How to Improve Reference Photos

Last week’s featured newsletter article was called Planning for a Successful Drawing. One of the tips I shared was starting with great reference photos. A reader responded by asking how to improve reference photos that are less than ideal.

That’s a legitimate question. Many clients who want pet portraits are asking for posthumous portraits. In those cases, the reference photos are usually less than ideal for any of several reasons. Poor lighting, awkward perspective, and photos taken inside are just a few.

I’ve created portraits from less than ideal reference photos, and while it can be done, it is usually more difficult. I also often find the resulting portraits less satisfying to me as the artist.

But there are times when the only choice is between refusing the commission or working with what the client provides. Sometimes refusing a commission really is the best decision, but I’ve always had difficulty doing that.

So I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to improve reference photos using a photo editor, and I’d like to share those tricks with you today.

How to Improve Reference Photos

The reader who wrote to me provided a couple of photos and granted me permission to use them. So I’ll do what I can to improve each of the photos and tell you what I did with each one.

One quick note before I begin: Any good photo editor such as PhotoShop or GIMP can do basic adjustments. I think a lot of phone apps are also good for making basic adjustments to brightness, contrast, and other similar basic manipulations.

I used GIMP before I started publishing CP Magic! and tutorials. Afterward, I purchased publishing software called Affinity. Serif makes Affinity Publisher, Affinity Photo, and Affinity Designer. They all work together and you can move a file from one software to the next without closing and re-opening it. As you might expect, the range of photo adjustments is much broader. The Affinity apps are inexpensive ($50 per app and you can purchase only the ones you need,) so if you do a lot of photo work, Affinity Photo is well worth the purchase price.

But the adjustments I’m about to describe are more basic and you can do them on most basic photo editors.

Now on to the sample photos.

Improving Photo #1

Here’s the reader’s first photo.

Lightening Dark Photos

Poorly lighted photos are one of the most common types of reference photos clients provide. Poor lighting has several causes but the worst is interior photos because you often also have to deal with flash lighting.

Because of this, the first thing I always try is making the photo brighter. In most photo editors, look for a setting called Brightness & Contrast. Where you’ll find that setting varies from editor to editor. Sometimes it’s under a menu labeled “Images,” sometimes under “Adjustments” or in some other menu or option. No matter where it is in your photo editor, it’s a good place to start when adjusting most photos.

For this photo, I brightened it about 50%.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Improving Contrast

The next adjustment I usually do is adjusting the contrast. If a photo is too light, you can increase the contrast to bring out the details in washed out values. If it’s too dark, you can decrease the contrast to reveal details in areas that are too dark.

Since this photo was too dark, I decreased the contrast. You can see in this side-by-side that the details in the black parts of the black-and-white cat are much clearer in the adjusted photo than in the original photo.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

In the first two steps, I did just the brightness (first side-by-side) then just the contrast (second side-by-side.) Sometimes you need to do both, but don’t start by doing both. If one of these adjustments works, great. That’s all you need!

But sometimes it’s helpful to adjust both the brightness and the contrast. In that case, start with the adjustment that’s the most obvious. For this photo, that was adjusting the brightness. Whichever you decide to adjust first, get the photo to look the best you can with the first adjustment.

Then make the second adjustment.

That’s what I did here, and this is the result from adjusting the brightness first, then adjusting the contrast.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Making these adjustments is easy.

Finding the right balance is more difficult and is based on your preferences about how a photo should look. If you know the subject, then you’re better equipped to get the most accurate adjustments possible. If you’re working with a client photo, then you’ll have to do the best you can.

There will be situations in which you need to work from two versions of the reference photo: One adjusted for brightness and one adjusted for contrast. I’ve done this in the past and it works quite well.

If I were working from this photo, I’d use the third photo, but I’d also keep a copy of the original so I could make other adjustments as needed to see details.

Improving Photo #2

Here’s the second photo. This one was taken outside and is back-lit with strong light, so it presents some unique challenges.

Adjust the Brightness First

I once again began by adjusting the brightness first. I started out by increasing the brightness by 50%, but that didn’t bring out the details in the black areas as much as I liked. So I increased the adjustment to 100%.

There are more visible details in the black fur, but look at that white fur! It’s nothing but blazing white!

How to Improve Reference Photos

Adjust the Contrast

So I canceled the brightness adjustment and adjusted the contrast. Because the contrast is already so strong in this photo, I decided to decrease it.

Decreasing the contrast by 50% didn’t do much for the photo, so I pushed it all the way to 100%. That turned out much better than I expected. Other than the brightest white highlights still being blown out (over-exposed,) there is plenty of detail visible in the white fur and a good amount in the black fur. You could do a portrait based on this adjusted photo and have it turn out fairly well.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

The last thing I tried was adjusting brightness and contrast together. As you can see below, this produced the best results. Brightness is increased by 56% and contrast is decreased by 100%.

The colors are a bit washy, but you can see plenty of details in both the black and the white fur. Color is much easier to correct as you draw, so this is the photo I’d work from.

However, as with the first photo, I would keep a copy of the original photo for comparison.

How to Improve Reference Photos

There Are More Ways to Improve Reference Photos

These are just the three steps I take with most reference photos. Additional adjustments include things like color balance, white balance, color temperature corrections, clarity and so on. Some of them are quite complex and involved.

But for most artists, getting the brightness and contrast correct is all that’s necessary. The good news is that most photo apps, even the ones in your phone, are capable of these adjustments.

Creating Digital Line Drawings with GIMP

Today, I want to show you one of my favorite ways of creating digital line drawings from digital photos using GIMP.

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and it’s a free, open source photo editor available for PC and Mac. If you’ve never used GIMP before, prepare for a fairly steep learning curve. Once you grasp the basics, however, GIMP is versatile, powerful, and an excellent alternative for Photoshop. It’s a great app if you prefer downloadable software.

