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This is a pet peeve of mine. When someone wants you to do a portrait for them and you tell them that you need a large, close up, clear photo but they give you a 2.5 inch by 3.5 inch blurry photo. I need detail.  So what I end up doing is getting it from similar reference material and incorporate it into the painting. This is how I’m adding detail to paintings where none exist.

Making the Reference Photo Clearer

I have a program called “Gimp” similar to Photoshop. It has features comparable to Photoshop and one of those features is desaturate.  This gives me a grayscale of my reference. Color sometimes obscures lines but grayscale tends to make it easier to see detail. Other features like contrast and levels enable me to really exaggerate the image so I can get a clean line around the reference.

Desaturated                                             Low Contrast

adding detail to paintings - desaturateadding detail to paintings - contrast

Levels                                                           Sharpen

adding detail to paintings - levelsadding detail to paintings - sharpen

  • Desaturated usually gives me the clear separation of shapes in a picture.
  • Contrast will sometimes, but not always,  give me a clear distinction between subtle value changes. It’s kind of hit and miss.
  • Levels will bring out details like the dog’s nose. Notice how it went from black mass to nostrils!
  • Sharpen will make everything very hard and exaggerate sharpness.

I’ll look at these separate images to be able to make a single sharper sketch picking detail out of each altered image of the original reference.

Adding Detail to Paintings using Similar Reference Material

The next source for detail I look for is a close up of similar reference material. In the photo I need to know how the hair of this breed of dog lays and other things like the length and roughness of the fur.

adding detail to paintings - reference


Here’s my dog fur reference picture … doesn’t look like Bernie but it doesn’t have to. Once I have these details I can go ahead and start adding them to the sketch or painting.

Combining the Original Photo and References into a Sketch

I’ll have the original photo and reference material all together and I’ll look from these to my sketch book, back and forth, until I combine all the elements into one sketch.

I usually loosely follow this list when combining everything in my mind:

  • Light and shadow from the original photo will give me clues as to where details will be sharper or less distinct.
  • Anywhere a three dimensional object recedes form view, like the sides, will of course show less detail.
  • Warmer colored areas tend to come forward while cooler colored areas tend to recede. So areas coming forward get more detail but not always. Sometimes atmosphere could change this.
  • Having a friendly dog on hand always makes this process less stressful and go a lot easier.

Final Render of Drawing with Detail

Well, it’s a graphite drawing not a  painting so demonstrating color warmth is a moot point. But I believe that placement of detail is clearly illustrated.

adding detail to paintings - graphite sketch

This is how I go about adding detail to paintings/drawings. I hope this has been helpful and I’ll see you next time.