watercolor - using a photo reference for still life
Watercolor still life by Shelley Prior

“Why I Paint From a Photo Reference” >>> Beautiful light is what inspires Shelley Prior most, whether it’s a portrait, a still life, landscape, floral, or animal. Shelley is a realist watercolor artist based in Ontario, Canada; she has been a full-time artist and instructor for 25 years.

The following is part of a series featuring a leader in the art community who will be joining us on the faculty of Watercolor Live, a virtual art conference taking place January 26-28, 2023, with a Beginner’s Day on January 25.

On Painting With a Photo Reference

by Shelley Prior

Watercolor artist Shelley Prior
Watercolor artist Shelley Prior

Whenever I begin a new painting with glass or metal objects, I start with a photograph. I do this because the slightest change of light or tilt of the head will instantly shift all of the values and colors, much like turning a kaleidoscope.

I will still use the setup for general color and to see details but a camera can freeze the moment for me so that I’m not constantly trying to chase a moving target as I try to sort out the sometimes complex shapes and values. I try multiple arrangements and prefer light coming through my window whenever possible because artificial light never seems to have the same brilliance.

I will step back from my arrangement and use the camera lens to zoom in on the subject rather than taking it at close range which can often cause distortion. Moving around the arrangement or trying eye-level or a birds eye view from above can give me a new perspective rather than always choosing the same angle for the photo reference.

Once I have rearranged and taken multiple images, I compare and choose the one I like best. If it’s something quite complex, like crystal, I may enlarge the image and transfer it because drawing it would be very time-consuming, even though I would be able to draw it by hand.

It’s a time-saver for me but I do continue to practice my drawing skills all of the time so that I am never at the mercy of tracing or projecting the image exactly as it has been photographed. I want the ability to edit or change elements from the reference and for this you need drawing skills.

Additional Watercolor Paintings by Shelley Prior:

Realistic watercolor painting Watercolor realism portrait painting

realistic paintings of crows - watercolor

Have you used this method of using a photo reference for painting a still life? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

When a painting showcases softness and light, it brings a wonderful sense of peace and calm to all who see it. This is exactly what Shelley Prior teaches in the PaintTube.tv course “Pet Portraits in Watercolor.” [learn more about how to paint with watercolor here]

Connect with Shelley Prior:
Website | Instagram

Save years of struggle and frustration by discovering techniques revealed by the world’s top watercolor artists in just three days in the world’s largest online art training event January 26-28, 2023 with Beginner’s Day on January 25: Watercolor Live!

Visit EricRhoads.com (Publisher of Realism Today) to learn about opportunities for artists and art collectors, including: Art Retreats – International Art Trips – Art Conventions – Art Workshops (in person and online, including Realism Live) – And More!


  1. I not only use photographs but will edit and compose in an editing program until I am satisfied with the composition. I am not about to abandon these valuable tools no more than I would any other to complete the work. I have spoken to many fantastic artist and they ALL use photographic references to produce the great paintings they are known for. From the time photography was invented, artists have used it to capture and paint. In fact, the camera obscura, while not a photo device, was used by artists from the renascence till modern era. I draw and paint from life but that doesn’t stop me from also using photo reference. And I don’t apologize for doing it.

  2. I agree with Shelley, I paint watercolour florals, and I’m known for the luminosity of my paintings. Flowers have very complex structures and its almost impossible to capture the way light interacts with all the interconnected petals, stamens and leaves without a photograph, but I only use my own photographs and I do a lot of cropping and editing as I work out my design. Also, flowers only last a few days and even within those days are constantly changing, so a photograph is needed to freeze the flower in time. I only paint flowers I know and love, as that intimate connection with the flower is needed to really express its personality. Trying to paint a flower you don’t know from someone else’s photograph is not going to cut it.

  3. There are 2 reasons I use photo references. One, I want to capture the real person, a genuine emotional moment*. People can’t hold a smile for very long. (I hate the portrait stare). The second reason is because I can make the image “out of focus”. The likeness is never in the detail, so removing it means I don’t get bogged down by it. We can recognise people from 100 yards away, so it has nothing to do with the colour of their eyes or eyelashes.

    *I work from video to do this

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