Why paint from life

Like many botanical and scientific artists, I prefer to paint directly from life rather than photographs.  Wherever possible, I try to have real physical subjects and specimens when in the studio with me when I am painting.  Many people have asked me why I prefer not to paint from photographs.  In this post I will discuss the reasons for my preference, the advantages of painting from life, and some strategies for working with photos when I cannot paint only from life.

We often think of photographs as a perfect copy of real life.  However, in reality, photographs are an interpretation of reality, just like paintings and drawings.  Each photograph has unique lighting conditions (based on ambient light, flash, exposure, etc) as well as a colour balance introduced by the camera and/or photographer.  Each photo also has a unique focal point and focus type (for example, flowers are often photographed with a macro setting, with a very small sharply focused area and blurred out surroundings to introduce a sense of depth in a small subject).

Banner Image Lichen on Branch
Lichen on Elm Branch – Painted Entirely from Life

Photographs are rigid – with an established angle and composition.  With live subjects you can spin your subjects around to find the best angles to show what you wish, or arrange several subjects together to get your desired composition.  My preference, whenever possible, is to collect live subjects and bring them to the studio, completing the whole painting process directly from life.


Inktober022 - Study of Degraded Wild Rabbit Skull
Decayed Wild Rabbit Skull Study

This way, I can choose throughout the painting process how to represent areas in shadow, which areas to focus on and draw attention to, and how to tweak colours to convey the look and information I intend to. I can use my sense of touch or a magnifying glass to learn more about the texture of the subject and then try to convey that, as I did with the degraded rabbit skull to the left.

For very long-lasting subjects such as minerals, skulls, fossils, tree bark, or dried pods, I don’t bother with photography at all, painting my entire painting directly from life.

Actaea pachypoda – White Baneberry


In many cases, for delicate or rare subjects, it is not possible to paint entirely from life, even if I have a live reference to work with.  For example, some delicate fruits and flowers won’t last more than a couple hours before wilting dramatically, or in some cases my reference is a rare plant which I found in the field.

If I can bring my subject into the studio, I try to get photos of the exact composition and lighting I intend to draw, as well as get as many sketches and colour studies in as I can.  When I cannot bring a subject into the studio, I try to gather as much information as I possibly can from my reference in the time I have.  I sketch on the spot, do small colour studies, take multiple photos from different angles.

For the white baneberry illustration on the right, I found my reference in a sensitive environmental area and did not want to pick any plants.  I took about 50 reference photos from different angles as well as completing a few sketches and colour studies in the field (a strong constitution and tolerance of bug bites helps) before taking it all back to the studio to assemble into a painting.

Dutch Iris
Dutch Iris – Watercolour on Paper by Lee Angold


When painting from a photo reference, you are painting an interpretation of another interpretation of your subject.  If you photograph your own subjects and then paint from your own photographs, you can make many of your choices at the photography stage.  In the spring and summer, I carry around a good camera to take reference pictures for illustration, which I can use throughout the winter or when a chance to paint a specific subject comes.

Sometimes when I see a very promising composition out in nature, I will photograph it with the intention of painting it later. The dutch iris to the left was painted entirely from a single photo reference which I took with the intention of painting.

The photos I take for painting are different from what I would take for independent enjoyment, as I focus on areas of the plant which are botanically interesting and would make an interesting painting composition.  Nonetheless, there are drawbacks to painting from a reference photo.  Notably, in the dutch iris above, I found it difficult to convey the translucency of the white petals, as the original photograph had a background of the green grass in the garden these irises were originally planted in.  In transposing just the floral stem to a white paper, I lost the context of the green.  I tried to adjust the colour of the back petals but they still came out looking darker and less translucent that the front petals.

Heirloom Tomatoes - Watercolour on Paper by Lee Angold
Heirloom Tomatoes – Watercolour on Paper

My least favourite way of painting is using photo references from other photographers.  Not only does this limit your creative expression as a painter, but if you use photo references from other photographers, you must be very careful to transform them (by changing the composition, colour, setting, etc) dramatically, or else risk running into legal trouble with copyright and intellectual property.

However, frequently I receive an assignment to paint a specific kind of plant which is not in season/locally available, and which I do not have appropriate photos of my own for. In these cases I do use reference photos by other photographers.  I try to montage several photos together, rotating and adjusting colours to achieve a pleasing composition with consistent lighting and colours.

Photographers put a lot of thought, effort and creativity into their work.  As a botanical and scientific illustrator, I do feel comfortable using reference photos to better understand the structure of a plant and how it interacts with light, but I try to be careful to not accidentally steal the composition and creative choices of the photographer. My aim when using reference photos is to transform them to the degree where the original photographer(s) would not immediately recognize their own work when looking at my painting.