Creating Digital Line Drawings with GIMP

I’ve already written about how easy it is to square up photos in GIMP. If you have problems getting good, square photos of your artwork, you’ll want to read that.

Now on to today’s subject.

Creating Digital Line Drawings with GIMP

Convert the Image to Gray Scale

Converting an image to grayscale removes all the color and turns the image into a black-and-white image. GIMP refers to this process as desaturation.

Select COLORS from the drop-down menu along the top of the GIMP window. Then choose DESATURATE and DESATURATE as shown below.

A dialog box will open that allows you to adjust the level of de-saturation. I usually click OK.

Here’s my sample image in full, glorious color.

Creating Digital Line Drawings with GIMP

And here is the fully de-saturated (converted to grayscale) image.

NOTE: Some photo editors automatically remove the color when you do an edge detection. Some do not, so you may or may not need to do this step.

Look for an Edge Detect or Find Edges Option

The next step is to reduce the image to edges.

In GIMP, you do that with the EDGE DETECT tool under the FILTERS drop down menu as shown here. I also use the DIFFERENCE OF GAUSSIANS option, which other photo editors may or may not have. If you don’t have that option, then choose the default. Most of the time, that option works best.

TIP: Set your photo editor up to show a preview of the changes you make, if possible. That way, you can see how the image is going to look before you apply the edge detect tool, and you can make adjustments if necessary.

This is how my image looked after finishing this step.

Adjust Brightness and Contrast

Next, adjust the brightness and contrast of the image. The goal is the best possible level of details with the least amount of distraction.

The BRIGHTNESS-CONTRAST settings in GIMP are under the COLORS drop down menu.

Another way to adjust the brightness and contrast is by selecting LEVELS (just below Brightness-Contrast in this illustration.)

Creating Digital Line Drawings with GIMP

There’s so much contrast in my sample image that the Brightness-Contrast setting didn’t help much, so I tried Levels instead.

There is still quite a bit of “noise” (unwanted details) in the background, but that’s easily enough ignored in the drawing process. The level of detail and value gradations in the subject is excellent.

Creating Line Drawings from Digital Photos


Print the resulting image as is, or continue adjusting it until you have the level of detail you want.

You can also print this image and use it as a simplified reference to hand draw your own line drawing if you prefer.

Personally, I would print this image, then transfer only the details I thought absolutely necessary.

This process can be hit-and-miss sometimes. While default settings work most of the time, they may not be satisfactory with some photos. The problem is in the photos themselves. Lighting levels, clarity, and contrast all play a role. The better the photo is in each area, the better results you’ll get.

No matter what photo editor you use, you will have to make adjustments with some photos.

My sample required different settings in Brightness-Contrast, Levels, and in other places, than the last horse image I put through the process.

Creating Digital Line Drawings with a Photo Editor

This is a wonderful way to save time creating line drawings.

But no two photo editors are exactly alike, so explore your favorite photo editor and see what it can do.

After that, practice, practice, practice!

The only easier way to do this is to find someone else to do these conversions for you!

Removing Color from Digital Photos

Stephanie Speisman wants to know about removing color from digital photos. Here’s her question.

Good morning. I would like to know and I believe that there are many others who would like to know how to turn a photo into a black and white image that I can then use to copy the hues and values with my colored pencils.

I have used various methods such as graphite transfer paper, rubbing the picture on the back with graphite, a light box, etc.

For me, the fun part is using the colored pencils and I would rather not have to draw the image. I guess you could also say it’s like making the photo into a coloring book page.

I know it can be done with Photoshop, Photo Elements, and a number of apps that are so so, but each time I do it it seems to be hit or miss.  I’d love to see a tutorial on the steps to take so that I can produce it each time with ease and without frustration.

Thank you!

Stephanie Speisman

What a thorough and in-depth question! Thank you, Stephanie.

Removing Color from Digital Photos

Unfortunately, there are so many different photo editing programs available, that I can’t cover them all in one post.

In addition, I’ve used only four programs for work like this, so can give you personal, hands-on tutorials only on those.

Today, I’ll show you how to convert color digital photos to grayscale using GIMP and Preview.

Removing Color from Digital Photos

I created my examples on a free open source photo editor called GIMP, which is available for download. Preview is the default photo editor for Macintosh.


Here’s my sample image in full, glorious color.

Removing Color from Digital Photos

There are a couple of ways to remove the color in GIMP.

First is choosing DESATURATE in the COLORS drop down menu, then selecting DESATURATE. That’s what I did in this illustration.

Here is the fully desaturated (converted to grayscale) image.

For a different look, select COLORS>DESATURATE>COLOR TO GRAY, as shown here.

This is what the grayscale image looks like with this selection.

Removing Color from Digital Photos

Either image can be used as Stephanie is thinking of using them, and they can be printed as is, or adjusted for brightness and contrast.

Which one is best? I don’t know. I’d probably choose the one on the right below because it’s lighter and shows more of the fine details.


I use a MacBook Pro with High Sierra as the operating system. A nifty little photo editor comes with that machine, so I tried creating a black-and-white version of the same image. Just to see if I could.

It turns out I could and it was quite easy.

First, I selected ADJUST COLOR in the TOOLS drop down menu, as shown here.

Removing Color from Digital Photos

Next, I found the Saturation option at the top of the middle section. I’ve marked it with the red line.

The default setting is with the slider in the middle of the horizontal bar. Slide it all the way to the left, and all color is removed from the image.

This is the result.

Chances are good that your electronic device has a built-in photo editor that will let you remove color from digital photos. In my case, that default program was easier to figure out than GIMP. At least for this process.

Getting It Right Every Time

Stephanie also said she wanted a program that she could learn and get the right results every time. I’m not sure there is such a program, since photos vary so much.

But either one of these programs can easily convert color photos to black-and-white. Adjustments to brightness and contrast are also possible with both, and with most other photo editors.

