What do you look for when you take photos for future paintings?
I thought it might be helpful if I share what intrigues me enough to snap a photo, and why Kristie often shakes her head in bewilderment when it appears I’ve taken a photo of a scene that nobody’s mother would appreciate.
Before I get into the meat of what I look for in photo references, I want to clarify my stance concerning the use of photos for painting because some of you might be a bit squeamish when it comes to using photography as a tool.
So much controversy surrounds photography and painting. Survey the top professional artists about using photographic references and their answers will be all over the spectrum – from “never – photos are a curse to be shunned at all costs” to “you bet – photos are the only way to go – oh, and can you hand me that projector over there.”
Rose Frantzen paints stunning images entirely from life – she refuses to use photographs because she believes photos are a crutch that weaken the skills of artists.
Scott Burdick is also a firm believer in the power of painting from life and has decades of direct method painting experience. He also understands that not all the subjects he’s excited to paint are willing to sit for hours at a time, especially in some of the remote countries he travels to, so he packs a camera for some helpful reference photos.
According to Time Magazine even Normal Rockwell would use a projector for some of his beloved paintings. He was quoted saying “The Balopticon is an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy and vicious machine,” he said. “I use one often — and though am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.” – Normal Rockwell quoted in Time Magazine
There is no one-size-fits-all remedy to the conflict.
My recommendation is, for the most part, to avoid the fray and ignore the strident opinions. Instead, evaluate your personal circumstances, strengths, weaknesses and pursuits and decide for yourself what will help you achieve your goals. Spend your time painting daily – from life as much as possible – and look at photography as a tool like you would brushes or chopped up credit cards.
Also, be constantly vigilant in remembering that photos have severe limitations – distorted values, colors and color temperature relationships for example – and cannot replace direct observation and your own creative imagination.
Look at the differences in these two photos:
Although taken one right after the other, you can see the distinct change in overall brightness. Which one is correct? Are they both off? Who knows – without a plein air study to accompany the photos, we’re all left to guess.
With a healthy and educated understanding of those caveats, photographs are a wonderful tool for exploring shapes and for jogging our memories.
We just returned from a two-week trip – we combined taking our daughter to college in Utah with a desperately needed family vacation. Since I painted at each location we visited during our trip in March and missed a lot of the family play time, I left my supplies behind so I could focus all my attention on family fun – not business.
Of course, being an artist, leaving my painting supplies in the studio doesn’t mean I can extinguish my right-brain sparks, especially when we visit Colorado and Utah.
The western mountains captivate my creative ambitions more powerfully than any other possible painting subject. It’s not simply their size – other mountain ranges rival or surpass their height and bulk. It’s the vast variety of shapes and textures that beg me to paint them. The geography shifts vividly from blue-green tree covered summits to golden rolling mountain planes. One side of the mountains might be well hydrated with lush meadows and flowers, while right over the ridge the plants are thirsty and dusty from lack of rain – all within an hour’s drive of each other.
Panoramas like the one above are stunning without any help from me. For this scene, I woke early before my family was out of bed. I set my camera on a tripod to keep everything level, and then shot multiple photos (39) and spliced them together using Photoshop. I probably will never paint this as it appears in the photo, but you never know.
I was out there for almost two hours getting photos of the same panorama so I could study again later, back in my studio, the changes the rising sun makes on the ridges of the mountains. After about an hour, Kristie joined me – she didn’t ask why I wanted to photograph this view.
But when I asked our daughter to get some pics of the landscape below as we drove, and then actually pulled the car off the road a few times, she balked – “what could you possibly see in this barren countryside?”
Possibilities – that’s what I see!
First of all, in this cropped selection of that photo which divides the image into 4 equally sized horizontal sections, look at the range of values and textures. The farthest bluff has such wonderful vertical blues and tans placed next each other contrasted with the horizontal divisions interspersed through the section right below that which contrasts beautifully with the stronger light and dark values of the bluff directly below that one.
Aside from that, I will often combine images, such as placing aspen trees on a hill overlooking distant bluffs, as I did in Guardians of the Valley, using images like that above or one such as this view of Colorado Springs from Highway 115.
