How to Paint Using Photo-Realism


The Photo-Realism movement in art began in the 1960s as an extension of Pop Art and in reaction against Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Photo-Realism differs from Classical Realism in that it relies on how the camera records visual images versus how the eye perceives them. Photography can distort dimensions, flatten objects and record scenes with a clarity beyond normal human perception. Photo-Realistic painting recreates these visual characteristics of a photograph while typically presenting them on a significantly larger scale. A Photo-Realistic painting is always based on a photograph or series of photographic images as a reference, which can then be modified or combined to create an artistic image.

Things You'll Need

  • Opaque art projector
  • Canvas
  • Easel
  • Graphite pencil
  • Fixative spray
  • Gesso
  • Brushes, various sizes
  • 2 Palettes
  • Oil paints, including Mars Black, Flake White, Ivory Black and Burnt Umber
  • Palette knife
  • Painting rags or paper towels
  • Painting medium, such as Liquin or Galkyd
  • Brush cleaning solvent

Transfering Reference Photo to Canvas

  • Crop the reference photo to the appropriate dimensions. If you are working on a 20-by-30 inch canvas, your reference photo should have the same 4-by-6 proportions.

  • Secure the canvas to the wall in a completely vertical position to avoid distortion.

  • Place the photo onto an opaque art projector and project the image onto the canvas. Adjust the position of the projector and focus as necessary.

  • Trace the projected image onto the canvas using a graphite pencil. Avoid moving or shifting the position of the canvas as you work. Focus on outlines and major areas of light and shadow.

  • Refine the drawing by careful comparison to the original photograph.

  • Seal the drawn image onto the canvas with fixative spray. Then cover the entire canvas with a thin coat of gesso to prevent graphite from bleeding through into the oil paint.

  • Sand the gesso lightly once dry to remove any texture and brushstrokes.


  • Mix a grayscale palette of 10 values of paint using Mars Black and Flake White. The grayscale should go from pure Mars Black as Value 1 to pure Flake White as Value 10.

  • Begin the underpainting using this monochrome palette. Work from light to dark values. Concentrate on refining areas of light, mid-tone and shadow in each object in the painting.

  • Refine the underpainting until the entire canvas is covered with at least one coat of paint. Let the underpainting dry completely before continuing.

Adding Color

  • Prepare a series of five darkening agents using Ivory Black and Burnt Umber. Mix these colors to the following ratios: pure Ivory Black, 2 parts Ivory Black plus 1 part Burnt Umber, 1 part Ivory Black plus 1 part Burnt Umber, 1 part Ivory Black to 2 parts Burnt Umber and pure Burnt Umber.

  • Work one area of color at a time, darkening as appropriate to match light, mid-tone and shadow areas. Warmest colors such as yellow and orange should be darkened with pure Burnt Umber or the 2-to-1 Burnt Umber-Ivory Black darkener. Coolest colors such as purple and blue, should be darkened with pure Ivory Black or the 2-to-1 Ivory Black-Burnt Umber darkener. Mid-temperature colors such as red and green will use the 1-to-1 Ivory Black-Burnt Umber darkener.

  • Blend transitional areas of the paint while wet using clean brushes to create a smooth, realistic effect. Do not lose sharp edges which appear in the reference photo. Go over the entire background of the painting with a large fan-brush, working first horizontally and then vertically to blur areas of background and create a hyper-focused image in the foreground.

Finishing Painting

  • Add highlights. Tint Titanium White with a small amount of pigment, then apply with light, quick brushstrokes. Do not blend into under-layers of paint.

  • Add thin glazes of paint to refine the painting's colors and shadows. Mix a small amount of pigment with your painting medium and apply with a soft brush.

  • Apply a protective coat of varnish once the painting is thoroughly dry.

Tips & Warnings

  • Apply pigment in thin layers to keep the surface of the painting smooth. Photo-Realistic paintings should have a flat surface to maximize their near-photographic quality.
  • Use gloves when painting with Flake White and other pigments which contain potentially harmful chemicals.
  • Always work in a well-ventilated area when using fixative spray, painting solvents and varnish.

Related Searches


  • "Controlled Painting: A Sound Approach to Realistic Painting in Oil and Acrylics"; Frank Covino; 1982
  • "The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques: Fifth Edition"; Ralph Mayer; 1991
  • "Richard Estes: Paintings & Prints"; John Arthur; 1993
  • Photo Credit a brush for painting image by timur1970 from
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