Monday Morning Art School: painting from photographs

There’s a world of difference between copying a photo and creating a painting using photos for reference.

Skylarking 2, 18×24, $1855 unframed. It’s difficult to paint boats under sail en plein air, so mostly we use photographs for that.

It is not true that I never paint from photos; I just prefer painting from life. However, there are times (winter) and subjects (boats under sail, babies) that lend themselves to painting from photographs. Size is also a limiting factor; nobody can finish a painting much larger than 40×40 in the field without two stout oafs to stabilize the canvas.

What I don’t do is slavishly follow a single photo. Instead, most of my studio paintings are compilations of images.

All flesh is as grass, oil on linen, 36×48, $6231 framed.

Start with an idea. Let us say, for example, that you want to paint the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” as John Keats put it. Symbols of that idea might include apple orchards, golden light, morning fog over the blueberry barrens.

Gather photos, from your own stash. I have tens of thousands of reference photos on my server; you probably have a few thousand on your phone alone.

Think of this step as similar to the interior decorator’s design board or a Pinterest board. Your goal is not to find a photo you’ll ‘paint from,’ but to find ideas you want to incorporate into your painting. I do this on my laptop (as most of you probably will) but there’s no reason it can’t be done the old-fashioned way, on a bulletin board.

After allowing these images time to percolate, identify the major motif of your painting. That’s its focal point. Then, do a sketch balanced around that motif. It’s helpful to set your reference material aside at this point, and let the sketch bubble up from your subconscious. If that doesn’t work for you, think about compositional armatures. Place your focal point accordingly, and work out from there.

Then it’s simply a matter of borrowing a bit from here, a bit from there, until you have a coherent, cohesive sketch.

Do not simply trace or grid a photo and expect to get a good painting from it. The whole point of painting is to allow room for your subconscious mind to enter the dialogue. You should be drawing from your photo until you have a powerful picture, then building on that drawing in your painting. If you can’t draw well enough to do this, then you need to improve your drawing skills, stat!

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed. This started life as the field painting below, and was painted again in the studio using the process outlined in this post.

If your goal is wild-animal portraiture, you should work with a good camera with a telephoto lens, but for most reference photos, a modern cell phone is sufficient. The images are large enough and the controls good enough that they outshoot most pocket cameras. There are situations, such as in Argentina, where I will bring a ‘real’ camera, but most of my photos are taken with my cell phone.

Other than for animals or glaciers, extreme telephoto lenses are not great for reference photos. They create pincushion distortion that can seriously muck up a drawing. Cell phones have wide-angle lenses. These create different problems, but they’re easier to correct in the drawing phase.

When I take photos for reference, I always leave in more background than I would have if I were shooting for the photo’s sake. I can always crop later, but there’s no way to add back in the missing information if I decide I need it.

Never try to replicate the out-of-focus background of a photo with a shallow depth-of-field. That’s not how human perception works, and it’s a dead giveaway that you simply copied a photo, rather than created a picture using reference photos.

Vineyard, 9×12, courtesy private collection

Try to keep the lighting the same in all your reference photos. In general, it’s wise to avoid high-contrast pictures for painting. When whites are bleached out and darks are black, we lose all the information that might have been in those passages, and they inexorably lead us to paint in excessive contrast.

While I use my own photos almost all the time, there are times when I use photos from the internet. It makes no sense for me to hunt down a Friendship sloop to check its rigging when the information is right there in someone else’s photo. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be copying substantive portions of other people’s work without permission. However, you can use the internet for research into how a shoe might reflect light, or the color of cornflowers, or what the mist looks like in an orchard in April.

Monday Morning Art School: taking a reference photo

On vacation? Here are some tips for taking reference photos you can work from later.

Winter Lambing, 48X36, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas.

My workshop aboard American Eagle included a professional filmmaker who once studied with Ansel Adams. She was taking pictures with her iPhone, a tool Adams could never have dreamed of. She used it like a ‘real’ camera, cropping, composing and controlling exposure on the fly. She wasn’t waiting for a scene to pass by her; she was making something magic happen. “You don’t take a photograph, you make it,” Adams is famous for saying, and that’s exactly what she was doing.

A great photograph does not necessarily translate into a great painting; in fact, in my experience, it’s very rare that it does. The photographer seeks to move us emotionally; the artist wants a picture that preserves information. The same spatial relationships that make a great photograph can appear contrived in a painting. High contrast blows out the details that the painter needs.

