Bad Photos Can Be Good Reference Photos

One neat thing about working from my own reference photos is that they don’t need to be perfect or even good. They can have all sorts of flaws that would ordinarily exempt it from being an artistic piece of photography: poor composition, stray detail, boring bits. They just need to have one intriguing thing that inspires me to paint.

Here are some examples.

Golden Willow

This is an awkward photo down a weird side path in the park, which includes stray fences, trash, and the back of a parking lot. The shadows also fall in an awkward way. But oh, that golden color of the late-fall willow!

Golden willow reference photo. December 15, 2022.

Along with other photos of better views of the park, I used this photo as color inspiration for a painting (it’s mostly Quin Gold, but re-viewing the photo, I would have used more Quin Burnt Orange).

Golden Hour Winter Willow. December 16, 2022.

Cloudy Sunset

I was so wowed by this sunset! But the best photos of it I got were through the window or on the porch, with houses and power lines (to be fair, I like to paint power lines). The colors also got messed up, as the phone interprets coral or grapefruit pinks as straight-up orange.

I did the following from/inspired by these photos. I still think I should do a window one, since there’s something special about seeing a wild sunset through a window.

Winter Sunset. January 3, 2023.

Window Sunset

This wasn’t even a reference photo so much as a reminder of a memory of a sunset that I really wanted to paint.

Gradient sunset memory photo.

It struck me as being two gradients overlaid on top of each other: yellow-to-orange left-to-right, and blue-to-yellow top-to-bottom. So that’s how I painted it.

Sunset Through My Window. January 13, 2023.

Gradient Sunset/Power Lines

The composition of this photo isn’t great – it’s a boring shot down a street full of houses – but I was in love with sky color.

Sunset reference photo. January 15, 2023.

This inspired one of my crow paintings.

Sunset, 2 Crows. January 16, 2023.

Purple Sunset

Later that same evening, the sky turned an incredible purple.

Purple sunset inspo photo. January 13, 2023.

This inspired another sunset crow.

Purple Sunset, Single Crow. January 15, 2023.

Evening Reeds

This is a picturesque part of the my local park – a hillside overlooking a wetland – and it was taken at a picturesque time of day, early evening when the sky is just beginning to turn pink at the horizon (though the photo made it look more orange). Still, despite all the positives, the photo doesn’t do it justice. There’s a weird fisheye thing happening with the path at the bottom, and the photo is really far from the action; most of it is blank sky, and the wetland is really far away and across an ugly concrete path.

Evening reeds reference photo. January 27, 2023.

The image and the feeling of this image were used for the painting below. I also had the chance to interpret the pink horizon more accurately.

Gliding Home. January 31, 2023.


You don’t need a perfect reference photo for your paintings, and you don’t need to copy every part of the photo. You can use multiple photos to inspire different parts of the painting, or use one photo plus imagination, or zoom way in on part of a photo. If there’s some spark of something in a photo that you love, but the overall photo is not good enough to share, maybe it’s one you can use to inspire art!