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.

Reasons to Watch Videos of New Art Mediums

Today, I want to go off topic just a little bit and share a few reasons why every artist should watch videos of new art mediums once in a while.

As some of you know, I write freelance as well as draw and sometimes paint. I write about colored pencil topics (usually the business side of things) for Ann Kullberg’s COLOR Magazine. I also write about a variety of more general art topics for EmptyEasel and occassionally contribute to Colored Pencil Magazine.

Most often, I come up with my own topics, but I also “write to order” when an editor has a particular topic they want an article about or when a reader asks a question.

That’s how I came to watch painting and drawing videos on different mediums last month.

Reasons to Watch Videos of New Art Mediums

The editor of EmptyEasel suggested some time ago that I write a couple of link articles, one on 50 great painting videos and another on 50 great drawing videos. When I endured a bout of problems with my right wrist and drawing or painting was off limits, it seemed like a good idea to watch videos. (I could not only “work,” I could ice my wrist, too. Win-win!)

I saw a lot of wonderful artists creating wonderful art in a wide range of different mediums; some familiar, some previously unknown. It was such an informative time that I had to share some of what I learned with you!

Why You Should Watch Videos of New Art Mediums

You Discover New Mediums

The best reason to watch videos that are not about colored pencil is that you learn about new art mediums.

You may love your colored pencils and not currently be thinking about trying a different medium, but seeing what else is available is still helpful. If for no other reason, it broadens your horizons. (Did you know there was such a thing as resin painting? Neither did I!)

Those broader horizons may lead you to try something new, or may help you improve your colored pencil work.

Maybe both!

You Learn New Methods

Even if you don’t ever try a new medium, seeing how artists use those mediums can provide keys to using your own medium.

For example, I’ve seen oil painters, gouache painters, and watercolor painters applying paint in what appears to be haphazard strokes. When they zoom in on their brush work, the image doesn’t look like much.

But take a look at the entire painting, and all of a sudden those “random” strokes look very much like trees on a distant hill or variations in color in a wave.

Here’s something else I’ve picked up that applies to colored pencil: Most of those artists make very deliberate strokes. Strokes that are short, purposeful, and often follow long pauses to reload brushes AND consider the next stroke.

How does that affect me (and maybe you, too?) It shows me that my sometimes rushed manner of making marks on paper may actually hinder me in some cases. Yes. There is a time for quick washes of color, but there are also times to slow down and be very deliberate in applying color.

You May Find a Medium You Want to Try

That’s been my experience.

Of course, you have to remember that part of me wants to try every medium I see when I see someone doing wonderful things with it. The day I watched egg tempera painting videos, I wanted to start cracking eggs and making paint.

The day I watched gouache artists, I wanted to try that medium, and so on down the list through acrylics, watercolor, casein and even resin painting.

That may be your experience too.

But there are a few of those mediums that intrigue me beyond mere whim. Mediums like gouache and egg tempera might work as under paintings for colored pencil work. Who wouldn’t enjoy experimenting with that?

Get Inspired!

Even if none of the other reasons to watch videos in other mediums happens to you, what about the sheer inspiration of seeing artists create?

When you find yourself in the creative doldrums, try watching videos of other mediums. They can give you a fresh look at art and, if you watch long enough, a fresh look at your art.

Those are just a few reasons you should watch videos in other mediums.

There are more. In fact, the reasons are as varied as all of you. Each of you will find other reasons after you take the time to explore new mediums by video.

Would you like to see the best videos I watched? Read Learn to Paint with 50+ Free Painting Videos on YouTube! and Learn to Draw with 50+ Free Drawing Videos on YouTube. Both articles include videos for artists at all levels of expertise.

Yes, even you.

I guarantee it.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos on PhotoShop

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

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.

BRIGHTNESS/CONTRAST
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

To adjust COLOR, select IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > COLOR BALANCE.

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 EmptyEasel.com and give it a read.

Getting Started As a Portrait Artist

For many centuries, making a living as an artist required painting or drawing portraits. While there are now many more ways to generate art income, portrait work is still a staple of many studios. Getting started as a portrait artist can be time-consuming work, though. Is there an easy way to do it?