What’s the best advice?

Take the time to experiment with whatever photo editor you have available. Remember my Preview sample? That little app is free with my computer and it’s just as capable as GIMP.

How to Square Up Photos in GIMP

In the past, I’ve shared tips for using Photoshop to manipulate digital images. Today, I want to tell you how to square up photos in GIMP.

Just What is GIMP?

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and it’s a free downloadable photo editor similar to Photoshop the way I remember PhotoShop (I last used PhotoShop 7.)

Versions are available for Windows, Mac, Linux and more, so there’s no reason you can’t download it.

It also includes an in-depth manual.

What GIMP is not is easy to use, but then Photoshop had a pretty steep learning curve, too.

It is great for graphic designers, photographers, and illustrators who prefer their software on their hard drives instead of in the clouds.

GIMP also offers one of the easiest ways to square up photos that I’ve ever used. That’s what I want to show you today.

How to Square Up Photos in GIMP

Step 1: Open GIMP

This is the window that opens.

There are the usual menu items across the top of the screen, but there’s also a window of option icons in the upper left corner. Those items icons are links to the same categories as the menu bar items at the top, so you have two ways to make selections.

I prefer the menu bar, but have also become familiar enough with some of the icons to use them, as well.

We won’t be using the windows at the right, so I’ll save those for another post.

Step 2: Open an Image

Once GIMP is open, open the image you want to work with.

From the FILE drop down menu select OPEN or OPEN AS LAYERS.

OPEN AS LAYERS allows you to add layers to your image if you wish, and gives you a little more flexibility. You won’t be using that to square photos, so it’s okay to simply open an image.

Step 3: Mark the Edges of the Image

Next, you need to mark the edges of the image to tell GIMP how to square the image.

To do this, place your cursor along the top ruler, right click, and drag a line to the bottom of the portion you want to straighten. See the dotted blue line at the bottom of the framed painting below.

Repeat this for the top edge.

How to Square Up Photos in GIMP

Then click on the left-hand ruler and drag a line to the left and right edges of the area you want to square up. When you finish, you should have four blue, dotted lines, as shown below.

I generally place the blue dotted lines so that a horizontal line meets a vertical line at one corner. For this demonstration, the lower right corner was already the most square, so that’s the corner I used as a point of reference.

You won’t always have such a clear choice. In such cases, frame the image as you would if you were cropping it.

Step 4: Select the Perspective Transform Tool

In the TOOLS drop down menu, select TRANSFORM TOOLS, then PERSPECTIVE, as shown below.

Your cursor changes to a shape with two short lines at right angles and a triangle. Position this symbol at one of the corners, then hold down the right-click button and drag that corner until it’s lined up with the two blue, dotted lines nearest to it.

Repeat this process until each of the four corners is square.

After you’ve finished lining up the four corners, check them. Changes made to one corner could affect the other corners, especially if your photo is very distorted. Make whatever adjustments may be necessary.

Step 5: Transform the Image

When you opened the Perspective Transform Tool, another window also opened on the right. This window tells you in decimals how much you’ve corrected your image, but unless you like numbers , the only things you need are the two buttons at the bottom.

The reset button is the magic Undo button if you decide not to keep the changes you’ve made.

If you do like the changes, click the transform button. GIMP then adjusts your photo and squares it up.

How to Square Up Photos in GIMP

Check the corners again after the transformation finishes. If you need to make further adjustments, follow steps four and five again.

Step 6: Export the Image

When you’re happy with what you’ve done, it’s time to save it.

But if you just SAVE the image, GIMP will save it as a .xcf file which only be opened with GIMP.

To save images as .jpg or other types of image files, you need to export the image.

To do that, select FILE, then EXPORT AS.

The dialogue box below opens.

In this sample, the image shows the same title and format (.jpg) as the original. You can export it like this, but if you do, you overwrite the original.

I usually either change the name of the file or export it to a different folder. You can also change the file format. There is no right or wrong way to do this, so do whatever makes the most sense to you.

When you’ve made the changes in name, file type, or destination, click EXPORT at the bottom of the dialogue box.

The last dialogue box to appear is this one. You can set the quality of the exported image. I set mine at 100 (high quality) because I’m never sure how many ways I may need to use the image in the future.

The higher the quality, the larger the file.

You can set and save your own defaults if you wish.

When you’re ready, click EXPORT and your squared up image is exported. When the process completes, you can close the program or open the next photo to square up.

One Last Note

When you quit GIMP, you will get a dialog box like this, warning you that changes have been made but not saved.

I rarely save changes, because I prefer not to make changes to the original image. But you can if you wish.

How to Square Up Photos in GIMP

That’s How I Square Up Photos In GIMP

GIMP does take some getting acquainted with, but I’ve yet to find an easier way to square up photos. It works with framed art, as you’ve seen here, but also allows you to adjust potential reference photos before distortions get into your art.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but if you take the time to learn how to use it, it can save you a great deal of time and possible heartache in the drawing process.

How to Combine Photos in Photoshop

Do you know how to combine photos in PhotoShop or any other photo editor?

Do you know why that knowledge is important to you as an artist?

There is no such thing as the “perfect reference photo.” Close to perfect, yes, but most of us find something that could be better about almost every reference photo we consider.

Even for those of us who do our own photography, there comes a time when the best photograph would be even better—if one thing was changed.

Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of combining photographs in Photoshop.

How to Combine Photos in Photoshop

How to Combine Photos in Photoshop

This demonstration was created using Photoshop 7.0 on a Mac G4. The process may vary depending on the version of Photoshop you’re using and the type of computer.

You can also combine photos with many other photo editors including GIMP and online photo editors, including Photoshop. GIMP is a free download and has a lot of the same features as Photoshop 7. If you’d like to see a tutorial using GIMP, let me know.

Now let’s see how to combine photos in Photoshop.

