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I paint cityscapes, among other things, and I want to base my paintings on real views. So in my studio I certainly need reference material.

Sometimes I can actually go and visit the city and sometimes I cannot.

A portable pochade box for sketching on the spot.

I tend to paint London because that is a city that is easy to get to from Brighton where I live. Oh yes, I also paint Brighton.

In the past I have been commissioned to paint Edinburgh and Glasgow, so I went up and visited again with my camera. I have visited and painted Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in Australia. Plus I have visited and painted Hong Kong, Singapore, Venice, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Gothenburg, Vancouver and Tokyo. And of course New York in the USA.

More recently I went to Paris again and took loads of reference photographs. The Paris paintings are yet to be finished.

So is it OK to use photographs as reference, or is it better to actually do sketches on the spot before coming back to my studio? Even more of a question is whether it would be practical and effective to go to a city and paint a big finished piece on the spot?

It all depends!

A crucial factor to remember is that there is a difference between ‘process’ and ‘result’.

The ‘process’ of making a painting is a wonderful, creative, satisfying experience.

The ‘result’ is the painting.

So what is the priority?

The ‘process’ experience can be rather fleeting and is basically selfish. It can be shared sometimes with a video stage-by-stage record. But that might not be practical or effective. Of course an artist will be able to repeat this over and over again by painting new work.

Whereas the ‘result’ is equally important, or perhaps even more important. The finished painting is what your collectors and viewers will look at for a long time. This is the other reason why you paint.

So what is the best way to get the necessary reference? Sketch or photograph?

Photography is a rather good way to get lots of reference material to be able to make the painting result back in your studio. So is sketching of course. Sketching enables you to practice and look harder at your subject. But it takes a lot longer. After a visit you wont have anywhere near as much reference.

This applies to cityscapes, and landscapes, and even portraits.

Greenwich photo from Isle of Dogs

Outside reference.

As a cityscape painter I do sometimes also use other reference material. Other peoples photographs found by searching the Internet can sometimes capture a light effect or an angle that wasn’t’ there for my own sketch or photo. I am inspired to accept the influence, but I don’t just copy.

I also admit that I have painted other places that I have not visited. Moscow, Chicago, and Rio de Janeiro were all requested by collectors who didn’t have the budget to send me there. Which was a shame. Therefore I tried to make interesting paintings capturing the impression that I already had about those cities.

GREENWICH by Colin Ruffell

follow this link to see final picture….


That brings me to explain more about what it is that is so fascinating about cityscapes, and whether sketching or photography is the better reference source.

When you get home after visiting a place you can look at the photos that you took on your camera or smart phone. The actual photo is probably a grey fuzzy image but it doesn’t matter because you have a much better feeling. You will remember the fun, awe, and events.

My own photographs are often quite sufficient as reference for my paintings. They are enough for me to recall the emotion of the place. The actual detail such as building shape and height might not be in my memory. The feeling of being there is rekindled by the snap.

That emotional reaction is what I try to put onto canvas. I enjoy and relish in the ‘process’. But I also relish and enjoy the ’result’.


I mentioned a third option, which was to take a large canvas and create a finished painting on the spot. It is a shame that this is nearly always impossible. You cannot take an easel and big canvas on a bus or train. You cannot set up on the pavement and block the passageway. A windy or wet or cold day would be rather tricky. So gathering reference material for a studio creation is usually a better bet.

Making sketches can be a good way to really study the subject and could even produce a sellable product. But photographs that you take yourself will provide loads of memories and inspiration. Sketches and photos can both provide reference for a super ‘process’.

Don’t feel bad about using both, or only using one or the other. The ‘result’ should be a better painting, and a happy painter, and maybe a happy collector.

I hope that helps.

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