Many artists are wary of using photographs as reference material, but since the invention of the camera itself a lot of artists have recognised just how useful they can be. Walter Sickert is known to have copied photographs for some of his work and even the celebrated Sir Henry Moore was discovered to have used newspaper photographs of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in the underground for a painting, so there is no shame in taking a camera along as a witness when out sketching.

My photographs of birds and animals almost never capture the precise gesture or pose I’m looking for.

Usually the moment has gone and I’m left with a fl eeting memory to record in the few lines of a sketch. My photographs, if I take any, are usually back up and will supply details back at the studio, especially of subjects I’m not too familiar with.

It’s important only to use your own photographs or to ask the permission of the photographer, but there are also many free online sources of images. Pixabay, for instance, has thousands of copyright-free images.

The traditional illustrators’ method of transferring a printed photo was to draw a grid over the photo then draw a faint grid over your drawing paper and copy the outline across, making sure everything went into the right part of the right square. You can, of course, easily scale up the image to whatever size you want. For commissions that require hyper accuracy I also sometimes use an epidiascope, a kind of overhead projector that projects the image onto my paper.

Help from the computer

Now, of course, we have digital images so why not use that old redundant laptop or pc in your studio? Image handling is memory-greedy, especially for older computers, and will slow them down so get rid of all unnecessary programmes and disconnect it from the internet. A pc is probably best in a busy art studio as I’ve found a spilt jam-jar of water is usually terminal for a laptop!

For many years I used Adobe Photoshop image handling software, which is a magnificent programme, but expensive. We can, of course, use Paint, which is free on Windows accessories, but it is a bit limited so I recommend the free open-source software, Gimp. It seems to do pretty well everything I need that Photoshop does, although it is perhaps a little less user-friendly and takes a bit of getting to know.

TIP:  At first I was confused by Gimp defaulting to saving images in its own native .xcf format until I found I must export the file as a jpeg.


1. One dull winter evening I noticed a bullfinch feeding on seeds of dried stems of lemon balm in my herb patch. The light quality was terrible and I took a couple of photos with the nearest camera to hand through a slightly misted double-glazed window. The quality of the photograph is very poor but, unlike for photographers who need pin-sharp images, this doesn’t matter for artists. We can use our skill and imagination to make a painting from even such a photo as this.

I opened the image in Gimp on my best pc.

I cropped it to show just the bird.

Next, I enhanced it with the sharpening tool ....

... and improved the colour by upping the saturation.

You can place a grid over the bird to help your drawing, but set the grid to 100 pixels per square, as the default is too small at 10 pixels, by clicking on ‘image’ and ‘configure grid’.

Finally, I saved the image as a jpeg at the highest resolution onto a memory stick that I could plug into my elderly pc in the studio.

Demonstration Bullfinch

Birds and flowers together are usually a commercial success and this subject was destined to make a good limited-edition print, an image for one of my calendars and a greetings card.