Step 1: Select the photos you want to combine.

It’s helpful if the light source is the same general location (upper left, upper right, etc.) among all the photographs, but it’s not necessary. If one of the photographs you want to use shows opposite lighting, one easy correction is to flip the photo horizontally to match the rest. Additional corrections can be made at the drawing or painting stage, but aren’t within the scope of this article.

Step 2: Select the image you want to use as the base image.

In most cases, this will be the background image or landscape.

Save it with a new name and put it into a folder labeled with the name of the painting or drawing (or with the working title.)

Step 3: Create a new layer over the base image.

Click on the drop down LAYER menu, and select NEW LAYER. The new layer won’t be visible because it’s transparent. You can “see” it by clicking on the drop down VIEW menu and clicking LAYERS.

You can name the layer if you wish, but don’t have to.

Step 4: Choose an image to combine with the base image.

Select the image you want to combine with the first one to create a new composition.

In the illustration below, I reduced the size of the horse photo, then typed CONTROL+A (you can also choose SELECT ALL from the drop-down EDIT menu) to select the entire image. The dotted line around picture of the horse shows it selected.

Type CONTROL+C to copy or select copy from the drop-down EDIT menu.

Click on the background image to make it active, then paste the copied image into the main image by typing CONTROL+V or choosing PASTE from the drop-down EDIT menu.

The copied image will be pasted into the new layer you created in Step 3. You will be able to move it around, erase part of it, and make other changes without changing the background layer.

Step 5: Erase unnecessary parts of the image.

Erase the larger areas first.

All I want of the smaller image is the white horse. Everything else must be removed. I use the eraser tool to remove unwanted parts of the picture.

In the version of Photoshop I use (7.0), the eraser tool is the sixth tool down on the left side of the tool bar. See the shaded box on the left side of the illustration below.

If you’re using another version of Photoshop, your eraser tool may be in a slightly different location, but the icon will be similar.

Position your cursor over a part of the image you want to remove. Hold down the right mouse button and move the cursor over the image. Everything the cursor moves over is erased.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 5

While erasing is ideal for small areas and detail work, it can be tedious when removing large areas. In this sample, the sky is a large area with fairly flat color. It’s much easier to remove such areas by selecting the wand tool (second tool from the top on the right side of the tool bar—see the shaded box along the left side of the illustration below.) Click anywhere in the area you want to remove.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 6

To select multiple areas, as shown above, click on the first area, then hold down the shift key while you click in additional areas.

When you’ve selected all the areas, type CONTROL+X to cut those areas or select CLEAR from the drop down EDIT menu at the top of the screen.

Then erase the smaller areas.

For some of the smaller areas, such as around the horse’s head, I enlarged the image to 50% or larger by highlighting the number in the lower left hand corner and typing in a larger number. This gives me a much larger view of the image. I can scroll side to side or top to bottom to see small portions of the image and erase anything I don’t want in the composition.

This is what the two images look like when I finish cleaning up the photograph of the white horse.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 7

Step 6: Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 for each additional photo you want to add.

One horse in a wide open landscape might be interesting, but I want to add a bit more interest. So I copied the second picture of horses and added it to my composition.

But the second picture of horses isn’t where I want it because Photoshop automatically pastes new images into the center of the main image. Each new image automatically covers the last previous one.

To re-order these pictures, click on the LAYER drop down menu and select arrange. This will reveal your options. Moving a layer backward will move it backward one layer. Choosing MOVE TO BACK will move it backward to the first layer over the background (the landscape).

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 8

Step 7: Arrange the images to find a good composition.

You can also move each image around the picture plane by selecting each layer. To do this, open the Window drop down menu and click on LAYERS. This opens the Layers dialogue box, which you can see at the bottom of the illustration below.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 9

Layer 2 is selected. That’s the layer with the red horses. As long as Layer 2 is selected, I can click anywhere on the image and grab hold of the red horses. By holding down the mouse button and dragging the mouse, I can move those red horses anywhere I want them.

Even up into the sky, where I can get a better look at them, make sure I’ve removed all the stray bits I don’t want, and do whatever other work might be necessary.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 10

To simplify matters, rename each layer as you create it. In this example, I could have renamed the first layer White Horse and the second layer Red Horses. That eliminates confusion if you add more than one or two layers.

Repeat steps 3-5 for each layer you want to work with.

Step 8: Fine tune your best composition or try new compositions.

Now you have a single image (the landscape) with several other images copied into it (white horse, red horses).

You can now have a little fun and arrange the elements anyway you wish. Obviously, the more elements you add, the more different arrangements you might come up with.

Two possible compositions for this demonstration is with the white horse in front…

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 11

…and with the red horses in front.

Computer Composition Illustration 12

You might also make the horses quite small relative to the landscape or try any of  a number of other things.

Save each composition separately as a .PSD (Photoshop) file. A .psd file preserves the layers and allows you to move them around any time you want.

I also save each file as a .JPG (.JPEG), which is a much smaller file. The illustrations in this article are jpg files.

Step 9: Prepare the best composition.

Before you can save a .psd file as a .jpg file, you need to flatten the layers.

Select the LAYER drop down menu and click on FLATTEN IMAGE at the bottom. All of the layers are combined into a single layer.

Once you do that, you can save your best composition as a jpg file to your digital device and it’s ready for you to draw.

That’s how I combine photos in Photoshop.

For me, this is just the beginning of the process.

I also use photo editors to decide on the best compositions. Sometimes, I save them into my screen saver rotation so I can study them for a while.

After choosing a design, I make a drawing grid on the image for the more traditional steps in making art.

Preparing a Reference Photo

Today, I’d like to talk about preparing a reference photo. There are a lot of ways to do this, so I’ll keep it simple and describe some of the things I do almost all the time.

