Fresh Off The Easel: Shelby Keefe: How to Create a Great Painting From an Imperfect Photo Reference

by Paint Tube 2 Minutes

Fresh Off The Easel: Shelby Keefe: How to Create a Great Painting From an Imperfect Photo Reference

This week, it’s all about the reference photo. And who better to kick us off than Shelby Keefe of Painting From Photographs. In this edition of Fresh Off the Easel, Keefe shows us how she took a lackluster photo and turned it into a painting "Solista del Sol, Oil" with great design and color.

This is a photo I took when in Cuba with Eric Rhoads and 99 other people for the Paint Cuba trip back in 2016. I thought I was photographing this guy without his knowledge, so the shot was taken very quickly and not an ideal composition, but he caught me and smiled in the process of “busting me”!



In his quick look toward the camera, I felt I caught the joy and lighthearted quality that so many Cuban people exemplified. So, even with this challenging composition, I really wanted to try to capture his nature and his spirit in a painting.

First, I needed to downplay and move that architectural finial on the stone wall. It was too similar in strength and it divided the canvas in too equal a way. So I made the “ball” smaller and shorter, and the wall longer, to create a better division of space. I could’ve taken out that ball altogether, but felt it had such a Cuban flavor and spoke to the crumbling ornate structures we saw all over the place.

Second, I eliminated a lot of detail and softened the background into general shapes of color with only suggestions of texture. I also exaggerated any shapes and color that helped create impact, such as the light that hits the top of the wall and the color of the ground.

Third, I pushed back the distance in the far left upper corner by lightening the value of the subjects, creating atmosphere and space.



The finished painting still breaks some compositional rules, having all the meaningful information way over on the left, and cutting off at the bottom the curved step that leads your eye around. But hopefully this man grabs your attention by his knowing smile and you can forgive the awkward nature of this non-standard composition.

Know that your life will be easier if you start with a good photograph to begin with!