in the middle-distance. I added touches of stronger colour in places to indicate areas of shadow and distant woodland.

While these washes were drying, I painted some darker areas in the foreground, with various mixtures of Raw Umber, French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna.

Stage 4

I now started working on the trees. I didn't like the space to the left of the main group, so I added a smaller tree in the gap. This also helped to make them seem less isolated. Using the side of the size 12 brush, I painted the smaller branches and twigs just as areas of colour. This was Burnt Sienna with a touch of Permanent Rose. I added French Ultramarine for the shaded areas. The dark undergrowth around the base of the trees was Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine. I also added some indication of foreground detail with touches of Raw Umber or Burnt Sienna.

Sgurr à Mhuilinn
26 x 36 cm

The painting was almost finished now apart from some final touches. Using the size 8 brush, I painted in a few branches and some detail on the trunks of the trees. This was with a dark mixture of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. I felt that a bit of stronger colour was needed, so I put in some Permanent Rose on the trees and in a few places in the foreground. Nothing more needed to be done. There was just enough to give an impression of sunlight on a winter landscape, without any fussiness or overworking.

Although the painting is based on a photograph, it is more about my collective experience of mountain landscapes in winter. Without that knowledge I don't think I could have produced more than a dull copy of the original image.


  1. lovely demo Keith. Thanks for sharing. I really like the snow capped mountains in the distance.

  2. Hi Keith!... A wonderful "walk through" demonstration that certainly produced a fine Tilleyan result!

    Your demonstration and process from photograph to painting... embraced the two ingredients that makes this challenge a sucess: Solid planning prior to beginning to paint through an loose, simple sketch/guide... followed by a painting process which interprets rather than copies the elelments of the photograph!

    I much enjoyed this post... and seeing you meet your challenge so effectively! A gem Keith!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  3. Thanks Julie. The snow on the mountain was the thing that really interested me.

  4. Hi Bruce, I'm glad you enjoyed looking over my shoulder.

    All the best,

  5. This is a really super post and a beautiful finished painting too Keith. As you say, the new photo feature in blogger is great and allows you to see the painting process. Thanks for sharing that process with us!

  6. Thanks Michael. I agree, the new feature really works well for a post like this, where you can follow the process.

  7. It's this kind of post that makes blogging interesting. I believe in sharing the process with fellow artists. We can all learn from each other. Very interesting blog. Thanks

  8. Thanks Jean. I agree wholeheartedly that blogging should be about sharing information.

  9. A fabulous post Keith. I really enjoyed seeing how you interpreted the photograph rather than copied it. I learnt a great deal looking over your shoulder. Please do more of these. ;-)

    The new feature isn't working for me but it sounds great. Can't wait.

  10. I'm glad you enjoyed the post John. I will try to do more in future. I don't find it very easy though. I paint quickly and often forget to take photographs of the stages!

  11. Hi Keith I am back from my holiday on the east coast of Scotland St Andrews was a favourite and of course the cream teas! What a lovely surprise to see your step by step guide to painting the mountain scene from my student's photo. The brushes look very nice especially the large wash brush, my squirrel brush does tend to lose it's spring very quickly. I really like that almost turquoise blue in the sky too. A limited palette is always interesting and look how well the colours have gone together. The blue is not one I have used before. The photo was not inspiring yet you have produced a very fresh looking watercolour painting with some lovely colourful washes that depict the highlands so perfectly. A very interesting post Keith and thank you for taking on the challenge we can all learn so much from this demo.

  12. Hello Caroline, I'm glad you enjoyed your holiday and that the weather was so good for you.

    I'm not sure whether I really like Manganese Blue. I use it because it's such a good colour for skies and it's transparent, unlike Cerulean Blue. The pigment is actually Pthalocyanine Blue, so I think it must have a lot of filler in it to reduce the strength. I find that makes it a difficult colour to work with: It's difficult to get a strong wash and when it's dried on the palette, it's difficult to re-wet it.

  13. needless to say your painting is so much better than the photo keith...thanks for the steps! watercolors are a miracle to me...all i'm able to do with them is damage the paper!

  14. Ha, ha, Rob. That reminds me of Edward Wesson who said, I think, that he often looked at a clean sheet of paper and thought that it was the best watercolour he could paint. He then proceeded to ruin it by putting paint on!

  15. Keith, I've been awol, but catching up is fun... love this post and your piece is as always, wonderful... whether your there or not !!!! BJ

  16. I've been AWOL also Keith. Aberfeldy in the caravan. :)Many thanks for a great post, and the WIP. You make it look so easy! :)

  17. Hi Barbra Joan. Glad you enjoyed catching up.

  18. Thanks Ingrid. I hope you were away during this nice weather we've been having.

  19. This was very useful to me to see as I approach winter painting and begin to rely on quick on site sketches and my photographs.

    I am just learning that what makes a good photograph doesn't necessary make a good painting source.

    Thanks for this, it answers a lot of questions.

    Oh, and it is a great painting!


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