Adjusting Reference Photo for Underpainting

I wish I figured this out on my own, but I found it on a U-tube video by Jason Morgan ( He’s a wildlife artist. This particular video is titled “Painting Tips – Preparing a photo for the underpainting stage.” You may want to view it after reading how to prepare the photo.

When a reference photo has a lot of detail, like a picture of a tiger, for instance, it is difficult to look beyond the detail for what the colors underneath should be.There is an easy PhotoShop process to help you out.

Open your reference photo in PhotoShop. This photo is from



Go to the menu bar and open up “Filter.”


Then open up the Filter Gallery. Your photo will be on the left and if it is too big, look at the bottom of the screen and you’ll see you can adjust the size down. The two filters that work the best for this are “Paint Daubs” and “Palette Knife” in the Artistic Filter Gallery.


Play around with the stroke size and detail until you can see that the detail has been smoothed out to show areas of color. Don’t worry about the whiskers because they get painted in last anyway.


The adjusted photo is on the left and you can see the underpainting colors easily. But there is one more thing to do. Because the detail gets painted on top of these colors, it needs to be darkened for the underpainting. Go to “Image” and change the brightness by moving the bar to the left until it is a little bit darker. For more specific information on the brightness/contrast tool, go to “Finished Artwork: Brightness and Contrast.”


Now when you paint the details, like the hair, on top of the underpainting, they will be the right color and stand out beautifully.



Reference Photo Enhancement

I found a wonderful photo by Paul Sawford on Paint My Photo ( that offers copyrighted photos that are free for artists to use.

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I loved it, but the detail was hidden in the dark picture. This is what I did in PhotoShop:

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First, I adjusted the Brightness/Contrast, but not too much so I didn’t lose the rich details in the white areas.

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Next, I adjusted the Vibrance to bring out a little more color.

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Finally, I adjusted the Color Balance to bring out the colors I love, especially teal or light blue. And a little yellow to warm it up.

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And this is the final picture in colored pencil on suede mat board. I picked up lots of detail and color that I couldn’t see in the original. I used the reference photo as a jumping off point, not as something to duplicate, so my final picture is more a representation of colors and shapes I want to emphasize. Here it is:

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I don’t think I could have produced as good a painting without the help of PhotoShop, and that’s why I use it.


Reference Photos and Copyright Law

When using a reference photo for artwork, it is important use to only copyright-free photos, or photos used with the written permission of the photographer.

When a photographer takes a picture, he owns the copyright.  Even if you pay for copies of his photos, he still owns the original image. If the photo appears on the Internet, it is not free to use. If you are able to contact the photographer and receive his written permission, it would be okay to use for artwork. Otherwise it would be an infringement of his rights.

However, after approximately 120 years from the date of creation, a photo may fall into the public domain. Photos of Native Americans taken in the 1800s by Edward Sheriff Curtis have fallen into the public domain and are considered copyright free.

Using a copyrighted photo and changing a small part of it is not fair use and is an infringement of copyright law. If it is a photo of cows, and you use a couple of the cows in your artwork, it is okay. If the photo is of a cow on a hill, and your artwork looks like that, then it is not okay.

Fortunately there are many sites on the Internet that offer copyright-free photos for an artist’s use. Some charge a small, reasonable fee, and some are free.

  • Wildlife Reference Photos (
  • Paint My Photo (
  • Wendy’s Photos for Creatives (on Facebook)
  • Birds of the World (on Facebook)
  • Pixabay (
  • Morgue File (

These are only the sites that I’m familiar with. There are many more. If you want to email me sites that you like, I’d be glad to include them on this list.