What to do with those old sunset photos? Paint ’em!

Recently, I’ve been going through my old photos because I’m running out of space on Google Photos. I can sort my old photos into roughly four categories:

  1. Easy deletes. This includes screenshots, photos I took for pragmatic reasons but no longer need (e.g. a coffee shop chalkboard with the WiFi password), bad selfies, out-of-focus photos, anything where I look back and wonder “why did I take this,” etc. Most photos fall into this category, to be honest.
  2. Sentimental photos. Mostly, this is photos of my loved ones, or photos that remind me of specific important experiences. These are keepers, regardless of the technical skill of the photo itself. 
  3. Good photos. These photos are not necessarily sentimental, but they are technically competent and aesthetically pleasing. Generally I took these for Instagram or 52 Frames, specifically in an attempt to “do photography.” Sometimes they were even taken with a real camera. I could imagine them being used as artistic reference photos – by other people, not just me! For these, I’m choosing the best one or two out of any given run or subject, and posting them on my Unsplash. You’re welcome to paint them if any of them inspire!
  4. ???? There’s a large portion of photos that I Strangely Like, even though they are not good exactly; they often have a fatal flaw in terms of focus, lighting, or composition. Still, there is something about the photo that I find inspiring.

This last category are the hardest to decide on. They’re not good enough to post publicly and may not even seem interesting to anyone else, but I have a hard time deleting something that does make me happy or jog my imagination in some way.

That’s why I think these photos are perfect candidates for paintings! They offer me the opportunity to bring out what I like, edit what I don’t, and practice using reference photos without faithfully copying them. I already started doing this, actually, in the post Bad Reference Photos Can Make Good Paintings, but now I’m not only going on reference-photo-generating “inspiration walks,” but digging into the archives!

Here are my first few paintings from the Camera Roll Archives. They are, coincidentally, all sunsets. (Not really coincidental: I photograph skies nearly every day.)

The Paintings

Sunset Through Trees

What I liked from the reference photos: Color!! The glowing color of the sunset. Also, the bare deciduous trees and shapes of evergreen trees created a wintery sense of season.

What I didn’t like from the reference photos: Generally, just too busy with too many branches. It’s hard to focus on what’s happening. Also, Photo 2 is taken up by too much flat black ground.

What I liked in my painting:

  • The colors of the pink and gold parts of the sunset.
  • Some nice tree shapes.
  • The addition of falling leaves, initially added to cover up a stray paint mark, add movement and seasonality.

What I could have done differently:

  • The blue sky color is all wrong: ultramarine or ultramarine violet doesn’t contrast the fiery sunset as well as the pale gray-blue of these skies.
  • It looks a bit empty, thre could have been more trees.
  • Crisp silhouette edges would look better than drybrush, which is a water control problem.
  • Some of the silhouettes are weak or have repeated strokes, due to the black color I used (Spinel Grey) being too transparent.
  • I could have gotten more delicate tree branches with a liner brush.
  • I could have done another layer of the sky to make it more intense before adding the silhouettes. (It wasn’t possible to glaze on more after the fact – mostly due to the fact that Spinel Grey is completely liftable!)

Sleeping Giant

What I liked from the reference: Bright pink streak clouds in the sunset. The backhoe looks like a dinosaur.

What I didn’t like from the reference: Composition. The black foreground is too large, and the angle of view means that the backhoe is obscured by the horizon.

What I liked in my painting:

  • The color of the coral-pink sky stripes, and the hue contrast with the other clouds.
  • The angle is corrected so that the backhoe silhouette can be parsed.
  • The painting is mostly sky.

What I could have done differently:

  • More saturation contrast in the sky. The blue/violet parts of the clouds could have been duller to offset the pink and yellow parts more.
  • I’m missing the wispy shapes in the clouds which I really like from the original.
  • The tree shapes could have been more delicate, perhaps with a smaller brush.
  • The black silhouette colors could have been more uniform. Because my paint wasn’t opaque enough, I had to go over them several times, losing some of the freshness of the marks and crispness of the edges.

