Painting from a Snapshot Photograph

At SmithKlein Gallery in Boulder, CO., last month, I painted a demonstration of how I sometimes work directly from a single photo.

Before anything else, I do want to stress the importance of working from life as much as possible.  In order to understand tonal value (the graduating differences from light to dark) in all it’s subtleties, you must study from life.  Even more importantly, in order to understand the temperature differences within tonal value, you must study from life.  A photograph typically does not convey the contrast of warm and cool tones in light and dark.  You’ve got to see it for yourself right in front of you.  

Impressionism would never have happened without painting directly from life.

SmithKlein Gallery Matt Abraxas Painting from Photograph

Painting Demonstration at SmithKlein Gallery

Sometimes, it can be difficult to paint from life because no one will sit for you.  First of all, begin painting yourself in the mirror.  You’re not going anywhere, and you don’t have to worry about keeping up a conversation.  Self portraits are an excellent vehicle not only for study but also as a reference for where what you’ve learned over time.  I paint a self portrait every year at my birthday and have done so for over 10 years.

You can also paint landscape or still life from life.  While these won’t show you the nuances of color in skin tones, it will sharpen your perception of the behavior of light and shadow.

And then there’s always figure drawing/painting groups.  Usually about $10 and you get 2-3 hours of a professional model sitting perfectly still.  You also get to meet other artists, which can be important for us solitary types.

A Candid Snapshot

Rebecca Abraxas Photographed By Matt Abraxas

Snapshot of Getting Ready For “Going Out”

My wife and I went to Vegas for our anniversary.  It was our first time and a lot of fun, mostly just to get out of the routine of being parents and get to enjoy some frivolity and decadence.  One night while getting ready, I snapped off a few pics of my beautiful wife getting dressed.  I love the many little rituals we do that typically go un-noticed.  Watching a woman get ready for a night out is a treasure trove for these little rituals.

The snapshot was off my phone.  There were other pictures that came out more clear and less yellow but this one had the special something that made me come back to it again and again.

Sometimes with a photo, it doesn’t matter why we like it but just that we do.  However, to turn it into a painting, I have to decipher what I don’t like about it as well, so that I know what to omit or what to enhance.



A Preliminary Study

Matt Abraxas Rebecca Abraxas SmithKlein Gallery Painting of Woman

Study for “Going Out”

This is my study painting.  It’s a small sheet of primed canvas taped on to a thin piece of wooden board.  If ever I make one that turns out beautiful, I can always glue the canvas to the board and trim it, frame it, and call it art.

In my initial study, I was concerned with reinterpreting the colors.  I could just paint what is available in the photograph, but I am too fond of the balance of cool and warm tones.  From the photograph, I had to make an educated guess.

I also considered composition.  In the photograph, the figure is behind a doorway and also partly picked up in a reflection.  I love this effect in the photo, but did not like it in a painting.  I knew that I wanted this painting to have a “painterly” effect.  It didn’t look right to add the reflection.  The doorway creates a nice framing though and I still felt uncertain about whether or not to keep it.  Finally, in the study, I opted to leave it open.

The wonderful thing about paintings is that we can always go back and change it.



My Painting Set-Up

Matt Abraxas SmithKlein Gallery Oil Painting of Woman

Painting from Photo Set-Up

Once I was ready to go with the painting, I have the image set up on my laptop.  In my studio, I have a mounting arm for my laptop and another monitor that remains perched just over my palette.  For painting elsewhere though, I have a nifty device called a laptop stand.  They’re typically marketed to D.J.s so if you want one, check here or click the little ad on the right.

Painting off a computer monitor is better than directly from a print because you have more control of how you see the image.  With a monitor that you can adjust, and especially with photo-editing software, you can adjust the luminance, contrast and many aspects of the image.

For this painting, I did not adjust the photograph.  I only made sure that my monitor would be bright enough in the lighting provided by SmithKlein Gallery.

I would normally bring the study painting to reference as well, but on this occasion I left it home.  Completing the study solidified what I needed to know and I felt confident with my choices.

The Finished Painting

Matt Abraxas SmithKlein Oil Painting of Woman Getting Ready

“Going Out” Oil on Linen Panel, 18×12 inches

“Going Out”

Oil on Linen Panel

18 x 12 inches


Any questions, suggestions, thoughts,

I’d love to hear from you.


The painting will be available at SmithKlein Gallery soon.