How to Paint from Photographs with an Understanding for Color Temperature

Avoid a Flat-Looking Painting with these tips to paint from photographs

If you paint from photographs, you’ve likely seen the result of a flat, awkward appearing painting.  This is due to relying too heavily on the photograph.

It’s common to simply copy the photo rather than interpret it.  To paint from photographs, it’s very helpful to do as many life studies ahead of time, but even without that, following a couple simple tips as laid out in the following video will help.

Painting from a photo requires an understanding for color temperature because photographs tends to flatten the color temperature spectrum.

paint-from-a-photograph-photo-studyAs you can see in the original photo I’ve worked from, the overall color is very, very warm.  Everything is cast in an orange hue.

When you have a sense of color temperature though, you can re-interpret any photo and create a more realistic, pleasing image.

Doing this, you can even paint a color image from a black and white photo as explained in detail in this article: Paint a Color Portrait from a Black and White Photo – Matt Abraxas on

Color temperature refers to the relative warmness or coolness of any color.  Blue may have a warm hue and red may appear cool, depending on how they relate and which exact colors are being used.  For example, while Cadmium Red is typically warm on it’s own, Alizarin Crimson tends to be cool.  However, both of these colors will appear warm or cool depending on what’s right next to them.  Cadmium Red will appear cooler when placed directly next to Cadmium Orange Deep.

The basic rule of color temperature is that if the light is warm, the shadow is cool, and vice-versa.  A cool light will be obvious things like moonlight, overcast light or fluorescent lights.  Warm light will be direct sunlight and incandescent lights.

There will be plenty of times that you’re not sure if the light in the photo is warm or cool, so first look at the shadow: is it obviously warm or cool?  If the shadow doesn’t dictate the color temperature, than simply choose it for yourself.  When I painted “A Night Out,” the lighting was difficult to determine, so I opted for cool light / warm shadow. You can read about this demo painting from a snapshot and it will open in a new tab.

In addition to discussing color temperature, I also talk about making the painting yours and not just a copy of the photograph.  The photos has inspired you, but does it need to be exactly reproduced?  Look deeper into what elements attract your attention and what can be left out.

If this video helps, I’d love to hear about it.
And if you have any questions about this topic or suggestions for more videos, please comment below.

Matt Abraxas Fine Art and Illustration Studio~Matt Abraxas

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