Most of my work in the past was for portraits, but I’ve also used these methods to turn so-so reference photos into great (or at least better) reference photos for my own work. They can help you do the same.

NOTE: This post is not intended to be a step-by-step tutorial. There are too many photo editors on the market to make that possible. I use three different pieces of software as needed, and I will link to them below.

Preparing a Reference Photo for a Portrait

Preparing a Reference Photo

Preparing reference photos is important whether you’re doing a portrait, an exhibit piece, or something for yourself or a friend. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should be an important part of your creative process.

My sample was for a portrait, but I’ve also taken the same steps with my own pieces, with animal art, landscapes, and the occasional still life.

I used a photograph taken by photographer Mark Adair, whom I want to thank for allowing me to use his work. Thanks, Mark!

Mark provided a great selection of images, so there was a lot of material at my fingertips. This is the image the client chose.

Photo by Mark Adair


The first thing you should always do is start with the most basic stuff: Configuration and composition.

The portrait was 16 inches by 20 inches in size, so the first thing to do was crop the reference photo to the same dimensions as the final portrait. I usually make 8 x 10s of printed reference photos (unless the drawing is complex,) so I cropped this image to 8 x 10 as well.

I used Irfanview for this image. Irfanview is a free down-loadable program. Somewhat limited in scope, it still does almost everything I need to do to prepare digital reference photos.

Since this is a pretty straight forward project, there wasn’t much to do with composing. I placed the horse a little bit to the right of center, so he was trotting into the space. I also placed him a little bit above center. That put his head next to one of the four “sweet spots” according to the rule of thirds (see below.)

You’ll notice that the knee of the raised front leg is also near one of those sweet spots, and a third one falls over the crossed back legs. All three are centers of interest, though the head is the most important of the three.

That wasn’t my intention. I usually focus on the head, even in full body portraits, but this is icing on the cake, so to speak.

Preparing a Reference Photo

Once you have the composition nailed down and the digital image is the same proportions as the your artwork, you can start making smaller adjustments.

Fine-Tuning the Reference Photo

Most photo editors provide the opportunity to adjust photos in dozens of ways from adding special effects to creating halftones or sepia tones (or almost any other tone.)

When you prepare a photo reference for portrait work, you probably won’t care about all those other features. But there are some adjustments you should consider.


The key to a successful portrait is contrast. The light values need to be light enough and the dark values need to be dark enough.

If your photo reference doesn’t show clear light and dark values, now is the time to tinker with contrast.

Adjust the contrast and brightness of the photo a little, reviewing the results after each adjustment. Continue to experiment until you either find a contrast setting you like, or decide to go with the original settings.

Changing the contrast even a lot didn’t do much for this photo. The initial adjustment made so little difference that I tried a more dramatic adjustment. Here’s what I ended up with. Can you tell the difference between this and the original reference? I couldn’t.

Color Corrections

Sometimes it helps to adjust the color settings. Most photo editors can adjust each of the three primary colors individually or all of them together. Depending on your software, you may be able to make a lot of complex adjustments, or just a few simple ones. Whatever the case, it’s worthwhile to experiment to see what happens.

Canva is a good online option. Canva is a graphic designer. I use it to create the memes in my posts and to make illustrations that contain more than one image.

But they have a great photo editor and it’s free to use. Just open an account, upload images, and try any number of adjustments without changing the original image.

GIMP is also a good option. It’s a free download and works a lot like Photoshop, but the learning curve is pretty steep. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of the features.

I made color corrections in Irfanview and came up with the photo below. Again, I didn’t see a lot of difference between it and the original image, so I decided I was finished preparing the reference photo. Contrast and color could be adjusted as I worked on the portrait. That’s one of the advantages of drawing horses for over 40 years!

Preparing a Reference Photo


Additional changes to the composition—such as leaving out elements or moving them around—could be done in a photo editor, but I usually prefer to do those things while making the line drawing.

The real secret to this process is taking your own reference photos and making as many of these changes as possible in that process. The better the photographs you take, the fewer adjustments you’ll need to make now!

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos on PhotoShop

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 4

Today, I want to show you how to find the best composition from digital photos on PhotoShop. You know what? It’s probably a lot easier than you think!

Almost every artist who has ever wielded brush or pencil has also explored compositional ideas when deciding what to paint. Thumbnail sketches, color studies, even framing a composition with your hands if you’re working outside are all good methods for finding the best composition before you start drawing or painting.

In this age of technology, artists have a few new tools to aid them in composing artwork. The process can begin with your camera, but it doesn’t end there.

I used a Macintosh G4 and Photoshop 7.0 for this demonstration, but you can do pretty much the same thing with any photo editor on any computer. The steps may be different, but the results will be the same.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos on PhotoShop

The Reference Photo

Finding the best composition from digital photos begins with selecting the reference photo. Reference photos should be the best possible. Good lighting. Good contrast. Sharpness of image. A strong center of interest.

You can make changes in contrast or brightness, and even adjust color in a photo editor, but always start with the best image possible. Since I do a lot of composing through the lens of the camera, most of the images I use for reference already have the best available lighting, contrast, and color. It just saves time.

But that’s not always possible, is it?

This image was taken on a cloudy day with relatively flat light. The lighting and color saturation are part of the appeal.

Beyond that, it’s a pretty boring composition, with the house almost dead center.

TIP: When photographing potential subjects, take as many photos as possible and put the potential subject in different places.

Before You Begin Editing

Before doing anything else, save the image with a new name by selecting SAVE AS and giving it whatever name you want. This protects the original photograph so if you mess up, you can start over with the original. Choose a name that makes sense to you, is easy to file, AND easy to find and retrieve later.

I named this one Old Stone House Reference.jpg and put it into a separate file dedicated to this project.

Cropping the Image

The best first step is usually cropping the original image to focus on the subject.  Creating three or four—or half a dozen—different crops may be all it takes to find the best composition.

