The Art of Painting (Digitally) From a Reference Photo

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Painting created in Corel Painter 2015


Reference photo (public domain image)

Welcome to the digital revolution, folks!

Is it possible to paint a portrait digitally? Yes. Can it be done so well that it is impossible to tell whether it was

created with traditional paint and brush techniques, or digitally using a good software program and

a Wacom tablet and stylus pen? I believe it can – I am seeing it more and more everyday as I search the web and find

a treasure trove of stunning digital artworks that look so convincingly like hand – painted canvas artwork one would not

know it was actually painted (by hand) digitally unless it was revealed in the description to be so. I have found that many of these are being created by some accomplished and recognized traditional brush and paint artists who have at least partially switched over to the digital medium in recent years.

About this Painting:

I was very fortunate to find this beautiful reference photo in the public domain – it was donated to be used by anyone for any purpose including commercial purposes. I like searching the web for these hidden gems – believe me, the really good ones, the ones that a great deal of artistic potential to be transformed into a painting – are few and far between. I could spend hours trolling images until I finally see one that I think could be a good prospect for a painting.

My general workflow for creating this painting is as follows: I carefully prepare the photo for painting by first bringing it into Photoshop and immediately converting it to a workable non – destructive file format – usually .psd (the Photoshop format). I never work with .jpeg files because each time you save a jpeg file it degrades some due to the compression involved.

Once I have the converted image file I will usually proceed to employ some minor tweaks to the color vibrance, (boosting it about 20 to 40 %); opening up any shadow areas that are too dark; boosting the contrast with a curves or levels adjustment; and any other adjustment that I feel would be necessary to make the image pop. Next, for a portrait like this, I open it into Portrait Pro – a great software program that allows a wide range of enhancements and refinements to the face that might be necessary to help create a painting that “reads” or emotes a reaction to the viewer. For instance, while I liked this photo a lot when I first saw it, I felt that her expression was a little bit lacking – especially in her mouth and lips, so I tweaked them just a bit to show just a hint of a smile (Think: Mona Lisa). This is something that may seem minor, but it can be a game changer all by itself in some cases. I also decided to smooth out her beautiful hair a little bit and opened up the shadow areas too.

After I have finished make those changes in Portrait Pro, I am ready to bring the image into Corel Painter 2015 – probably the most widely known and widely used software program available for creating truly realistic digital paintings. The other part of the equation is the Wacom tablet and stylus (art) pen. This is how “hand – painting” is actually enabled and allows the artist to “paint” onto the digital canvas using the very same kinds of painting strokes that a traditional artist would be using.

Once I have finished the painting stage of the process, I can, and usually do, add a surface texture to the painting which can lend a good bit of realism to the finished piece.

From here I may decide that it could use a few more final refinements in Photoshop before it is ready to be output onto paper or canvas. For instance, I may want to selectively layer over some color textures to specific areas of the work. It amazes me how many varieties of different tweaks and subtle enhancements there are available to use – it’s a little overwhelming at times and I find myself having a hard time knowing when to stop and call it a finished work!

New Work: Hand – Painted (Digitally) Using a Photograph as a Reference

I have recently been working on creating hand – painted digital artworks using photographs (my own, and occasionally free public domain images I find online from sites such as as a reference. I used to be skeptical about this kind of painting as a being a true and authentic method of hand painting since, after all, I am doing it on a computer – digitally. Most people have a knee – jerk reaction when they first hear about this, thinking: Oh, it must be artificially created –  since a computer is involved in the process. But, while that may have been a valid reaction say, twenty years ago, technology keeps evolving over the years and today the reality is much different from what it was back then. There are now many traditional and very accomplished artists who started out learning their craft (using the traditional tools artists have been using for centuries: paint, brush, and canvas or paper) – but who have recently switched to using digital tools such as: a computer with a high -end painting program like Corel Painter, coupled with a stylus pen and tablet (most notable is the Wacom Tablet and Stylus) which when used together allows an artist to digitally hand – paint artworks that are just as artistic and “painterly” as their predecessors – the traditional paint, brush and canvas art.

I am ready to confidently state that this new form of art is not only real and authentic art, but that it is here to stay and will continue to evolve, grow and become more and more accepted by the mainstream “aficionados” as time goes on.

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“Girl With Seagulls” I hand – painted this using Corel Painter 2015 coupled with my Wacom stylus pen and tablet.

The photograph I used as a reference is a free pubic domain image that is donated by the photographer giving anyone full

access and permission to use it for any purpose (including commercial) and without any attribution needed. (I would add here that I typically like to include attribution – that is identifying by name the photographer of the image I used, but in this case the photographer chose to remain anonymous).

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“Monument Valley” This is another painting referenced from a public domain image (donated by photographer David Mark) I created recently. I am employing some newly learned techniques which I acquired from a digital painting workshop hosted by traditional turned digital artist Melissa Gallo. Another well known traditional artist who is now working almost exclusively with digital tools is Jeremy Sutton. Both of these artists are far more advanced in their craft than I and devote a good deal of their time and energy teaching people like me how to become better creators of “real” and “authentic” digital art.

So, what else can I say? I’m hooked. I am a skeptic no more – I am diving in to this new medium with wild abandon and breathless anticipation of what’s next to show up on the horizon in the form of new software, hardware, techniques ect.



P.S. I have these and other works available for sale as Limited Edition (1/50) Fine Art Giclee Prints from my Etsy Shop. Click this link to go there now:

New Limited Edition Prints

Happy New Year! I have something new and exciting to offer my current and hopefully future fine art photography buying patrons:

New Limited Edition Archival Giclee’ Prints Now Available for Purchase.

