Thursday 7 June 2012

Painting from Photographs

Every time I work from a photograph I have to justify it to myself. I have a number of "valid excuses" for such aberrant behaviour, including it would have been too cold (Watership Down in the snow, Godrevys 1 and 2), it is too far away (most of the Cornish ones), there isn't really anywhere to park my easel (Study in Yellow, View from the Dell), it was moving too fast (the sea at Godrevy) even it doesn't exist any more (View from the Dell). A simple there isn't enough time is a bit shaky (even now that I'm working full time again), but I did use that one on its own for the Greenham Common Fire Plane.

And, of course, if I do work from photographs, they must be my photographs. This isn't really a copyright issue (although that does matter - if you work from a photograph, you should have permission from the copyright holder, particularly if you intend to display the results). No, for me, it's a knowledge thing, an atmosphere thing, an experience thing, a having-been-there-and-seen-it thing. So, even if it's one of my own photographs, it has to be one that I remember properly.

And, ideally, I should have several shots to work with. This allows me to pick and choose pictorial elements, and goes some way to counteracting the single lens effect noted below.

But, even if it's my photograph, I still prefer to paint from life (I often take photographs to remind me of sites to revisit). There are a number of reasons why this is.
  • First, a camera only has one lens. People (usually) have two eyes. This makes the perception of a scene subtly different. I'm not sure how much this might affect a painting, but I think that it can make a difference - the sort of very subtle difference that just looks wrong, but you're not sure why.
This is why I like to have two or three shots of the same scene.
  • Cameras don't always record colours very accurately. Even if the camera has got it right, the screen or printer may add in their own idiosyncrasies So, you can't rely on the colours.
I have a few black and white prints (taken on 35mm, with the camera illustrated above) that I'm considering basing future paintings on. I will have to remember or invent the colours - which could be interesting!
  • Our eyes automatically adjust to variable light conditions. Cameras don't. Consider the following three images:

These three pictures were taken in close succession - 1, 2, 3 - from a single position. I put them together to form a panorama, but - as you can see - the tonal values don't match very well.
This is a fairly trivial example; I can easily smooth out those tonal steps as part of the process of translating what I see to what I paint. But it does illustrate the point that what you see is not necessarily what your camera records.

And, it has to be said, sticking images together in Corel Photobook isn't the most effective way of creating a panorama. My digital camera can do it quite well at the point of taking the photographs, although you do lose some resolution; there are also several applications that can do it after the event.
  • Finally - it's more fun to do the whole expedition thing. Pack up your gear, walk out to the site, find a good spot, work with the weather, take into account time restrictions... it's a challenge. And I love being out in the fresh air, away from the distractions of home. The hills are my studio. 
I've created a label for paintings that were done from photographs. It's

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