Choose the SELECTION tool from the toolbox on the left of this screen shot. In most versions of PhotoShop, this will be the tool at the upper left of the toolbox. (See the gray box in the toolbox).

Select the area you want by placing your cursor at one corner of the desired area and dragging it downward and across the part you want to crop. The result will be a dotted line outline as shown above. The area inside the box is your selection.

Next, select the IMAGE drop down menu and choose CROP.

Your image now looks like this. Save it using the SAVE AS function and give it a new name. This is now old-stone-house-comp-01.jpg but you can choose any name and numbering system that works for you.

You can make as many compositions as you like by repeating the steps above. Begin with the original reference photo each time. I ended up with five different options for this image. Two of the others are shown here.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 3

As you can see, the only limitation is your imagination.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 4

Resizing Compositions

Once you’ve selected your favorite compositions, you can resize them to suit the needs of your drawing or painting.

Under the IMAGE drop down menu, click on IMAGE SIZE.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 5

That opens this dialogue box.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 6

Set the size by pixel in the top two boxes. You can also set size by inches in the next two boxes.

Multiple measuring systems are available under DOCUMENT SIZE, including inches, picas, metric, and columns.

Changing Resolution

You can also change the pixel density in the image by changing the resolution. The higher the number, the finer the resolution and the larger the file.

Most cameras automatically capture images at a low resolution, but offer ways to increase resolution. It is better to take pictures with a higher resolution, because you’ll capture more detail. But those files require more memory on your camera.

In other words, you’ll have higher quality images, but will be able to take fewer of them. Especially if you’re limited to a memory card or an older camera.

Make Sure to Keep Proper Porportions

The last thing I’ll mention in this dialogue box is the option to CONSTRAIN PROPORTIONS. When you choose this option, the enlarged or reduced image has the same proportions as the original. If you don’t check this box, you can change one dimension without changing the other and the result will be a distorted image. For the majority of work, you’ll want to check this box.

Once you’ve made your selections, click OK.

Repeat these steps for each of the compositions you’ve created.

If you compose intuitively or by eye, you’ll be able to tell which compositions are working and which aren’t.

If you need more concrete tools for evaluating the compositions, continue reading.

Evaluating the Compositions

The two best tools I know of for evaluating or fine tuning compositions is the Rule of Thirds, and the Golden Mean.

The Rule of Thirds divides a compostion into even thirds vertically and horizontally.

The Golden Mean also divides a composition into thirds, but along the Golden mean.

In both cases, the idea is to place the main points of interest in the composition on one of the four places where two lines intersect.

Some photo editors have preset grids that allow you to crop by the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Mean. Irfanview is one such photo editor.

It’s much easier to calculate even thirds than the Golden Mean, so that’s what I’ll show you.

How to Draw the Rule of Thirds

Chose the drop down menu labeled LAYER and select NEW, then select LAYER.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 7

On this new layer, place a line one-third of the way across the top and another line at two-thirds. Lines should also be drawn at one-third and two-thirds along the side as well.

Hold down the shift key as you draw the line to keep the line straight and on the square.

To make this easier, I set the size of the image to a number divisible by three. By setting the width of the image at 30, for example, I can easily place a line at 10 and another at 20 and have the image divided into thirds.

Change the height to a number divisible by three and place the lines.

TIP: Select a color for the lines that does not blend into the image. My favorite color for this process is red because it’s easy to see and I rarely use red for any other part of the digital composition process.

Below is the first composition with the one-third grid in place.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 8

And here is the panorama composition with the one-third grid in place. Both compositions could do with just a bit of adjusting to get the subject in one of the sweet spots.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos - Step 9

The sweet spots in the composition are where two lines meet. It applies to the one-third rule, which I’m using here, and to the Golden Mean, which also divides a composition into thirds, but not equal thirds.

This is one way to find the best composition from digital images.

You can also move parts of the photo around to find the best composition from digital photos or any photos. Reference photos are just starting points. You don’t have to duplicate them exactly.

As I mentioned at the beginning, you can use the same basic procedure with any photo editor. I’ve used IrfanView and GIMP in the same way. Both are free to download.

Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 1

Knowing how to process digital reference photos is as important to today’s artist as knowing the best art materials. Most of us need at least a basic knowledge to make the best use of our photographs.

Welcome back to my month-long series on using photographs to create art. In the first post, I shared a link to an article on composing images so colors pop. Last week we talked about three things to remember when composing through the lens.

A basic explanation is all we have time for today, but there are lots of video tutorials for those who want more in-depth information. The methods I’m about to share are what I’ve been using since before The Cloud. Outdated, perhaps, but still useful!

Today, we’ll look at preparing digital photographs using Photoshop. I use Photoshop 7.0 on a Mac, so there may be some differences in procedure, depending on the version of Photoshop you use.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop

Step 1

Import photos into Photoshop. Since you may be bringing photos in from a variety of sources, I won’t go into detail on this part of the process beyond saying that you can open photos from most devices through Photoshop by clicking on the FILE drop down menu and selecting OPEN. That opens a dialogue box that allows you to select any device or drive connected to the computer.

Choose the photo you want to work with.

Save it with a new name into a new folder before making changes. It’s always prudent to save the original file. That way, if you make mistakes, you can go back to the original and start over. All you will have lost is time.

Step 2

Few photos are perfect. At minimum, most will need a bit of tweaking to be optimal. If you’re planning representational artwork, a few things to consider are:

  • Composition
  • Color Quality
  • Lighting
  • Sharpness

If the artwork you have in mind is less representational, you can also play with filters, color, and screens or many of the graphic tools available on Photoshop. But that’s a post for another time.

The first thing I do is fit the photo to the shape of the painting or drawing I want to do. At the very least, I crop out excess area. The photo I’m using for this demonstration has more foreground than I want in a painting.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 1

So I crop the image by selecting the area I want to use (see dotted line below). Select the drop down menu, IMAGE, and click on CROP.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 2a

Save the new image.

