Saturday, April 5, 2014

Should We Depend On A Photograph?

Some artists, though in reality not all that many, paint outdoors. A few years ago I joined a local plein air group that went out every Friday to paint. For some reason, Fridays seemed to be really crappy days and so there were about as many days I didn't go as I went. Either it was cold, windy, rainy, yes, even here in "sunny" California, or so hot the paint dried on the brush before you could paint it on the canvas. And, it was oil!

Multnomah Falls, Oregon
Painted, Multnomah Falls, OR
However, when I did go, it taught me a lot and how to be speedy. Speedy you ask? Sure. From the time you started and hopefully finished a few hours later you realized those shadows had moved, the colors had changed. In the summer, quite a lot. After that, I always took a photo of the exact spot when I started, from the exact angle where I was painting. It was to be my reference for those annoying little "details" that always seem to be needed later on.

It was the memory of this painting that caused me to pause when I read that another painter wasn't so sure that painting from photos was a good idea. As you can see here, what I saw at Multnomah Falls, or at least what the camera saw, and what I painted are different. Oddly, the straight RAW photo had far more color and details and it was that, that I drew from!

My first experience with this dilemma, was one of those strange SoCal days that opened my eyes. I had found a quiet pond in Descanso Gardens in La CaƄada / Flintridge, CA that just begged to be painted. There was a small waterfall that trickled into the pond filled with koi that would bob up to be fed. The setting was amazing. This was November but, as usual, the skies were clear with a stray cloud now and then. In the midst of painting I heard thunder and looking up noticed a few more clouds but the day remained bright and sunny. Suddenly, the sky darkened and before we could react it poured. I mean POURED. It literally washed the oil paint off the canvas.

We were ALL drowned rats and my paintbox filled with water. We were afraid to run. It was a choice, stand under the tree or make a mad dash for the clubhouse. We stayed in place. A few minutes later I drove home all wet and miserable. I realized though, the beautiful canvas I had started was gone. All that remained was the acrylic underpainting. I hurriedly printed out the photo and began to paint again.

The first thing I noticed however, was that the photo didn't resemble anything I remembered. As the shadows moved I changed what I saw. The photo saw everything, I mean EVERYTHING while my mind had selected parts I wanted to focus on and ignored the rest. After struggling for another hour, I gave up, put the paints away, dried out the paint box and waited until the following week. I arrived at the same time as I had before, drove the painters who thought they wanted to paint there away and got down to work. It just wasn't the same. I couldn't capture the magic and near breakthrough I had managed the week before. I did the painting, and for weeks after tried to play with the waterfall changing this and that over and over again. The photo was no help. Shadows were different, maybe my mood was different, I was never happy with it. A niece saw it and fell in love with it. That Christmas I framed it and gave it to her. I look at it when I visit and can only see the failure.

As you can see in the painting above, done from a trip last summer, there are many differences. Color, I brought forward what I thought was important and let other details recede. I think that all artists do this. I know the artist who wrote that column did. If anything, he was very clear that great art, or any art, is very subjective. There are things in a scene that captivate us, things we focus on. Other things, we ignore or let fade in the background because they don't either move us or add so much detail that they overwhelm what we see in "mind's" eye.

I used a photo to paint MULTNOMAH FALLS. I was traveling with relatives and far from home had no paints. It is not my best work by any means. Should I have painted it? By all means. Was it a lesson, again, an emphatic YES! I would say however, that before we say no, no, no, we do need to study a scene that we might paint, capture it as we always have with the difference being, study the photo, study what you remember in your mind and THEN paint. You never know what might happen. It was the final few hours of the falls that made me realize what I had felt about the falls, years of seeing it as a child growing up, that made me pick what I wanted to show and what I wanted to leave out.

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