Kristie just laughed when I got a shot of this rock:
But not this one:
Hey, here in Indiana remarkable rocks like that are hard to find and they often come in handy for paintings like The Looking Glass.
Sometimes it’s a tuft of grass or some leaves that catch my attention and I snap a photo to jog my memory or to give me a starting point when I’m combining several photos or using my imagination like I did in Aspen Ridge.
Contrasts like the color harmonies between the reds and greens in this Garden of the Gods setting are a big stop-me-in-my-tracks opportunity.
Then again, much of my photography is simply because I like what I see and I can’t help myself – as is always the case with aspen trees – I get as many photos in as many seasons and times of day as possible, from close up aspen portraits to whole groves. I especially look for fun tidbits like the rust stains that drip down their bark or the deer bites and disease marks that make aspen trees so fascinating.
Kristie’s mom was visiting a couple months ago, and somehow we started talking about aspen trees. I mentioned how much I love the curving trunks and green bark – a favorite painting subject of mine. She insisted that aspen trees are straight and white, not curved or green (Kristie thinks I often put too much curve in my aspens as well). I think that is the difference between an artist’s eye and much of the rest of the world because everywhere we ventured through the aspens I saw gloriously twisting trunks of white and green and tan while Kristie saw primarily straight, white ones.
Fortunately, the world is big and beautiful enough for both of us!
Here’s a photo for those on the skeptics’ side of the curvy, green aspens.
Sunsets, sunrises, bluffs, pine trees, tree bark, old cabins, diffused light on a meadow, glittering reflections on a mountain lake – the list of photo possibilities is endless. I watch for textures, shapes, fascinating compositions, color harmonies, light and shadow contrasts, reflected light and color – anything that will add to my paintings and make them more engaging and compelling.
So, the next time your spouse or travelling companion questions your urgent request to stop the car – bring up this post and let them read while you capture something magical.
What captures your heart and camera lens, or brings a smirk and quizzical expression to those you travel with?
I loved this. It is so true. My sweet husband does not even question me any more when I yell stop the car. He just looks at my photos and asks how did I see that. Likewise when we go hiking he will wonder off ahead of me and then have to come back looking for me. I am somewhere off the trail take pictures of the light on the leaves or some strange fungus growth or the texture on a tree. He waits for me and smiles and asks me what did you see, show me.
Good husband you got there Christy! What a blessing we’ve been given as artists – to see the world as something beautiful and then to help others see it as well.
I enjoyed your blog on your travels and photo taking i love to take pics as we travel and want to paint some. i want to someday paint just using interesting parts of the photo and make my own picture painting like you do.
Sounds like you’re well on your way Shirley – the most important step is what you just wrote – deciding you want to paint with parts of the photos. Once you decide that, then just go for it and let your imagination have some fun. In no time it will become second nature to you!
Loved the article. I love photography, which gives me a reminder of the beauty that surrounds us each day. I have thousands of photos of rocks, trees, sunsets, waves, etc. that I will never find time to paint. Each photo inspires me to attempt in all of my paintings some aspect of awe or wonder. Back in the 35mm days, the cost was more than my budget would allow, but digital photography opened up a new passion of preserving memories. The hard part is to place these digital memories on a medium that will last the ages and keeping up with technological advances. Like you, I combine images from several photos to develop my painting into a image that only exists in my mind, searching for the feeling of being a unique artist, if only in my mind’s eye. Well done Bill!!
Thanks Spike! Digital photography is incredible – I remember all too well hesitating to take a picture because we had to make our couple rolls last, and then printing them only to find that the exposure was off or the roll didn’t feed correctly or somehow two images got on the same clip (some of those were actually pretty interesting). I have more photos to use than I could paint from in 100 lifetimes, but that won’t stop me from taking another 100 lifetimes worth! I like your sentiment about ‘searching for the feeling of being a unique artist’ – when we paint what inspires us we’ll be unique.
Thank you Louise.
Hi, Louise! I’ve noticed you are taking workshops and studying. I’m doing the same. It fun and invigorating isn’t it!