I have up until now resisted the Limited Edition option for my fine art prints. But after some thought on the subject, I came to the conclusion that it would make good practical sense to offer signed L.E. Prints from my own “in house” Epson 3880 Printer in 3 standard sizes – 12″x18″, 16″x 20″, and 17″x22″ (full bleed). I have set the edition size to 50 – which will be tallied up as a combined total from the three print sizes sold. Once the total number of 50 is reached for a specific image I will permanently discontinue those sizes as archival giclee prints. (Other sizes, either larger or smaller will still be available for purchase as signed archival giclee prints).

For more details please visit the link below:


Chuck Underwood

The Value of the Photographic Print vs. Online Viewing

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You May Not Know What You Are Missing!

We are living in an awesome age – with new innovative technology being added to our lives almost every day. It can be overwhelming at times to just try to keep up with it all. This is especially true for photographers and the patrons of photography in general.

One thing that is a little unsettling to me as a landscape/nature photographer is the growing number of people who often express an avid interest and love for photography as an artform, but then choose to enjoy and view their favorite photographer’s work only online – on their computer or tablet screen, or maybe on their large high definition TV screen. Yes, High Definition TV’s are here and they are amazing inventions to be sure. But – they are no match to the experience of viewing a professionally output fine art print in person. This is something that any pro photographer, gallery or museum person would tell you, if you were to ask them. The exquisite detail, the subtle nuances of color, tone, and texture are elements that easily visible in a print that you can walk up to and view up close and in person that are just not fully appreciated as pixels on a computer/TV screen. Most people who have never had that experience (of seeing a physical print) first hand will not understand what you are telling them. They most likely think that what they see on their state of the art TV or computer screen is “optimal”.  It’s not optimal. Not even close, actually. It’s a little like visiting and seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time versus seeing a beautiful photograph of the same spot you you visited in person – the photograph may get close – but it can’t match completely the full visual and sensual experience of being there first hand.

There are numerous other benefits that come with a purchased fine art print: It is a permanent (usually signed) archival copy of the original that you can proudly display on a wall in your home or office. It cannot be lost or corrupted due to a failed computer hard drive. In some cases it could become more valuable (as a marketable work of art) over time if the photographer who created it becomes more well known or even famous. And, lastly, I know for me when someone takes the time out of their busy day to buy even a small print from me it is a big confidence booster because I feel that my work is being seen and genuinely appreciated. So, what is the benefit to you? You’ll feel good, of course!

So, to all of the photographers, gallery owners, and photography lovers in general who “get it” – Let’s all try to do a little more to educate the public about this. I feel we (photographers and patrons) will all be much better off in the long run.

That’s my 2 cents worth for today. Hopefully I have helped open the eyes of at least one or two people on the subject and they will at least consider going to an art fair or gallery or museum to see the “real thing” as it was meant to be seen and experienced.



Follow – Up on Previous Post about Virtual Wall Displays

Don’t have the time or energy to create your own virtual wall displays? Here’s one alternative you might like:

As a follow – up on my last post regarding creating your own custom wall displays to show to your clients here is a link to an App for your Ipad, Android or Kindle Fire tablet which automates the process for you and allows for a lot of different backgrounds and picture layouts to choose from. 

Plan on investing $79 for it, though. The same company that make this App also makes a full version for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and Lightroom, and the prices start at around $115 and go up from there, depending on how many different options you want to have. 



Create a Virtual Wall Hanging Display


Shown above are some easy to make virtual wall hanging displays with my best images displayed prominently

on a wall over a sofa. If you are a landscape or nature photographer, or a portrait photographer I highly recommend

creating your own custom wall displays that you can upload to your website, email to prospective print buying clients, and

just generally use to promote your work as it was meant to be seen: on a wall!

How to Make them:

These are fairly easy to create yourself. First, you need at least one high quality image (I downloaded mine from a microstock site)

of a blank wall and at least one piece of furniture. I like to keep it simple – no garish colors or unnecessary distracting elements – just a basic neutral colored wall and one, maybe two at the most pieces of furniture.

Then you bring that image into Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, and open the image or images that you would like to place on the wall behind the sofa or chair. You should re-scale them to fit the size of the wall. I sized my wall to be 12 inches long which makes the vertical dimension around 8 inches. This is a good way to do it, I found, because then the task of re-scaling the image you want to hang simple and straightforward. First, working with 300ppi images (both the wall and the hanging image) I will change the image size of the image I am hanging to the relative size I envision for the display. Let’s say I want the picture to show as a 40×60 inch print. That wound roughly translate into about a 5 inch dimension on the long side (5×12 = 60). So I would first drag the image into the wall image. Then in Photoshop I would go to Edit>Transform>Scale. From here I can adjust the scale of the image by clicking on the upper left hand corner (do not release yet) and then slowly moving the mouse in while noting the scale changing as I move in – and stopping when the scale reaches the desired size (in this example I would stop when the length reached 5″). Then to finalize the new size simply click on Enter.

Now that you have the image re-sized you are ready for the next step: Adding a drop shadow. In Photoshop, in the layers panel, go to the bottom of the panel and click on the Layer Styles button (FX). This will bring up the layer styles dialog box. Find the drop shadow button and click on it. Then proceed to set up your drop shadow as you want it to look. Once you have it click “OK” and you are basically finished. I would then save the unflattened file to your hard drive for future changes you will want to make – like changing the “hanging” image to another one. This is basically your template which you can use continually to create new wall hanging displays as your needs warrant. It may be a good Idea to have more than one wall background to highlight different rooms in a house such as the bedroom, bathroom, ect.

I hope that helps to shed some light on this topic of maximizing your selling skills and resources to better educate and serve your clientele by showing them why they should consider buying that larger sized print instead of a smaller tabletop version. Remember, first impressions are always the ones they remember most.

Happy Shooting!