Illuminated Clouds in Jamaica Plain

What I liked from the reference: Striking coral-pink clouds with hints of golden centers. There are also hinted details of local architecture (3-decker houses).

What I didn’t like from the reference: Composition. The foreground tree is too prominent, covering part of the important sky. The houses awkward; they should be either prominent or not present at all. There’s a super-awkward eave from the porch I was standing on right in front.

What I liked in my paintings:

  • I kept focus on the clouds by making the sky the brightest part of each painting.
  • I was more willing to reinvent the composition than in my other paintings in this series. In particular, I brought out the local architecture using reference photos from other sources.
  • I experimented with some mixed media techniques not usual for me; outlining the buildings in pen in version 1, and using only black and white pen in version 2, to create a bold poster-like statement that emphasizes the contrast between the buildings and the colorful sky.

What I could have done differently:

  • Same problem as before: I could have kept greater saturation/intensity contrast between the different cloud colors. In the reference, the blue/purple parts of the clouds are really very muted and grayish. It is that contrast that helps make the bright pink part stand out. Only I used almost pure bright Ultramarine Blue which is much brighter, so it just ends up looking a bit busy and unfocused.
  • There also could have been more value contrast between the sky and the buildings. In version 1, I could have painted the buildings in darker, duller colors. In version 2, I could have used black and dark gray instead of black and white, or made them all black.
  • Version 2 also could have benefited from more flat black color – perhaps ink or gouache instead of coloring with a marker.


This was more challenging that I thought it would be!

Composition Challenges

Painting from flawed reference photos was more difficult than good ones, because I couldn’t just paint what I saw: I had to take a beat with each photo and do the process of deciding what I liked and what I wanted to change. I’m too used to just mindlessly painting what’s in front of me on a reference. To change things, I had to stop, think, and find additional support references or even use my imagination.

I essentially had to add a whole new step to my process! Instead of:

  1. Choose a reference photo
  2. Choose colors
  3. Paint

It was now:

  1. Choose a reference photo
  2. Sketch & recompose, with additional references as needed
  3. Choose colors
  4. Paint

To be fair, this is probably the way my process should be, particularly when sketching from my own photos or from real life. I’ve been leaning too hard on the assumption that the photos/sources themselves will already be well-composed.

Mindset Challenges

In some ways, using older reference photos raised the pressure as well, because I had a feeling of, “I’ve been carrying them around for so long that I should do something great with them.” However, I find that an unproductive way to think. I had to keep reminding myself that the reason I have these old photos isn’t because I was waiting to do something great with them; it’s because I don’t clean out my photos very often.

Color Challenges

This is not specific to the practice of using old reference photos, but because they all had the theme of sunsets, I was able to see patterns in the color challenges I often have with sunsets:

  • Not enough saturation contrast – I want to make everything bright, when in fact if I made the dull parts dull, the bright parts would look brighter!
  • Not enough value contrast – When not making silhouettes, it would still probably be best to make foregrounds very dark in sunset conditions.
  • Silhouette issues – The materials and techniques I am using are not giving me flat enough black silhouettes. I’m not satisfied with my tentative, overworked strokes, insufficiently loaded brushes, weak transparent black paint (strong, opaque & staining would be better), and medium-sized round brushes (larger flat wash brushes and smaller liners would be more fit to purpose for different subjects).

Hopefully, it will be help to know which way I err to try to go more extreme in the other direction. What would it look like for me to make sunset clouds super, super dull – way more dull than I think is reasonable? What about a really, really dark gray foreground? What if I skipped watercolor for my black silhouettes and used gouache or ink?


On the plus side, this project has also made me realize that I’ve always been a watercolorist, even before I was a watercolorist! The things I liked about these scenes, even at the time, are the exact things that make them good watercolor subjects: luminosity, color, soft gradients. It’s sometimes hard to tell if my aesthetic has been influenced by my medium, but even in these old photos I took before I had any thought of picking up watercolors, they are watercolors.