Oil painting of a city
Shelby Keefe, “Crossing Light,” oil on canvas, 24 x 36 in.

By Shelby Keefe
(featured in the instructional art video “Painting From Photographs”)

The story of my painting “Crossing Light” (above) is all about light and how it leads the eye around the painting and then lands on the main character in the immediate foreground. But first I should back up and explain why I chose to paint this scene.

Every year oil painters all over the country submit their best pieces with the hope they will be juried into the Oil Painters of America National Exhibition. Since it is super competitive and difficult to get juried in, we pull out all the stops and prepare to paint a knock-out piece that challenges us beyond our normal projects.

To prepare, I looked through the many photographs I had taken when visiting New York City in August of 2016. I chose a photo that had all the elements of what I like to paint with a strong composition; i.e., architecture in a cityscape with people as part of the scene. The photo I took had really interesting bouncing and reflected light from the afternoon sun, and I loved the way the angled light hit the arched detail, which led the eye to the person sitting right next to it. I loved the composition of dark silhouettes juxtaposed with bright sunlit areas.

I knew the big challenge was going to be focal point, since there were so many interesting things going on in it — SO MANY details I knew I needed to NOT be specific about. So I chose to spell out the sunlit figure in the foreground, and the secondary focus was to be the sunlit arch. Everything else needed to be very freely rendered and not too specific.

That is the challenge with painting from photos — selecting and simplifying areas to move the eye around in a good way. I also had the challenge of scale. When drawing the scene, I didn’t notice that the scale of the man in the red t-shirt was off and didn’t relate correctly to the other people and objects. Sometimes we have to paint the piece to near completion before the “errors” show up. So I took the seven-foot-tall man and re-painted him to be a perceived as six feet tall, and also adjusted some of the other background figures to create a more realistic scale.

Even as I write this while looking at the painting, I’m seeing things I want to adjust! Is our work ever done?


Preview Shelby Keefe’s instructional art video “Painting From Photographs” below:

Additional paintings (created with photo references) by Shelby Keefe:

“Brooklyn Lunch,” oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in.
“Light Catchers,” oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in.

This article was originally published in 2018 in Plein Air Today

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  1. No challenge. You give the painting the light it needs. Rembrandt manipulated light for this very reason. Great watercolorist Frank Webb does this routinely.


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