Take a look at my photo shoot routine

Some artists are amazing at drawing from their imagination… but I’m not one of them!

For all of my artworks, there’s a folder on my computer called ‘references’ where I’ve collected a series of reference photos. They help me understand parts of the painting – how the direction and quality of light plays across fabric or limbs, where the shadows lie, to catch an expression, or how the swirl of the dress moves. It’s baked into my creative process now – I find out what I don’t know!

To gather these references, I have a whole photo shoot routine. And since I’ve just done a bunch of sessions because I’m doing some new paintings, I thought you might like to see what happens.

Step 1. Warm-up and set up

OK, so a photo shoot for me also doubles as exercise (two birds, right?) Turn up the music, stretch, dance around the studio, and generally get muscles working.

I set up my tripod and camera with a mirror behind it so I can see what I’m doing when I’m in front of the camera (this is a recent innovation, and I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out!) Then I dig through my box o’ costumes and rack of dance shoes from my dancing days, find some music that suits the mood, and I’m ready for step 2!

Step 2. Lots and lots (and lots) of photos

This is why I need to warm up – at least an hour of experimenting, posing, twirling, adjusting angles, and a remarkable amount of highly ungraceful, “quick, delete that one” shots.

Step 3. Warm down, relax, and see what I’ve got

Aka take off my shoes and lie on the floor for a bit.

Screenshot of photos on my computer - tiny latin dancers!
Then for the exciting part – getting all those photos on the computer!

I’ll easily have 100 photos to go through from a session. Some are relegated to the trash straight away (although I realised I should’ve kept some so you could have a laugh).

Hopefully, I’ll find those 1 or 2 gems that I can use to turn into a painting.

Work in progress. © Ailene Cuthbertson, Detail of Untitled. Digital painting.
Work in progress. © Ailene Cuthbertson, Detail of Untitled. Digital painting.

This is a detail of one of my new paintings. It’s a latin dancer (yep, that’s me!) in the same charcoal-inspired style as my ballerinas. There are a few different reference photos behind this one – I couldn’t quite capture the pose and an awesome skirt flick at the same time!

Oh, PS, new paintings are coming

I’m adding to my black and white collection with some fiery latin dancers. And I’m hoping to have them available soon – before Christmas at least!

I hope you enjoyed this peek into my creative process and the start of my new paintings. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!




  1. now that’s a great idea – you’ve the model – no need to schedule an appointment with another – do it in your own time – i.e. your mood is right or when you suddenly see a gap in maybe an otherwise busy life…

    1. Exactly! And it’s a great way to learn about being the model too . It might not look like it, but the best shots are usually the hardest positions to hold! 🙂

If you'd like to leave me a message too, I'd love to hear from you! I've turned off comments on this post because it's older than a couple of weeks, but you can always email me at ailene@oldmountainart.com