There is no quick start program for getting started as a portrait artist. Like everything else art-related, it takes time, patience, and persistence.

Getting Started as a Portrait Artist

But you can do a few things to make the process smoother. And possibly faster.

Tips For Getting Started As a Portrait Artist

There’s much more to becoming a portrait artist than we have time to discuss today, so I’ll begin with four basics. Doing these things doesn’t guarantee success, but not doing them could hinder progress.

 Tip #1: Consider Your Target Market

If you don’t know your target audience, you’ll spend a lot of time and money promoting your portraits to people who just aren’t interested. It’s important to understand who is most likely to hire you before you start marketing yourself.

Figure out the people most likely to hire you, and you can focus on those areas from the start. That alone makes it easier to gain portrait work and name recognition.

Does that mean everyone in that target audience will become a client? Not at all. But it does mean those people are more likely to take an interest in your work.

Does that mean you never promote your work to other people? No, because you can never be sure who will buy something from you.

But best place to begin promoting yourself as a portrait artist is with people who like the type of art you do.

So what does a target audience look like?

Members of your target audience share three characteristics.

One, they like the same subjects you like. Say, horses or dogs or classic cars (yes, classic cars, houses, and landscapes can fall into the portrait category.)

Two, they like art and prefer your style.

Three, they have money to spend and are likely to spend it on art.

It does you no good to promote your portrait work to other artists (a lesson I had to learn the hard way.) Nor does it do any good to promote your dog portraits to people who want portraits of their cats and their kids (unless you’re willing to step outside the box; not usually a good idea when you’re getting started.)

It’s not necessary to spend weeks figuring this stuff out. An afternoon is usually sufficient.

And if the thought of finding a “target audience” is too scary, then just look for people who like the kind of art you make.

Oh, and who have money to spend on it.

For more specific help in identifying your target audience, read 3 Ways to Identify the Best Target Audience for Your Art, which I wrote for EmptyEasel.

Think Local

Once you’ve identified your most likely clients, go where they are. Do you paint horse portraits? Check out the local saddle club, or county fairgrounds. If you do dog portraits, look for kennel clubs and so on.

When I was getting started, I found regular horse shows hosted by the county fairgrounds in two neighboring counties. I went to those shows as often as I could. Sometimes, I went with just my camera. Sometimes I set up a small booth or just sat in the stands and sketched or watched. I got to be a regular and made friends among the horse owners. I rarely sold anything on-site, but it was time well spent, and I often went home with batches of new photographs. Photographs I still sometimes browse through.

Local shows are often free admission and close by, which means reduced expenses all the way around. If you’re working for a living and building an art career on the side (which most artists are), cutting costs wherever possible is a necessity.

The purpose of attending such shows on a regular basis is to be seen and to see. If all you do is make friends and take pictures, you’ve had a good day. Building relationships is key. Think of it as laying the groundwork for future business.

And those pictures could become the reference materials for a new drawing or painting.

Work Your Way Up

Leverage time and experiences at local events into larger events. The friends you make at the local level know about regional, state, and association events. Chances are they know far enough in advance for you to make plans to go, too.

Attending a large show could involve a lengthy drive and possibly admission fees, so when you’re beginning, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to attend very many of them.

But you do need to go, whether you’re exhibiting artwork or not. The opportunities to meet horse people from around the region and across the country is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Take a camera, drawing equipment, and a stack of business cards. Take a lot of pictures, and hand out business cards to people interested in your work.

Build a Body of Work

Do as much painting and drawing as possible. You need at least a half dozen pieces to exhibit, more if they’re small. That means six oil paintings or drawings that are as good as you can make them and framed for exhibit.

Choose your best work. You can take them all if you want, but display only the best. It’s nice to have backups to replace paintings or drawings you sell, but your display should always showcase your best work. This will be the only opportunity a lot of people have to see your work; make the best impression on them you can.

Don’t Give Up

Don’t expect overnight success. Chances are you will not see significant sales right away. It is possible, of course, but it isn’t probable. You need to establish yourself as a trustworthy artist with not only the skill and talent to do the work, but the determination to see it through when you get a custom order.

