You want to paint something, but don't have time to sit around for hours in front of a live subject.

You need more flexibility. You want to paint, whenever YOU have a sliver of time.


Enter: the photo reference!

Taking a photo of the still life, person or landscape has been a life saver for me. I can have an archive of subjects that inspire me and I can take it out and paint from it anytime I want.

In this post, I want to show you a very simple way to make your photos a bit more dramatic, which means having more contrast or having more shadows and lights - which will make your painting experience more enjoyable.

(In a lot of art workshops and classes, they use the power of the lamp to create contrast to make form more visible to the students. So this is not anything new - I'll be showing you the DIY version.)


in this example, I went out to a beautiful florist in Princeton and bought this sweet pea.

It looks gorgeous with its organic form.

With my iphone I took the pic on the right. It's ok, but doesn't have the drama that I need for a painting.


Sweet pea!

Sweet pea!

Photo with my iPhone. I need more drama! (Not the bad kind, the good kind!)

Photo with my iPhone. I need more drama! (Not the bad kind, the good kind!)


The 2 ingredient recipe for more dramatic pictures:

1. Surround your subject matter with darkness.

2. Have one light source shining at it. 


Now you'll have to experiment with moving your light source.

You'll see when it starts to describe your subject matter in a pleasing way or when it makes your picture worse.

What I used:

  1. Cardboard box (to eliminate other light sources)
  2. Reading lamp (your one light source that will illuminate your subject matter)
  3. A black t-shirt for my background (and something to prop up my shirt - I used a binder.)
  4. Iphone (or any camera you have on hand)

After 7 minutes, I took a whole bunch of pictures, just by moving around the flower and the lamp. 

Here are 3 examples:



So much prettier than my original photo at the top of this post.

Now, using the app Photogene, I can even amp up the contrast and play with other elements, such as chroma, exposure and all sorts of other fun things. Why not use tech to compose on the fly?

I like using the app Photogene to play around with composition. It's fun and handy!

I like using the app Photogene to play around with composition. It's fun and handy!


You can also do this with people, pets or still lives. Obviously, people and pets will not fit in a box, but you can photograph them in the evening. Turn off all the lights and shine one light source on them (it's nice, if you can move the light source around, so you can light from different angles.) If you can control it, switch up the backgrounds - I usually change background color when I'm painting.



If you're interested in painting using photo references, make sure the picture you take has a good amount of lights and shadows that describe the shape of your subject matter. You'll have more fun painting from a good photo than a bad photo.



Experiment taking pictures with your phone! Look for one light source. Light can come from a window or a lamp. You can put a bowl of fruit, a flower, a person (you get the picture), close to the light source and start composing your own pictures. Experiment with your background (different paper or cloth) as well!


People see my photos and think I labor over my image and I’m this cool, brooding artist. But I’m just having fun with it.
— Lenny Kravitz