a father and son (napping) in a cafe with a large abstract painting behind them - painted in watercolor
Cafe Coffee Date 15.5 x 10 watercolor on paper

Take a Camera on your Weekend Getaway

We just returned from a whirlwind weekend in San Francisco, where we joined friends from Arizona. The four of us had non-stop exploration, and I had an opportunity to collect artist reference photos! We walked five miles a day (12,000+ steps, yeowza!) to gaze at shorelines and parks, dine at neighborhood cafes and watch a Giants baseball game. San Francisco couldn’t be more different from the spaces we occupy every day at home, which is always stimulating to the artist’s eye.

Precita Park Cafe (highly recommended) in the Bernal Heights area of San Francisco, where the reference photo for the watercolor above was taken.

Since we compressed San Francisco into a weekend, I knew there wouldn’t be time to sketch or paint locally. I get asked about this a lot; what to do when travel in a beautiful place doesn’t include art-making time? For this trip, I packed a camera, and a moleskine sketchbook. That’s it. Other than drawing on the plane (the flight is barely 55 minutes), I used my camera to collect scenes for paintings.

Pack Light

If your upcoming travel is focused on touring, and drawing has to wait until evenings or after you’re home, pack light and take a good camera.  I use a lightweight, compact Evecase shoulder bag to carry my Canon T6i   Even though the bag is small (see below), the padded separator allows me to carry a spare lens.    And small, zippered side pockets provide storage for extra memory cards, lens caps, the battery and charger.

Art Supplies for a packed weekend away: a camera bag to hold a DSLR and a spare lens, and a moleskine sketchbook with a pencil.✔
Looking for painting fodder: peer through your camera lens and frame scenes that appeal to you as potential drawings or paintings

Once and artist’s eye, always an artist’s eye

Traveling is a bombardment of unfamiliar. As a fully hibernating homebody who stays weeks in my studio without noticing we’re out of food, travel can be stressful and exhausting. But it’s also full of perspective, enlightenment, tastes, smells and atmospheres wholly opposite from our familiars. When you travel, take your artist’s eyes with you. Squint at scenery, and look for big shapes, interesting compositions and traceable patterns of color. (In the photo below, notice how the aqua-green starts on the left, in the cluster of buildings behind the lawn. Then it meanders towards the right and climbs the tall building in the middle… I’m wagging my eyebrows at that… are you?) Collect your ideas, and then bring them all home with you in your camera.

Ghirardelli on the water (We had to stop and have a sundae after a long walk around the San Francisco shore.)

We had an overcast, chilly weekend in San Francisco, so most of the scenery was muted and absent of blue sky backdrops and city-shaped shadows. I love bright, high-contrast colors in late afternoon sunlight, and long-finger building shadows, so I was a little disappointed. But tonal scenery is lovely too, and when I squinted at complicated city shorelines, potential paintings and printmaking ideas practically leapt into my camera.

MOL Cargo Ship and a sail boat
Sail boats and Cargo Ships in San Francisco waters

The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.   ~Alain de Botton

golden gate bridge from fort mason
The view of Golden Gate bridge from the hill at Fort Mason

My Favorite DSLR Camera and Lens

I snapped photos with both my iphone and my Canon t6i.  The Canon photos win for discernable color gradations, color saturation and temperature, clouds and faint background details. (All the photos in this post were taken with the Canon.) I also took my Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, which I *love* for low-light, shallow depth of field, close-proximity shots. (It’s a fixed distance lens, so you can’t zoom in or out.) If you want to see what different cameras and lenses will do, take a look at the camera and lens survey site, PixelPeeper. Here is their page of Canon 50mm f/1.4 shots, harvested from Flickr.

Aquatic Cove marina and Oakland Bay Bridge
The Oakland Bay Bridge illuminated like a church steeple in the distance

Alternative DSLR Camera Options

Let’s say you don’t have a DSLR camera, and you collect all your artist reference images on your phone. No worries, because you can absolutely harvest plenty of great inspiration from the amazing cameras included in our phones. During the week, my iphone6 is my camera full time.  The onl7y exception to that would be a scheduled camera shoot for painting material.  Many of my paintings and printmaking projects originate from my phone, as do many other artists, I’m sure.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying a lens attachment for my phone that produces both a Wide Angle and a Macro view.  The BullyEyes lens is about $20, and it clips to your phone (check the details/specs to see if it works on your flavor of phone). The lens comes in a little draw-string pouch, it’s small, and easy to carry in my bag.  The attachment takes great wide angle shots, and when you unscrew the upper lens-piece, you have a macro lens for cool pattern, bug or flower close ups.

giants baseball field in san francisco
AT&T Field in San Francisco on a cool & breezy evening


fresh produce in San Francisco at Pier 39 Vlahos Fruit Orchard
Fresh fruit, nuts and produce at Vlaho’s on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
Sea Scouts in San Francisco at Aquatic Cove Marina
Sea Scouts building in Aquatic Cove Marina

What do you use for Artist Reference Photos?

If you asked in comments or via email or twitter about my camera and lens preferences, and you have more questions about taking artist reference photos, leave them in the comments below, and I’ll get back to you. And if you have tips and tricks to share, please leave those too! For those of you planning to travel this Fall and Winter (where are you going?), I hope you take your artist’s eyes along on the trip, and harvest so much inspiration, your art supplies shudder with excitement on your return!

Thanks for visiting, and I’ll see you in the next post!


P.S. You can subscribe to get these posts via email as soon as they’re published (it’s free) by signing up here.

P.P.S. If you need a little more direction on taking, editing and painting from artist reference photos, check out Carol Marine’s $10 digital course on the subject here.

Art Quote
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me’.
~ Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

how to title your art
Click the cat to sign up to be notified when this new online course becomes available!

Save for later & Share!

7 thoughts on “Artist reference photos from San Francisco and a watercolor – Cafe Coffee Date”

  1. I love this. I was looking at the painting in a fast glance on FB and thought the painting behind the people was your painting! Wow. What amazing work. And the photos are amazing. I use either my phone or small cameras most of the time for reference.


    1. Hi there, you, Thanks for the note and your compliments. I feel intimately acquainted with your cities through the paintings you make from your photos, even though I’ve never visited in person. You folks have amazing clouds! So, here’s to taking our artist friends with us on strolls through our own neighborhoods and weekend get-a-ways by sharing what we see in our work. XO

  2. Mary Ellen Gale

    Those were so inspiring! I’ve finally spent an entire day painting and I intend to do this every day. Next week I’m off to Denver to see my daughter after 4 months. The farthest she’s ever lived from me is 10 miles so this will be a new adventure. Must photograph most of it since all of it will be new. I have some new work that I’ll share later! Happy summer.

    1. I’m tossing handfuls of confetti in the air, and doing a happy art dance. Good for you, on both fronts! I hope you have a splendid trip, a lovely visit, and a return to your studio that’s fully charged up and ready to rock your art supplies!

  3. We are heading to South America in early fall, including the Amazing Amazon River, on a cruise ship out of Miami, ending in Buenos Aires. Looking forward to lots of nature, old colonial buildings, and beach scenes. I need to practice sketching before I go so I won’t be frustrated trying to capture things quickly. Certainly I will have tons of photos to bring home.

    1. Oh Kendra, that sounds AMAZING! You’ll be an expert in painting greens when you get back, and your sketches will make the memories of the trip even more palpable than your photos, I bet! Have a wonderful, memorable trip! And funny that you mention practice at sketching, since I’m working on a post now with a list of inspiring sketch artists! 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.