Thank you, Bill, for these thoughts. I, too, take photos constantly of things to paint in a la dscape. I once asked a professional photographer friend, in the days of 35 mm cameras, if he ” wasted” a lot of film looking for the perfect shot. He told me he might take a hundred photos and end up with one good one. Now, with digital cameras, there is no waste, so I shoot everything! Living in New Mexico, there is lots to shoot!
New Mexico is a treasure trove of photo and painting material Judy – a lifetime could be well spent painting just New Mexico landscapes! I’m with you on not holding back.
I am also a New Mexico artist. There are never ending painting ideas here from ghost town, old mines and rustic buildings to beautiful wildflowers and majestic mountains. I also take a lot of photos!
First of all I love your posts. Now about photos, I am not ashamed of using them. Sometimes your memory cannot remember all intrigate details, I often use different things from one photo in 4 different pictures like a tree or a great shapec rock, whatever facinates me. As example near us is a shed that is ready to collaps, further down some cute goats and I decided it would look cute with some sheep added, so I found some pictures from sheep. All of this together became a painting. I love.
Thank you Yvonne! The last thing you said ‘a painting I love’ is what these tools like photography help us accomplish. I believe in using anything that will make our quest as storytellers with a brush more beautiful and memorable.
Love your pictures. I also use photos as a memory jogger and as a reference for something in the image, even though I may never use it. I also cut out photos I see with something I might need – like, what does a duck look like in flight? Can’t imagine how the old masters were able to draw and paint some things without a photo reference. Or maybe they settled for what they could see directly. Still life comes in handy for those of us who want a direct experience of seeing but are trapped in a cubicle every day.
Thanks Linda! We don’t know all the methods of the old masters, but many of them used some type of image rendering tool to at least get them going in the right direction. Vermeer, one of my favorites, they believe used Camera Obscura to create his paintings. It doesn’t diminish my love for his paintings. As you can see from my videos I don’t use tracing or projection or even stick closely to a photo reference, but I’m definitely a fan of any tool that will improve my painting.I figure between direct observation as much as possible, imagination and photo references (with a sound knowledge of photography’s limitations) we have a huge world of possibilities and endless painting material.
One of the greatest things an artist can have is a photo file. Before I throw out old magazines, I go through and cut out all pictures I think I can ever use in a painting. Then I put them in categories: fire plugs, street lamps, flowers, trees, etc. When I am painting a scene, I can go in my files and find the perfect rock, flower, tree, bridge, building, etc. to add to my composition. That is in addition to the hundreds of photos I take. Living in the hot, humid south, it is not always easy to go outside and paint from nature, although I love that too when the weather is right. Love your posts Bill!.
Great post!…I enjoy reading all your posts because they always have such a positive tone and very encouraging for a beginner, self taught painter like me. Thank you.
Love reading your blog. I enjoyed the posts on the photography vs plein aire. I think its great we have the advantage of the camera and can enhance the painting because we were at the site to take in the atmosphere. Best of both worlds.
If you can make a great painting from a mediocre photo, why not try painting from a great photograph? Shoot early and late when the contrast is lower. Watch for light direction. I’m a photographer…?
Wonderful Blog! I too take photos that some people wonder why. Consequently I have thousands. I also see images that spark a thought that reminds me of a photo that I had taken years ago. An “aha” moment; now I know what I can do with that photo! Although I know that I should paint everyday, I don’t always do so but now your blog has given me the incentive to pick up my brushes and get busy painting. Thank you.
When I read your blob it inspires me go there and search for more even at my age of 70 still want to learn more from people like you
As a New Mexico artist and a theme “Places Seldom Seen”, I find that by the time my husband and I have reached the old ghost town, old mine, or hiked a trail I have very little time to paint on location. I try to paint en plein air whenever possible, but good photos are invaluable to me. Yes, I usually add “something” to the photo later to make a more pleasing painting. I wish photos showed better light. It seems I almost always have to create shadows because the photos are taken mostly mid day. I love getting out into these unusual places though. They bring unexpected surprises! Blessings!