Knowing how to work from a photo is essential for any painter and though plein air is my favorite way to work, the temps in Alamosa this last month have brought this particular lesson right to the fore.
Some simple rules (they're actually only guidelines)-
1.First and most important - We are NOT copying the photo; it is only reference. Knowing this will change how you look at your photos, how you take them and how you use them. For most beginning painters, using that gorgeous 'calendar' photo, leads to disappointment. You probably can't top it. I prefer to look for photos that have 'good bones'- not a great photo, per se, but one that has strong shapes and things that can be moved around. Which brings me to the next guideline...
2. Make a plan; the artist's job (even when working directly from life) is to select and arrange major shapes to lead the viewer's eye around the painting; this is composition.
Having a few simple compositional ideas in mind beforehand and you will be able to selectively view what is presented and fit it to a design scheme that works. (See past Class Notes: 'Composition' and 'The Big Idea'). It will also keep you from placing elements arbitrarily. Sometimes this involves changing or moving things for the sake of a design idea.
Is that mountain going the wrong direction or are there too many trees? - move or change them. Get rid of what isn't working and only use what does. One good thing about using a photo is that you can use it again and again, make many studies and take some risks.