Step 3

You can also change the size of the image. For the purpose of this demonstration, I changed the width of the image to 24 inches, then cropped it so the vertical size was 18 inches. The resulting image is 18×24 inches, a standard canvas size.

To change the size of an photograph, click on the IMAGE drop down menu and click on IMAGE SIZE. The following dialogue box will appear.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 2a

Under “Document Size” type in the numbers you want. The box to the right is for setting the measurement standard. In this case, inches. You can also choose picas, centimeters, and columns, in addition to other options. Choose the measuring standard you prefer and click OK.

You can also change the resolution if you wish. The default is 72, which is shown above. The larger the number, the better the resolution and the larger the overall file.

The numbers at the top of the dialogue box (Pixel Dimensions) will automatically change with each change you make in Document Size. You can also affect the numbers in the Document Size section by changing the numbers in the Pixel Dimensions. Since most standard sizes of paper and canvas are not measured in pixels, I generally don’t do anything with Pixel Dimensions.

The checked boxes Constrain Proportions and Resample Image are default settings. Uncheck Constrain Proportions if you want to change only one side. This will cause the image to distort.

NOTE: Changing the size and cropping the image are interchangeable steps. In some cases, it may be better to crop first, then change the size. In other cases, changing the size first might be better.

Step 4

I next changed the contrast and brightness of the image by using Photoshop’s standard filters. Click IMAGE, then choose ADJUSTMENTS and AUTO LEVELS.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 4a

You can see below how Photoshop adjusted my photograph. The top image is the original color, brightness and contrast settings.

The lower image shows the corrections.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 4b

If you like the changes, save the new image.

Step 5

If you don’t like the changes Photoshop made in Step 4, undo (Control+Z). You can then make individual changes to suit your preferences.

To change the brightness or contrast, click on the IMAGE drop down menu and select BRIGHTNESS/CONTRAST.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 5a

A dialogue box with two slider controls will appear. The top one is for brightness. Sliding the control to the right increases brightness. Sliding it to the left decreases brightness.

The lower control is for contrast. Again, sliding it to the right increases contrast and sliding it to the left decreases contrasts.

You can change either brightness or contrast or you can change both. You can also increase one and decrease the other, so you have virtually unlimited choices in changing these two filters through this dialogue box.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 5b

The value of brightness and contrast is most evident when you want to manipulate poorly lighted photographs. Photographs of gray days can be brightened by increasing the brightness levels and contrast levels in Photoshop.

The left half of the image below shows normal settings. The right half shows increases in both brightness and contrast. Note that some details are more clear with the changes, while other details disappear.

You can’t make a gray day sunny, but you can create the illusion of brighter light, which will aid your painting if you want to paint a particular scene in bright light, but the only photographs you have are of gray days.

Step 6


A dialogue box will open with a row of three boxes labeled Color Levels at the top and three slider controls below. The slider controls correspond to each of the three non-black printing colors: Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow.

The boxes in the top row correspond to the slider controls.

In this illustration, I changed the Cyan setting by sliding the control bar to the right. The number in the first box at the top shows the amount of change and indicates that I’ve increased the blue by plus 10.

At the bottom of the box is the tone balance. This allows you to change specific areas in the photograph. By clicking on Shadows, you can change the color of the shadows without changing mid-tones or highlights. The default setting is mid-tones, which means the change I made in the paragraph above affects the mid-tones, but not the shadows or highlights.

Preserve Luminosity is also a default setting.

By clicking the Preview box at the right, your changes will appear in the photograph, so you can see what they look like before committing to them. This is always a good idea.

But even if you do commit to the changes, then decide you don’t like them, you can still undo them by typing Control+Z BEFORE saving the image.

It’s advisable to experiment with color settings. How much color change you need depends on the type of artwork you want to do. For portrait work, for example, I make color changes only to correct distortions. I usually make those changes only if I took the images myself and know the color is not accurate.

That’s How I Process Digital Reference Photos

As I mentioned, this demo features Photoshop on a G4 Macintosh, but you can do the same things in any photo editor on any platform. These days, you can probably do most of them on your phone!

For example, when I work on our PC, I use GIMP or Irfanview to process digital reference photos. Irfanview is great for simple adjustments, while GIMP works a lot like Photoshop for more complex work. Both are free installations.

Most of the time, these changes are the only changes necessary. Your photo will now be ready for the next step in your working process, whether it’s printing a copy to work from, creating computer generated compositions, or putting a drawing grid over the photograph.

Squaring Up Photos in Photoshop

Have you ever wished there was some way of squaring up photos in Photoshop? Especially photos of drawings that you want to use for marketing or your portfolio?

Cheer up! There is!

Squaring Up Photos in Photoshop

One of the more annoying aspects of using the computer for artwork is getting perfectly square photographs. Whether you’re photographing potential subjects or finished paintings, no matter how precise the process or expensive the equipment, distortion will happen.

I know!

I can’t tell you how many photos I have of artwork that aren’t perfectly aligned.

Photograph Your Work so Squaring Up Isn’t Necessary

The best way to deal with this problem is to avoid it altogether. Hang your artwork flat against a wall. Put your camera (or phone) on a tripod, and align it perfectly with the artwork.

Position the camera far enough away from the artwork so you don’t end up with a ‘fish-eye affect.’ A photograph taken with a zoom lens from a short distance almost always turns out better than a photograph taken with a standard lens close to the artwork.

Fill the frame with your artwork, so no background shows around it. This won’t necessarily prevent photographic distortion, but it will help conceal it by eliminating drawing edges. If the camera is properly positioned, distortion should be eliminated.

For small works, consider scanning instead. This is about the only sure way to avoid distortion all the time, and you have the advantage of scanning images at various resolutions. I routinely scan images at between 300 and 600 dots per inch. If the images are very small, I scan them at 1200 dpi. The higher the dpi, the larger the resulting output image.