Getting Started as a Portrait Artist is not Easy.

For most of us, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and time to build a career as a portrait artist.

But it can be done and, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort on your artwork and on promoting your artwork, you can do well as portrait artist.

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.

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 1

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’.

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 4

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.

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 6

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).

Putting a Drawing Grid on a Digital Photo - Step 8

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.

Recommendations

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.

Conclusion

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.

Taking Better Reference Photos for Your Art

Composing Through the Lens Zoom 1

Not all artwork begins with a pencil or paint brush. With the ease of owning and using modern technology, many artists begin by composing artwork with a camera. That means many of us are always looking for things that will help us in taking better reference photos.

If that describes you, then this post is for you.

With the capabilities of modern smart phones and other digital devices, you don’t need a high-powered camera to take good photos. However, the better your equipment, the better your chances of taking better reference photos.

The great news is that good digital cameras are no longer all that expensive. They can be, of course, but you can do very well with a mid-range camera, the right lenses, and a little practice. If you know how you want to use a camera—subjects, locations, etc.—you’ll be better able to find the right camera for your needs.

Nor do you need to be an expert. Obviously, the more you know, the better your photos are likely to be, but anyone can take good reference photos by remembering three very simple things.

3 Things to Remember For Taking Better Reference Photos

Take a Lot of Pictures

Even if you have a very definite idea of what you want, take a lot of pictures. And I don’t mean half a dozen or a dozen; I’m talking hundreds. It doesn’t cost anything to develop digital images, so be extravagant! Make that camera smoke!

If your subjects are living, there’s every chance in the world you’ll get photos with closed eyes, droopy lips, funny faces, or other less-than-desirable looks. The more pictures you take, the better chance you’ll get a photo that’s close to ideal.

Also photograph your subject from different angles and in different poses. I took over 30 pictures of this horse (on film—I’d have taken 300 with a digital camera.) Conformation poses from each side. Three-quarter angle shots from both sides. Head studies. Traditional compositions. Arty compositions. Whatever I could think of.

Not all of them will be useful as reference images, but it’s better to have too many photos than not enough.

Taking Better Reference Photos - A Horse in a Paddock
Taking Better Reference Photos - Same Horse, Different Photo

Try Different Orientations

If you’re taking pictures for a portrait, shoot a few photos with a horizontal (landscape) orientation. If you’re looking for the perfect landscape photos, try taking a few pictures with a vertical (portrait) orientation.

Looking at your subject in a different configuration might be just the ticket for taking better reference photos.

Taking Better Reference Photos - Vertical Landscape Photo
Taking Better Reference Photos - Horizontal Landscape Photo

Zoom!

One of my favorite tools for composing through the lens is the zoom function. Even a standard zoom is wonderful for zeroing in on your subject and decluttering the background.

You can also use the zoom function for getting close-up shots of details. Eyes and markings on animals, individual elements in a landscape, or just a more interesting crop. Once you leave the photo shoot, you’ve lost the opportunity to get those images, so take pictures of anything that looks remotely helpful.

Taking Better Reference Photos - Zoom in on Your Subject
Taking Better Reference Photos - Zooming in Your Subject Even Works With Landscape Photos

Additional Reading for Taking Better Reference Photos

For more tips and methods on taking better reference photos, check out How to Take Better Reference Photos for Your Next Art Project on EmptyEasel.

For More Expert Instruction…

I’m no photography expert and don’t pretend to be one. That’s why I like the Digital Photography School website. I recently read an eBook on taking better landscape photographs that was designed for photographers, but that will be a major help to me in getting better references for drawings. So if you’re looking for more than basic tips, take a moment to visit Digital Photography School.

8 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was a Beginning Artist

I’ve been an artist for a long time. Long enough to have learned many lessons that come only with experience.

Long enough to also know that there are many things I could have learned from other artists had I known where to find those artists (I started before the days of the internet).

Most of those tips have less to do with art than with attitude. They’re the sorts of things we all need to be reminded of periodically.

8 Things I Wish I'd Known When I Was a Beginning Artist

Be prepared to persevere.

I don’t know about you, but when I started painting, I thought all I had to do was paint the portraits and get them in front of people. They’d sell themselves and they’d sell themselves quickly. I’d be an overnight success.

