Working From Photos and Other Models

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A new exhibition opening at Bowdoin College centers on the American landscape painter Winslow Homer  use of his camera.  Homer was certainly not alone.  By the late 19th century landscape painters and figure painters like Thomas Eakins had adopted photography as an essential tool in their work. This was no surprise. Artists had been using the camera obscura for hundreds of years.

Like his predecessors and contemporaries Homer did not copy the photo but, used it as a resource, a reference, a memory trigger, a muse or a suggestion. His painterly gestures present loose expressionism rather than slavish copying of photographic information yet, the photo was an aid.

Next, I would like to show you one of the ways I use photography in landscape painting.  I take ideas from a collection of photos of an area then recompose, color and redefine them in Photoshop.  Then, I sometimes tack a variety of these images to my easel wall and refer to them for ideas or memory ticklers or for proportion relationships.

The photos we take are always a response to our experience with previous artworks and photos we have seen.   I took the photos you are about to see because, they subliminally comport  with historical landscape themes and compositions. Consider my first two examples (1 and 2) by John Constable in 1821 and Richard Burchett in 1860.  Both images present a series of counterbalancing sloping hillsides subdivided by darker  tree-line shapes. We feel the distance compressing into thinner and thinner slices.  My subsequent photos and painting are similarly constructed.

Example 1. John Constable 1821, West End Fields, Hampstead,

Example 2, Richard Burchett, 1860,

What follows are three photos (examples 3, 4, and 5) among many others which were referenced for my painting example. You may notice that I reversed the composition seen in the photos when designing my painting. Example 6 shows two of the Photoshop altered images tacked next to my painting.  Example 7 presents my painting in its current state.

Example 3. Photo as taken, Harkness State Park,

Example 4. Photo as taken, Harkness State Park 2,

Example 5. Photo as take, Harkness State Park 3,

Example 6. Photos after Photoshop reconfigurations tacked next to my painting.

Example 7. Painting in current state, 36×36, oil on enameled laminated aluminum,

10 Responses

  1. John Love

    Thank you…have wondered about using photo shop for this…gives another avenue for variety..and experiment…not to mention play and fun..

  2. Ken Clark

    I feel better about using photos now. I use photos or Ohio references all the time and use photoshop to change color, add other elements such sky and clouds as well as compositional changes. My problem is I find it hard to break away from painting exactly what I see. That is much of the time. Maybe because when I take the photo I try to find composition in the scene I’m about to shoot. I need to break this habit.
    Thank you for this timely article. Just watched the Renoir episode and loved it. I lock down all the episodes and re-watch each several times.

  3. Ken Clark

    I feel better about using photos now. I use photos or Ohio references all the time and use photoshop to change color, add other elements such sky and clouds as well as compositional changes. My problem is I find it hard to break away from painting exactly what I see. That is much of the time. Maybe because when I take the photo I try to find composition in the scene I’m about to shoot. I need to break this habit.
    Thank you for this timely article. Just watched the Renoir episode and loved it. I lock down all the episodes and re-watch each several times.

  4. Gregory Matthews

    What is your thought on “Saving your corners”, per Monet, in a composition such as this. Do appreciate you insights

  5. Gail Williams

    Really glad to have read and seen these examples. I’ve always been told not to use photos. I’ve recently returned from Ireland and am using photos, not to copy exactly, but as reference for my paintings. Thank you David.

  6. Ken Wright

    Thank you for sharing your gifts with us. They serve as an inspiration and motivator to get back to my painting again and they provide great visual context for the imagination!

  7. Alan Bohl

    I just found your program on LPB. I absolutely love it! You provide such a wonderful balance of painting and art history. Thank you for your work.

  8. randy k davis

    love the bright blue specks in the foreground and the subtle “back bone” of grass that leads the eye into the distance!! as always an awesome painting!

  9. barbara hamill

    the ideas that you present here are very helpful. See you in September!

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