What do you look for when you take photos for future paintings?

I thought it might be helpful if I share what intrigues me enough to snap a photo, and why Kristie often shakes her head in bewilderment when it appears I’ve taken a photo of a scene that nobody’s mother would appreciate.

Before I get into the meat of what I look for in photo references, I want to clarify my stance concerning the use of photos for painting because some of you might be a bit squeamish when it comes to using photography as a tool.

So much controversy surrounds photography and painting. Survey the top professional artists about using photographic references and their answers will be all over the spectrum – from “never – photos are a curse to be shunned at all costs” to “you bet – photos are the only way to go – oh, and can you hand me that projector over there.”


Rose Frantzen paints stunning images entirely from life – she refuses to use photographs because she believes photos are a crutch that weaken the skills of artists.


Scott Burdick is also a firm believer in the power of painting from life and has decades of direct method painting experience. He also understands that not all the subjects he’s excited to paint are willing to sit for hours at a time, especially in some of the remote countries he travels to, so he packs a camera for some helpful reference photos.


According to Time Magazine even Normal Rockwell would use a projector for some of his beloved paintings. He was quoted saying “The Balopticon is an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy and vicious machine,” he said. “I use one often — and though am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.” – Normal Rockwell quoted in Time Magazine

There is no one-size-fits-all remedy to the conflict.

My recommendation is, for the most part, to avoid the fray and ignore the strident opinions. Instead, evaluate your personal circumstances, strengths, weaknesses and pursuits and decide for yourself what will help you achieve your goals. Spend your time painting daily – from life as much as possible – and look at photography as a tool like you would brushes or chopped up credit cards. 

Cut up Credit Card for Texture in an Oil Painting

Also, be constantly vigilant in remembering that photos have severe limitations – distorted values, colors and color temperature relationships for example – and cannot replace direct observation and your own creative imagination.

Look at the differences in these two photos:

Darker Version

Mountain Range in Morgan, Utah


Brighter Version

Mountain Range in Morgan, Utah

Although taken one right after the other, you can see the distinct change in overall brightness. Which one is correct? Are they both off? Who knows – without a plein air study to accompany the photos, we’re all left to guess.

With a healthy and educated understanding of those caveats, photographs are a wonderful tool for exploring shapes and for jogging our memories.

We just returned from a two-week trip – we combined taking our daughter to college in Utah with a desperately needed family vacation. Since I painted at each location we visited during our trip in March and missed a lot of the family play time, I left my supplies behind so I could focus all my attention on family fun – not business.

Of course, being an artist, leaving my painting supplies in the studio doesn’t mean I can extinguish my right-brain sparks, especially when we visit Colorado and Utah.

The western mountains captivate my creative ambitions more powerfully than any other possible painting subject. It’s not simply their size – other mountain ranges rival or surpass their height and bulk. It’s the vast variety of shapes and textures that beg me to paint them. The geography shifts vividly from blue-green tree covered summits to golden rolling mountain planes. One side of the mountains might be well hydrated with lush meadows and flowers, while right over the ridge the plants are thirsty and dusty from lack of rain – all within an hour’s drive of each other.

Valley in Morgan, Utah

Panoramas like the one above are stunning without any help from me. For this scene, I woke early before my family was out of bed. I set my camera on a tripod to keep everything level, and then shot multiple photos (39) and spliced them together using Photoshop. I probably will never paint this as it appears in the photo, but you never know.

I was out there for almost two hours getting photos of the same panorama so I could study again later, back in my studio, the changes the rising sun makes on the ridges of the mountains. After about an hour, Kristie joined me – she didn’t ask why I wanted to photograph this view.

But when I asked our daughter to get some pics of the landscape below as we drove, and then actually pulled the car off the road a few times, she balked – “what could you possibly see in this barren countryside?”

Possibilities – that’s what I see!

Somewhere between Amarillo, Texas and Raton, New Mexico

First of all, in this cropped selection of that photo which divides the image into 4 equally sized horizontal sections, look at the range of values and textures. The farthest bluff has such wonderful vertical blues and tans placed next each other contrasted with the horizontal divisions interspersed through the section right below that which contrasts beautifully with the stronger light and dark values of the bluff directly below that one.

Somewhere between Amarillo, Texas and Raton, New Mexico detail

Aside from that, I will often combine images, such as placing aspen trees on a hill overlooking distant bluffs, as I did in Guardians of the Valley, using images like that above or one such as this view of Colorado Springs from Highway 115.

View of Colorado Springs from Highway 115


Guardians of the Valley, 16×20, oil painting by Bill Inman

Kristie just laughed when I got a shot of this rock:

Rock on the side of the road at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado

But not this one:

Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Hey, here in Indiana remarkable rocks like that are hard to find and they often come in handy for paintings like The Looking Glass.

The Looking Glass, 30×40, oil painting by Bill Inman

Sometimes it’s a tuft of grass or some leaves that catch my attention and I snap a photo to jog my memory or to give me a starting point when I’m combining several photos or using my imagination like I did in Aspen Ridge.

Tufts of grass and bits of rocks and leaves near Rye, Colorado


Aspen Ridge, 24×30, oil painting by Bill Inman

Contrasts like the color harmonies between the reds and greens in this Garden of the Gods setting are a big stop-me-in-my-tracks opportunity.

Garden of the Gods – Contrast of Red and Green Color Harmonies

Then again, much of my photography is simply because I like what I see and I can’t help myself – as is always the case with aspen trees – I get as many photos in as many seasons and times of day as possible, from close up aspen portraits to whole groves. I especially look for fun tidbits like the rust stains that drip down their bark or the deer bites and disease marks that make aspen trees so fascinating.

Aspen Grove near San Isabel Forest in Colorado


Aspen Tree Details like Deer Bites and Rust

Kristie’s mom was visiting a couple months ago, and somehow we started talking about aspen trees. I mentioned how much I love the curving trunks and green bark – a favorite painting subject of mine. She insisted that aspen trees are straight and white, not curved or green (Kristie thinks I often put too much curve in my aspens as well). I think that is the difference between an artist’s eye and much of the rest of the world because everywhere we ventured through the aspens I saw gloriously twisting trunks of white and green and tan while Kristie saw primarily straight, white ones.

Fortunately, the world is big and beautiful enough for both of us!

Here’s a photo for those on the skeptics’ side of the curvy, green aspens.

Curvy and Green Trunked Aspen Trees at Bishop’s Castle in Colorado

Sunsets, sunrises, bluffs, pine trees, tree bark, old cabins, diffused light on a meadow, glittering reflections on a mountain lake – the list of photo possibilities is endless. I watch for textures, shapes, fascinating compositions, color harmonies, light and shadow contrasts, reflected light and color – anything that will add to my paintings and make them more engaging and compelling.

So, the next time your spouse or travelling companion questions your urgent request to stop the car – bring up this post and let them read while you capture something magical.

What captures your heart and camera lens, or brings a smirk and quizzical expression to those you travel with?