I was strolling down memory lane today, going through countless photos, looking for ideas for future painting projects. Yeah, I use photos. So what? Ever since the camera was invented, artists have used them. Guys we think of as pure Plein Aire or Alla Prima painters like William Merritt Chase, Frederick Church, Thomas Eakins and others in the Nineteenth and Twentieth century have left behind the photos they used to make some of their paintings. When used judiciously, photos can be a big help. So I take a lot of pictures. Right now, I have a separate external hard drive to hold the 14,000 photos I have taken in just the past four years. Aside from the ones of Grammy kissing the Great-Grandchild, each one was, "Oh, I want to paint that!" Click! But only a few make the grade. Why? The biggest reason I may not use a photograph isn't because it's not good enough, but on the contrary, it's too good. My general rule of thumb is that a beautiful Photograph seldom makes a beautiful Painting.
Photos have inherent flaws that the average person doesn't realize. They are conditioned to the idea that a photo is the ultimate in reality. Many painters think so too, and so they copy the flaws right into their paintings. But cameras alter perspective, color and contrast. A photo is far removed from the way our eyes see. The problem with a photo though, is that it's just close enough to fool us into thinking it's an accurate portrayal of what we are seeing. Here are what I think are pretty decent photographs I've taken, but because of their flaws, will never see the light of paint.
This one goes back to my lobstering days. Pretty cool view, huh? (Hey, you hang out over the edge of a rolling Lobster boat and keep the horizon straight!) The problem here is what I call "Fish Eye". The camera distorts perspective, making everything up-close too large, thus pushing the background farther away. I was only ten feet from Charlie, but he looks fifty feet away. If I do anything with this, I need to fix that perspective.. and the horizon. Here's one of a lovely sunset I saw this year:
"Contrast Kill". When I stepped outside to take the picture, I knew I was going to lose the soft greens, blues and purples of the shadows. A camera is always compromising. If it captures the bright colors of the sunset, it does so at the expense of the shadows. If I were to focus on the horizon, it would wash out the sky to make the colors in the shadows brighter. With a scene like this, it can't do both. If I were to paint this as is, that flat black horizon would look dreadful.
Another problem, and one I see in paintings all the time, I call, "The attack of the giant plants!"
A beautiful summer day. White puffy clouds floating in the warm sunshine. Aahh... But look at those weeds! They are as big as the trees! Run for your lives! Were we to physically stand there, the perspective from our two eyes would relegate those weeds to their proper spatial relationship. The camera's perspective only makes them look huge, and foreboding, waiting to spring on us at any moment. They scare me....
This last one is a usable picture. I took it last winter of Belfast, Maine at sunrise. Even though the distant hills were closer than what appears (camera perspective again), nothing is unnaturally looming up at us. I could make a painting from this.
Oh yeah! I did! I like to use photos where I can bring a little something to the table. If I find myself trying to copy exactly what I see, then I needed to use a different picture. So have fun using those photos, just don't let the giant weeds get you!