The selling part is a discussion for another time (if you’re interested in that, let me know. There’s lots to share.)

The overnight part? Let’s just say I’ve been painting for nearly forty years and I’m still waiting for the overnight success.

Making art is not easy, even when you love what you’re doing. Building a livelihood around it is even less easy. Even when it’s your passion.

The real secret to success is getting up one more time than you’re knocked down, plain and simple. The world doesn’t owe you a living. Neither do the people around you. You may be the most talented artist since Rembrandt, but even he persevered.

Keep going. Be persistent.

Don’t.

Give.

Up.

Develop a thick skin.

From the first drawing you draw to the last, there will be critics. You will have to learn to deal with people who criticize your work, your methods, your marketing—probably even you. They are as much a fact of life as the sun rising in the east. Learn not to internalize it.

How? Ah, that’s the hard part, isn’t it.The Beginning Artist Needs to Develop a Thick Skin

The thing I did that helped me most in this area was deciding with myself what I wanted to paint, how I wanted to paint, and for whom I wanted to paint.

Once those things were settled in my own mind, the criticisms that came because I was painting horses or painting them too realistically or painting for clients didn’t matter. Sure, they still sometimes stung—especially those delivered by artists whose work I admired but whose vision was different than mine—but they didn’t sting as much.

You may need to make the same decisions.

Then go forward with confidence.

Learn to learn from criticism.

Some of the criticism may be warranted, so you can’t automatically discard it all. When an artist whose vision was similar to mine commented negatively on something I’d done, I paid more attention. Maybe they were right.

If a client had a complaint, I definitely paid attention to that. After all, they were paying me for my artistic skill. If they weren’t happy, neither was I.

But I still had to learn to be gracious.

I also had to learn to analyze those criticisms at face value and glean the comments that improved my skills as an artist and in dealing with people (and let’s face it, most of us like nothing better than to shut ourselves up in our studios and make art). Toward that end, I asked myself

  • Was the critic an artist more skilled than I?
  • If so, is this criticism a learning opportunity?
  • What can I learn from it?
  • Was the critic a client?
  • If so, is the complaint legitimate?
  • How can I improve the painting?

In other words, find ways to learn, to improve your artistic craft. Make every criticism an opportunity to learn and grow.

Draw every day.

Don’t fall into the habit of thinking you need to wait for inspiration to strike before you make art.

Don’t accept the lie that you need large chunks of time, either.

It's Important for the Beginning Artist to Develop a Daily Drawing Habit

I’ve lived both and know they are not true. The best way to be an artist is to be an artist. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you have the time or not. Even if it’s just a few minutes to sketch on a napkin, make use of it. Nothing is more discouraging than waking up one morning and realizing it’s been a year since the last time you drew something.

Set goals.

I didn’t have to hear this very many times before I got tired of hearing it. Sick and tired!

But you know what? It’s true! When I came to grips with that realization, I also discovered just how valuable goals can be.

And easy. Start small. The first time I set painting goals, I decided to paint one painting a month plus two for a year. I was painting evenings and weekends then, doing art shows and horse shows when I could, so painting time was limited.

But it worked and for years, I created at least twelve paintings a year. Most of them portraits.

You might also try a time goal. Maybe 15 minutes of life drawing every day. Or even just 5 or 10. Keep a small sketch pad with you and sketch in doctor’s offices, while waiting for your order at a restaurant, or wherever you happen to be. Make it a habit! Have fun with it!

Develop a system to monitor goals.

Goals work best when you have a way to track your progress. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it needs to BE.

The Beginning Artist Should Find a Way to Monitor Progress

A calendar is great for this. One with big squares for each day works for me. Find a method that works for you. Decide how much time you want to paint each month, then decide how much you need to paint each day to reach that goal. For each day you paint, record the amount of time you spent. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time adds up.

For some projects, I keep a spreadsheet.

The important thing isn’t how you monitor your progress; it’s THAT you monitor your progress. Seeing how much you’ve done toward a particular goal is a great way to get or stay motivated to keep up the good work.

Don’t let your goals rule you.