In the heirloom tomato painting shown above, 5 of the tomatoes were painted from photo references by other photographers. However, each of the 5 references tomatoes was from a different photo.  I started this painting by painting thumbnails without direct reference, creating a composition entirely my own.   I then sought out images contain the specific shape and colour of tomatoes I had already decided on, rotating, resizing, changing stems, and adjusting the colours to fit into my work.  Most of these images were of a cluster of different tomatoes, or of a tomato plant, where I only used a single fruit, and then transformed that image to fit into the composition I had decided on.

This process is my least favourite for three reasons.  First, as a realist painter I am always hyper-aware that my paintings can be too close to their reference images for comfort and I am always concerned with whether I have transformed my references enough.  Secondly, it can be very difficult to merge multiple references together such that the lighting still makes sense.  It is much easier to paint with live references directly in front of me.  Finally, the light and shadow and angles of a photograph can obscure details which might be interesting to convey in a botanical or scientific painting – in the case of somebody else’s photo, I have not handled or sketched or even walked around the subject to notice these things.

However, all of these methods are useful to learn, and necessary to use.  While I find painting from photos a more stressful process, it is an interesting challenge, and I have produced some of my favourite work by pushing through the challenge.




Pigment Comparison by Brand Spreadsheet

We’ve all been there – our artist friends are raving about XYZ watercolour brand, or the local shop is running a great sale on brand ABC.   We’d love some new paints, but how to decide which paints to from a whole new brand?

The Problem

The trouble is, each brand makes up their own names for paints, and it can be hard to tell which paints we will like best. Two brands may offer paints with completely different names that are identical, or two paints with identical names that are completely different.

Pigment information on Nickel Azo Yellow Tube from Da Vinci

The good news is, there’s a much better way to sort your paints, which is by color index (pigment number).  Artist quality brands have pigment numbers printed right on the tube, which describe the pigment(s) used to make up each paint.

However, trying to remember the pigment numbers of all of our paints (was that PR254 or PR255?), or finding pigment documentation for a different brand we’d like to try can be tricky.

The Solution

I’m here to help.

I’ve spent the past few weeks compiling the Pigment Comparison by Brand spreadsheet.

This spreadsheet lists every single-pigment paint produced by 16 major watercolour brands, sorted according to their pigment number.  This allows you to look up a paint by name or pigment number, and easily find all of the other paints made with the same pigment!  Best of all, it’s completely free for the whole world to use.

How to Use

The Pigment Comparison By Brand spreadsheet is very simple to use.  Each column is a brand, and each row is a pigment.


Scroll side-to-side to see the paints from a specific brand.  Brands are sorted alphabetically.

Scroll up and down to view paints made with different pigments – paints are sorted alphabetically by pigment index number.

In cases where one pigment is used to make several different shades, multiple rows will be joined together to show all of the pigment variations.  The convenient alternating colours allow you to see at a glance when multiple hues are made with the same pigment.

Search the spreadsheet by pressing Ctrl+F on your keyboard, and typing in your search terms.  To look up a paint, search either the pigment number (found on the tube or packaging of all artist grade paints) or the name of the paint.  Then scroll left and right to find other paints made using the same pigment.  If your search returns multiple results, press Enter until you find the correct one.


This spreadsheet does not contain paints made with multiple pigments.  However, if you have a mixed paint you like (for example, a specific brand of Sap Green), you can still use this spreadsheet to find the single pigments to mix your own.  Simply check the tube or packaging you have at home to find the pigment numbers, and look those up in the spreadsheet.

The Catch

The catch?  There is no catch!

However, I am an early-career artist working super-duper hard to “make it”. If you are using this spreadsheet to help you with your paint shopping, consider using one of my affiliate links – it won’t cost you a penny  and I get a small percentage of every sale I direct.

 Jackson’s Art: This is where I buy the majority of my watercolour paints.  Jackson’s offers extremely competitive prices on all of the European brands of watercolour, and very affordable shipping (even to Canada!) Tax is deducted on international orders, which makes them even more affordable.

Amazon (Canada, US, UK):  For assorted art supplies such as palettes, sketch paper and books, as well as all sorts of other products, I shop on Amazon.  They sometimes also offer competitive prices on some watercolour brands, particularly American brands on the USA and Canada sites.

If you think I’m super cool and would like to reward me for my time and effort, you can also support me on Ko-Fi (buy me a coffee to help fuel the next stage of this or other projects!)


What’s Next

In the future, I plan to build on this spreadsheet.  I want to make a simple search interface, and links to my colours swatches and reviews for each pigment/paint.

I am planning to incorporate lightfastness information for each pigment, as manufacturers can be inconsistent and misleading in their own documentation.

I would like to add more brands, particularly smaller, independent watercolour brands.  If you have a brand you’d like added – feel free to send me a message, all I need is an up-to-date paint list with pigment numbers.

Also, feel free to contact me about any mistakes or suggestions for improvement.  I tried to find the most up-to-date information from all brands and organize multiple hues of the same pigment in logical way, but I’m sure I wasn’t quite right in all cases.

