July 20

Drawing Reference Photos: Lighten Shadows through Photo Editing

Drawing Reference Photos: Lighten Shadows through Photo Editing

When drawing from reference photos, I often need to lighten shadows by using the photo editing 'Shadows/Highlights' tool. A perfect example was a recent Blue Heeler commission. The client emailed me a photo of a beautiful Australian Cattle Dog, a breed which is near and dear to my heart--one of my own four dogs is a Blue Heeler. Here's a picture of my sweet boy (indulge a doting doggie mama):


This is my sweet Blue Heeler, "Jax"

Adorable, yes?! I aim to capture those same expressive eyes in all my dog portraits, so the first thing I evaluate in a drawing reference photo is the eyes. Getting the eyes right in a portrait is extremely important since that is where we instinctively look first. In the client's photograph, I noticed that the eyes were shadowed and lacking discernable detail. It's hard to know what to draw when you can't see it!


Client's original photo

The good news is that high-resolution digital photos often retain detail that can be revealed with the right photo editing tools like Adobe Photoshop or Snapseed. I use Affinity Photo. Your first instinct may be to lighten or increase the Exposure. While that will enable more detail in darker areas, it will unfortunately overexpose and decrease the detail in the lighter areas:


Increasing Exposure decreases detail in lighter areas.

Choose a photo editing software that allows you to lighten shadows without lightening the entire photograph. In Affinity Photo (and in Snapseed) the Shadows/Highlights adjustment tool leaves the lighter areas untouched while increasing the exposure in the darker areas:


Eyes lightened with Shadow/Highlights adjustment

There are those eyes! This adjustment also increased the level of visible detail in other dark areas like the nose and ears. The Shadows/Highlights adjustment is also useful for animals with dark or black fur, allowing you to create a drawing that has more form and depth. Here’s the before and after of our drawing reference photo:


Photo editing before and after

I’ll be filming the drawing process of this handsome dog, so stay tuned for the video. In the meantime, view another drawing process video on our About Drawing page. I hope learning how to use photo editing tools will help you achieve better results when drawing from reference photos.

Creatively yours, Amy

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About the Author

Amy Watts is a craftsman/artist who obviously can't make up her mind about her favorite pursuit: stained glass, drawing, web design, filming, sewing, weaving... So she decided to do them all. She enjoys creating every day through commission work, teaching or just for fun. After all, someone has to use up all that spare yarn and glass. You can read her full bio in "About Us" above.

Amy Watts

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