You may be thinking this is a contradiction. It’s not.

Life happens. There will be days when, despite your best planning and intentions, you just can’t paint or draw. Don’t let it stress you out. That’s part of the reason I like weekly and monthly goals in addition to daily goals. If I miss a day, I can make it up somewhere else and the weekly or monthly goals provide the incentive to do so.

Have fun.

For the longest time, my art was my small business and I treated it that way. Every line I drew was for a portrait in some way. I never drew for fun or just because something interesting caught my eye and wanted to be drawn.

Don’t do that!The Beginning Artist Needs to Learn to Have Fun

Whether you paint for personal pleasure or as a livelihood, have fun. For some, creating art will become like a job and will require you treat it like a job, maintaining regular hours and behaving like your own employee.

If that describes you, try not to lose sight of the joy of painting (as I did). Keep in sight the reason art drew you in the first place. Take time to nurture that, to grow it as you grow your career. You won’t regret it.

By the way, it doesn’t hurt to learn to have fun apart from your art, too. We all need down time to refresh and revitalize.

Which of these resonant most with you? What advice would you add to the list?

5 Curving Line Drawing Exercises

5 Curving Line Drawing Exercises

In a previous post, I shared a few line control exercises for straight lines. This time around, I’m focusing on curving line drawing exercises. The following exercises will help you improve line control with curving lines, spirals, circles, and arcs.

5 Curving Line Drawing Exercises

You might expect curving lines to be more difficult to draw than straight lines. That hasn’t been my experience, and may not be yours.

But drawing a curving line, and drawing a curving line that accurately represents your subject are two different things. That’s why these curving line drawing exercises are just as important as straight line drawing exercises.

5 Curving Line Drawing Exercises

Outward Spiral Line Exercise

This is a simple, straight forward exercise. Put your pencil on the paper and begin drawing a line that curves around itself. Keep going as long as you can, making the circle ever larger.

This exercise is good for a number of things.

Improving your ability to draw parallel curves

Improving your ability to draw a long line with consistent pressure

Improving your ability to draw a long line with consistent line weight

In the sample below, pressure and line weight control were good, but those parallel lines…. I need a lot of work in that area and am not afraid to admit it!

Outward Spiral Line Exercise

Fixed Point Circle Line Exercise

This exercise is similar to the previous exercise except in one important area. Rather than drawing a curving line that enlarges on a central point in the center of the circle, the fixed point is at one side. It doesn’t matter which side you choose. Make every loop larger than the previous loop, but make every loop overlap at one point.

Fixed Point Circle Line Exercise

Broken Concentric Circle Line Exercise

Begin with a small circle drawn in the center of your paper.

Instead of drawing a parallel circle outside the first circle, draw arcs as shown below. You can vary the length of each arc, but make them as parallel to the inside line as possible.

You can also work on line weight and pressure control with this exercise.

Of course, drawing complete circles parallel to the center circle is also a good idea.

Broken Concentric Circle Line Exercise

Gradated Concentric Line Exercise

Start with a dot or very small circle either very light in value or very dark.

Draw the next line outside the first line and continue. Make each successive line lighter or darker than the one before. Also work on keeping them parallel. The goal is to create a full value range light to dark or dark to light, then work back in the opposite direction.

I was walking the cat when I did this exercise and standing with the pad of paper in one hand, the pencil in the other, and my end of the leash looped over my wrist. The line started out fairly circular, but it didn’t take long to become misshapen.

However, I rather like the topographical look. It rather fires the imagination, doesn’t it? What sort of topographical formation would look like this on a topographical map?

Gradated Concentric Line Exercise

Gradated Spiral Line Exercise

This differs from the Gradated Concentric Circle Exercise in that you started at the center and draw a single line all the way to the outside edge without lifting the pencil. Start with heavy pressure, reduce pressure to the lightest you can manage, then darken it again to the darkest.

This exercise puts a little spin on the previous exercise and on the first exercise in this post.

Gradated Spiral Line Exercise

Conclusion

These are just a few of the many drawing and line control exercises available. Whether you use these specific exercises or something else, the important thing is that you find something that’s helpful to you.

Above all, have fun.