More Info

While compiling this spreadsheet, I refered heavily to the Color of Art Pigment Database for in-depth pigment information.

I also relied on Jane Blundell‘s colour swatches and paint listings.

I strongly recommend both these websites to anyone who would like to learn more about watercolour pigments.







Watercolour Myths : Watercolour is/should be loose and watery

Without fail, at every one of my community shows, whether at KW Artists Co-op or in a local gallery or cafe, someone exclaims that they can’t believe my work is watercolour, because my colours are saturated and my linework so precise.

Orange Spice - 2017 Holiday Card Design by Lee Angold
Orange and Spice – Watercolour on Paper

This always makes me giggle a little – in the realm of botanical illustration, a very traditional watercolour discipline,  my lines and edges are downright sloppy!  I have an interest in realism, and conveying scientific accuracy, but I have very limited patience for ultra tiny brushes and buffing.  More patient watercolour artists that I can achieve much much cleaner lines using the same materials.

I love the puzzle of figuring out how all the little shapes in a complex subject fit together, and the thrill of building up colour, but when it comes to using teeny brushes to gently even out my gradations…I’m out. I’m working of finding my ideal balance between an economy of brushwork and preserving accuracy.

My colours are probably on the bright and saturated end of botanical painting, but still a ways off from the limits of the medium.  In the orange and spice painting above, for example, the orange could be made even brighter and more juicy looking by gently working in some deeper shadows with small, saturated glazes in the areas of shadow.  This would add more depth to the orange slice, making it look juicier, brighter and more three dimensional.

Dutch Iris
Dutch Iris – Watercolour on Paper by Lee Angold

Even amongst skilled watercolour artists in watercolour communities, there seems to be a fair bit of confusion about the properties of watercolour.  A couple of weeks ago, there was a thread in one of the big watercolour facebook groups discussing transparency in watercolour.  Many skilled watercolour artists were pointing at darker and more saturated paintings as “opaque”  vs watery unsaturated paintings as “transparent”.

In fact, transparency is an attribute of the pigments used, not how much water or how light they look.  There are very light-coloured, pastel-like opaque pigments and colours (think of gouache), and many of the most transparent colours appear very dark in masstone.  When using transparent pigments, you can keep adding layers of the same or different pigments – each layer will be transparent and visually mix with the layers beneath, creating a darker and more complex colour.  This is a way to use watercolour transparency to build up extremely saturated colours and delicate colour gradations.

In reality, what watercolour is, above all, is a very flexible medium.  Dry artist-grade  watercolour, whether in extruded pans or sticks, or just dried from a tube, is very nearly pure pigment, with just enough additives (gum arabic and/or honey and ox gall) to make it stick and spread smoothly.  Being infinitely rewettable in plain old water, it can be thinned just a little to a thick, syrupy, ultra-saturated consistency, or watered down until it is barely tinted water.

Once applied to your paper or other support, more layers of thick or thin pigment can be added on top, again and again, building up deeper, darker and more complex colours.  Alternatively, very delicate, watery washes can create an ethereal, wispy look, adding form to delicate light-coloured subjects or giving a dreamy look to a whole piece.

Creating sharp lines in watercolour is also easy.  Using the point of a barely damp brush on smooth hot press paper, you can create lines more precise than even ultra sharp pencils. Watercolours will not spread where there is no water, so you can “paint” complex edges with plain water before applying coloured wet-in-wet washes to define the edges of a coloured shape.  While your paint is still wet, you can apply a dry or damp clean brush to lift out highlights or soften ragged edges.  Using these techniques, and building up colours in layers, you can achieve realistic effects and complex colour mixes that are much trickier to achieve in opaque or thicker media such as acrylic or oil paint.

Some artists push the flexibility of watercolour even further.  I recently saw some paintings by an artist (who I can’t seem to track down) who makes really impressive textures in watercolour urban sketches using very thickly applied paint and a stick to scrape out wet pigment.  The result looks like a textured resist – almost as though the painting was stamped in blocky colours on a support painted with wax.

Coneflowers by Candice Leyland

Wispy, ethereal, soft and unsaturated watercolour paintings are beautiful.  I love looking at my friend Candice Leyland’s paintings, which all convey a calm, dreamy mood.

However, if you take a closer look at her work, and other loose watercolours, you will see that most loose watercolour paintings still have areas of sharp lines and some deeper shadows.  The same techniques of washes and dry strokes,  applied repeatedly in precise glazes over a painting to preserve highlights, result in a punchy and precise/realistic painting.

There is not a “right” way to use watercolour paints.  Watercolour is a flexible medium that works well for loose, impressionist and watery looks, as well as fine and precise layered looks.  All sorts of artists can benefit from the ultra-portable, infinitely rewettable, easily mixable attributes of watercolour paints.