Squaring Up Photos in Photoshop

But let’s be honest. There are times when you just have to square up a photograph, even after you’ve taken all the best precautions.

Fortunately, the editor and founder of EmptyEasel has written a step-by-step tutorial showing you how to square up photos in Photoshop.

How to “Square Up” Photos of Your Art in Photoshop with Free Transform & Liquify is a great article. I hope you’ll take a moment or two to click over to and give it a read.

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo

Putting a drawing grid on a digital photo may seem like a small matter. For many artists, however, it’s a major challenge.

I can draw a horse in almost any position, but I can’t draw a straight line.

Even with a straight edge.

Sound familiar?

For years, I’ve developed the line drawings for portraits using the grid method of drawing from reference photos. I’ve been drawing that way for so long that I started before the days of personal computers and photo processing software.

In other words, I had to draw every single line by hand.

I hated it! I never seemed able to get the measurements correct and usually ended up having to correct distortions in the resulting drawings.

Eventually, I discovered drawing reference grids on pieces of plastic using permanent markers. I could then lay the pre-drawn grids over reference photos. I still had to draw a grid for each drawing, but that was better than drawing one on the photo, too.

Then along came computers and digital photos and I no longer had to draw grids of any kind! Woo-hoo! Jubilation and a happy dance!

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo

Here’s how I put grids on reference photos now.

TIP: If my references are actual printed photographs, I scan them into the computer first.

Here’s my subject for this tutorial. I always look for good lighting from a clear light source, accurate color, and a minimum of distracting elements overlapping your subject.

How to Put a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo

Step 1: Save your reference photo with a new name.

Open your reference photo, then select the “SAVE AS” option and save your reference with a new name. I usually use the working title for the drawing or painting.  You want to do this before you make any changes, even to color. That way, if you make a mistake you can’t correct, you can go back to the original photo and start over.

TIP: Save your photo periodically and rename it by adding a number (1, 2, 3, etc.) or letter (a, b, c, etc.) to the end of the name. These additional copies act as backups. You don’t need to save them forever, but they should be kept until you’ve finished all changes to your reference photo.

Step 2: Crop and resize the reference photo if necessary.

Do any cropping and resizing necessary and save it again. I generally name every document used for a painting with the title of the painting or the name of the horse and the date. This image was saved as grid-drawing-demo-01.jpg. Make sure the names you choose make sense to you and can be easily remembered.

Step 3: Adjust your rulers

Before you begin, make sure rulers are showing. Photoshop’s default setting is to have the vertical and horizontal rulers showing.

You can change the measurements if you wish, if the default setting of inches doesn’t work with the size of your photo. Most photo editing software allows you to hide or show rulers, and also choose inches, millimeters, picas, and other measurements.

Step 4: Add a new layer to the photo.

Before you begin drawing the grid, add a new layer. In most versions of PhotoShop, click on the drop-down LAYER menu, click on ‘NEW’ and select ‘LAYER’.

NOTE: I’m using PhotoShop 7.0 on a Macintosh G4. Your drop-down menus may look different.

Step 5: Begin drawing the grid.

Now you can draw the grid on the new layer. Select the LINE DRAWING tool from the toolbox on the left (see the gray box in the image below).

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 5a

Choose a color that shows up well against whatever image you’re working with. Black works with most. White works best with most darker images, but I’ve also used red or blue, depending on the color, value, and color temperature of the image.

Choose the space between the lines that best suits your project. I draw lines at one inch intervals. Beginning at the top left corner, I draw the first line at 1″ and continue across the image to the right.

Return to the upper left hand corner and draw lines along the left side.

To get straight lines and square boxes, hold down the shift key as you place the cursor and while you draw the lines.

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 5b

Step 6: Number the grid

The last step in the process is numbering the grid. Select the TEXT tool from the toolbox (see the gray box on the left in the image below). Place the cursor in the upper left hand corner. Beginning with 1, type a number in each box across the top of the image. Repeat this for the bottom row of squares and for the squares along the left and right sides of the image, if you wish.

If the image is very large, you may want to consider adding a row of numbers through the middle of the image and a column down the center.

This is the finished grid.

Step 7: Make a printable drawing grid.

The reason I draw the grid on a fresh layer comes into play at this point.

With the image on one layer and the grid on another, I can remove the image and have the grid alone. The grid can then be printed and used for the first draft of the drawing. Make sure to save the grid by itself.

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 7

You can also print the image with the grid in place (see the image for the previous step) and have a reference image and drawing grid that are the same configuration and are numbered the same.

Step 8: Prepare the grid and reference to be saved as a jpg file.

The final step is optional and that’s preparing the image to be saved as a jpg.

In PhotoShop, images with multiple layers are automatically saved as .psd files. PSD files are not suitable for most internet uses or emails. In order to save them as jpg or png files or any other online compatible files, you first need to flatten the image (combine the layers into one layer).

To do that, select the LAYER drop down menu and go to the bottom. Select FLATTEN IMAGE to combine all the layers into a single layer. You can now save the gridded image as a jpg file.


I highly recommend saving the image at least twice during the process. Once after the grid is in place and numbered but before you flatten the image (see Step 6) and again as the grid without the image (Step 5).

I also save the image afterward. With this ‘save’ I change the image to a JPG format. JPG files are generally smaller and more versatile than PSD files.

But don’t throw away those PSD files! You never know when you may need to go back to them to print another copy or resize the image or for some other unforeseen reason.


That’s how I put a drawing grid on a digital photo. It looks time-consuming and complicated, but even the most complex digital grid is much easier to make than hand drawing it.

As I mentioned previously, if you use something other than Photoshop, the commands and function names may be different. It is well worth your time to learn how to put a grid on your digital photos if you use the grid method.