Using Reference Photos For Painting Watercolor Landscapes

After twenty years of painting, I have acquired thousands of reference photos from my home and my travels. I love that when I paint from my collection, I’m not just painting pretty places, I’m reliving memories of the land I love, and time spent with my family. Reference photos provide instant recall, bringing back details that may have gotten blurred by time, and by keeping my photos on my phone or tablet, I have a library of images at my fingertips, ready to be painted. I love that I can use editing software to easily crop a photo or convert a photo to black & white to help me see the value contrasts.

At the same time, there’s a part of me that yearns for more than to simply copy the details in my reference photo. I long to breathe life into my paintings by making self-expression my priority, and with that goal in mind, I have learned to re-think how I use my reference photos.

Angela Fehr Downpatrick Head in Ireland - Doodlewash
Visiting Downpatrick Head in Ireland

Don’t Be a Slave to the Photo

Reference photos can be a valuable tool for creating dynamic paintings, but they can also be a harsh taskmaster, freezing an image with unforgiving detail. When I was learning to paint, I only felt my painting was successful if it resembled the reference photo, and I would paint through the scene, inch by inch. Because every detail was revealed in the photo, I felt locked into painting everything I could see. This tended to result in paintings that, even when accurate, felt stiff and lifeless.

Paint Your Experience

Compare the experience of life to the captured moment of a photograph: When you stand in nature and look at the scene before you, you can only focus on one thing at a time. Everything else becomes peripheral; all the elements are there, but they’re indistinct, supporting the object of your focus, but not really seen. Our brains essentially filter out anything that isn’t relevant, and our eyes can only detail a small area at a time. That’s why we can drive past the same sights daily, and miss details others might notice. (I’ve lived in our small town for twenty years and when my husband sends me on an errand to the automotive shops he frequents, I have no idea where to go, even though I drive past them all the time.)

Knowing that our minds and eyes have this filter habit can help us create stronger, more powerful paintings. As artists, we don’t have to be in the business of recording detail impersonally; we can leave that to the camera. It’s more exciting to focus on sharing our viewpoint in a more intimate way, with the goal of expressing emotion to our audience. It’s like the difference between news and poetry; facts versus feelings.

Downpatrick Head study, watercolour by Angela Fehr - Doodlewash
Downpatrick Head study, watercolour by Angela Fehr

Your Reference Photo is a Tool

So when you choose a reference photo, you can use it as the tool that it is. It holds detail information, keys to color, shape and value, but how you use that information is up to you.

Ask yourself a few questions as you plan your painting:

What’s the focal point, the first thing my eyes see in this scene? This is where the most care and attention to detail and contrast should be focused.

What emotion do I want to convey? I choose colours to match the mood of the scene, and move my brush to reflect my emotional connection to the image. A lively, sunny photo may call for strong, pure colours, and energetic brush strokes.

What can I simplify here so that the focal point stands out? When we simplify and edit out non-essentials, the important elements come more sharply to the forefront.

Be Willing to Repeat Yourself

From those first analysis questions, you can start to develop your painting. I don’t just ask myself questions about my reference, I paint it repeatedly, sketching it in loose watercolor until I start to feel like the “me” is coming out in my brushstrokes. After three or four quick variations, I try putting the reference photo away, and painting from memory.

Angela Fehr Teaching In Ireland - Doodlewash
“Show what you feel!” Teaching in Ireland

It’s Not Just About What You See

Be willing to question everything you think you know about your reference; in a recent painting, I struggled to paint a road that I felt was critical to the success of the painting, and in every variation it didn’t look right. It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to let go of what I thought was important, and painted the scene without the road, that my painting came together in a powerful and interesting way. It was so exciting, but I wouldn’t have achieved that if the reference photo had been my master, instead of a tool and suggestion for my painting.


I ask myself questions after the painting is complete as well. I want to establish whether I’ve met my objectives, and decide whether I would paint the scene differently if I did it again…and often, I will go back and paint the scene again, if I have ideas for a new variation.

For me, painting is never about one painting. In exploring self-expression, editing and artistic decisions, each painting adds to my body of knowledge, and provides the next step in my creative development. Today’s painting will benefit from what I learned in yesterday’s attempt, and I grow a little more each day. That’s why I’m willing to take risks, experiment and repaint a scene until I get it right. Each one gets me a little more excited about my artistic future!

Bad Photos Gone Good

When your reference photo is a tool, it doesn’t have to be a perfect photo. I often prefer painting from a slightly blurry photo, because I can improvise and exaggerate to improve what I see in my reference and it just feels more permissible than when the photo is perfect.

When a reference photo becomes less of a master and more of a tool, it turns that photo into thousands of possibilities.

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13 thoughts on “Using Reference Photos For Painting Watercolor Landscapes

  1. I’m so excited to work on getting to that point of interpretation. I can imagine so many possibilities it’s just getting my actively painting brain to execute them instead of seeing what’s there in front of me on the photo.

  2. Really great tips ! I personally learned many things from this article. Water color paintings are not about getting into too much details, but the outlines, color selection and intense of the color itself give a great texture. I can clearly see that style in your paintings 🙂 You’ve mastered it. Thanks for sharing your tips 🙂

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