"Being an artist isn’t just a “right brain” activity---you must use ALL of your brain, body and spirit to create. When the creation is done, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts… and so is the creator." - Lyrae Perry

Working From Photos 1: Red-fronted Macaw

I’ve taken several photo-realism painting classes and they were a lot of fun. Your painting can only be as good as the photo you work from. So….you have to pick a really great photo with good composition, lighting, color and detail because your painting has to match.

What if the photo isn’t perfect in every way? How do you make your painting go beyond what the camera captures? Animals are constantly moving and even if you’re a good photographer, the lighting conditions are changing every second. You have to snap your photos and get the best shots you can at the time. Then, back in your studio, you can paint to go beyond what your photos are showing. I have an example to show you of a painting I did from a photo. This will make it easy to see what I’m talking about.

My friend Mark Moore took a cool picture of a Red-fronted macaw. These are a pretty rare species, and photos are hard to get. I was so happy when Mark allowed me to use this for a painting.

After I got my drawing done, I started painting. I always start painting the eyes and work outward. I had most of the work done on this piece, and was ready to start putting in the highlights. I had to set the painting aside for a couple of weeks. And believe me, THAT was a good thing!

When I pulled the painting out of the drawer two weeks later and looked at it, I realized I’d made a huge mistake in the drawing. The eye was in the wrong place in relationship to the top of the head and the beak–it was awful!

Emotional Check:

I HATE it when that happens because I feel like I’ve wasted a colossal amount of time and effort. When I add up the time, it really isn’t all THAT much, but it’s the feeling that I’ve invested so much in the artwork and I’ve got to wipe it out. It feels like failure and that I’m throwing out something of value.

Reality Check:

Intellectually, I know I’m not giving up anything—I’m gaining visual experience and better/faster hand-eye-coordination by doing it over. And that repetition creates better pathways in my brain cells for the current fix and for future artworks.

Bite the Bullet:

There’s only one thing to do…load up the big brush with water and pull all the paint off, dry the paper and start over. I work with really thick paper, so tossing the piece out isn’t necessary. I’ve also found that a little bit of pigment left on the paper can actually be of benefit when I repaint:

• It becomes an under painting that gives depth to the color

• Left over pigment fills in tiny gaps in the paper, which conserves some of the hairs on my brushes when I repaint because the brushes aren’t being worn down as fast.

After I got the drawing redone, I double-measured to be sure that eye was in the right place before I started painting again! Since I’d already painted it once, I knew exactly what was needed and the entire repainting went really fast. I got the artwork done in an afternoon… which was really satisfying.


Take a good look at the photo on the left and then look at my painting on the right.

Next, I had to experiment to find the right color for the background  that didn’t clash or take away from the bird. I settled on a greenish blue that is a cooler green than the Red-fronted macaw, so that it would keep the bird front and center. I changed the angle of the perch, to punch-up the energy and direct your eye around the painting. This was a personal choice, but I think the painting would have been fine even if I hadn’t changed it.

The photo is a little underexposed and in order to show the details in the face, I had to lighten things up. Fortunately I was able to color correct the green feathers for daylight conditions. Because the live birds are here on the farm for me to look at, that part was easy.

It’s not uncommon for wild birds to be cautious or aggressive when you get close to them with strange objects like a camera. This particular bird was extremely wary as evidenced by the fluffed feathers and the “angry” eyes. The fluffy feathers are actually pretty nice—so I left that alone.

But the eyes are slightly squinted and the pupil is contracted and small, which isn’t especially attractive. Normally the eye would be more relaxed, which is what I wanted to show in my artwork. I wanted the bird’s expression to convey curiosity instead of fear or wariness. The easiest way to do that is to make the pupil larger and paint the skin around the eye slightly softer and not as red. I also added a highlight to the eye to brighten the expression. Please note that making the pupil larger to change the expression only works with eyes that have a pupil that’s a different color than the iris. If you’re painting a bird with “black eyes”, there’s another way to change the expression. I’ll talk about that in a future blog post.

If you have a not-so-great photo of a bird, experiment with making changes like I did on your own. If you don’t like it, just blot or wash off the paint and start over. Being more willing to take chances and experiment with color changing is a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t. It doesn’t take long for that knowledge to become part of your DNA and you’ll be painting faster and with more confidence.

Do you have a similar experience? What have you done to change-up a so-so photo and make your painting great?




  1. Lyrae Perry says:

    Update on the Red-fronted macaws: They laid eggs this summer and I got to hand feed a chick from day one! Very cute little guy and fun to hand feed. This species is smaller than a Blue and Gold macaw, but they aren’t quite small enough to qualify as “mini” macaws. Lyrae

Speak Your Mind