And here is the reference photo. It was a snowdrift, nothing more.
Photograph what really interests you. It’s so easy to get sucked into what we ‘should’ take pictures of that we sometimes miss the essential object that we will need later. Go ahead and take fifty photos of the jack pine on the cove, and then put them in a folder labeled “jack pine cove.” On the day that you need a lonely tree for a composition, you’ll have it on hand. After all, film is cheap these days.
Don’t over-crop your photos. Often, I’ve found that the information I needed to finish something was just to the left of the edge of my frame. “You need a camera with a zoom,” one of my students told me. Actually, I don’t. Most modern digital cameras take such high-resolution photos that a small fraction of the frame can be blown up and used for painting.
All Flesh is as Grass, 48X36, oil on linen, Carol L. Douglas.
I have a Panasonic Lumix camera with a Leica lens. It wasn’t terribly expensive. It’s excellent in low-light situations, which means I can take even interior reference shots without a flash. That’s far more important than getting the details of the main topmast right from a quarter of a mile away. I can look those up; I can’t replace the details that get lost in bad light or by using a flash.
Of course, if I were a wildlife painter, I’d need a totally different outfit. Then a massive zoom lens would be important.
Bracket your exposures. This means you should take one photo at a higher value and one at a lower value than what your camera chooses automatically. Even if you have the most basic point-and-shoot camera, you can do this by hovering on lighter and darker parts of the picture. If you’re unsure about how this works, consult your instruction manual!
The above painting relied heavily on photos I took of an apple tree being cut down across the street from me. They were wonderful pie apples, too, but the new owners wanted more conventional landscaping.
Understand the limitations of reference photos. The camera is as subjective as the human eye. It misrepresents color relationships, depth-of-field, and size relationships. It obliterates subtle differences in color temperature. Reference photos are invaluable, but they should be the slave to your sketches and field notes, not the other way around. You’re under no obligation to represent every detail.
Which comes to my last and most important point: you shouldn’t be painting from other people’s photographs. This is more than just a question of legality (although that’s a real consideration). This is a question of ideas. A well-realized photograph is a complete artistic statement in itself. You have nothing to add. Anyone who has painted a commission from someone else’s snapshot knows just how much emotional information is missing when you weren’t there at the beginning.

Why I don’t do daily painting challenges

Just as plein air teaches you to paint fast and loose, studio painting teaches you to paint deeper.
Not every day of that year was cold. Pastel, by Carol L. Douglas.

When I finally decided to master plein air painting, I made the commitment to paint outdoors every day for one year, regardless of weather. That didn’t include Sundays, so it added up to 313 canvases painted in every kind of weather. For some reason, the worst days are the most memorable: the wind howling off the water at Ontario Beach Park, my oil paint freezing into stodge in a vineyard, or my car battery dying on a lonely country road. That was before cell phones, so I took a long, cold trudge to a nearby farmhouse to ask for a jump.

I’m sure there were many more pleasant days during that year, but they’re not stuck in my memory. Outdoor painters, like other adventurers, love to collect war stories.
The most memorable thing about this painting is that my car battery died from the cold. Oil, by Carol L. Douglas.
That year was an essay in mastery. I learned to paint in a more direct way. I mastered the three- to six-hour painting. And I developed the discipline of working through the “I don’t feel like it” moments.
Since then, I’ve done some similar, shorter challenges. I devised them for myself to answer specific problems. For example, when I realized that I misunderstood tree structure, I painted a tree every day. And when I was hampered by circumstances from doing large paintings, I did one-hour still lives each day.
This is the season of new beginnings. For some of us, that will include painting-a-day challenges. If you’ve never done one, I encourage you to try it.
This fast sketch is a personal favorite. It hangs in my home. Oil, by Carol L. Douglas.
I won’t be joining you. Been there, done that.
Daily paintings come at the cost of finishing larger canvases, which also have their place in one’s artistic development. We tend to shy away from approaching the last-minute business of finishing. That means asking, intentionally, how refined we want the ending to be. Until you bring a painting or two to that stage of high polish, you’re suffering a case of arrested development.
There’s a trope that drives me nuts: “Not one more brushstroke! You’re done!” We’ve gotten so used to the fast painting that we sometimes forget how to develop slow ones. Not stepping beyond that arbitrary finish-line retards our development. At some point, we need to be able to tell deeper stories than are possible in a field sketch.
And then there were days that were just golden. Pastel, by Carol L. Douglas.
Just as plein airteaches you how to work fast and loose, studio painting teaches you how to go deeper. I like nothing better than haring off to a new place with my paints. But there are times when I need to work slowly.
One of the joys of living in the far north is that the calendar tells you when that’s appropriate. When the wind is howling and the snow blowing, I know it’s time to focus on studio painting. Mother Nature says so.
A note to New York muralists: Believe in Syracuse is offering a $20,000 stipend to paint a mural on a West End building. For more information, see here.

Old subject, new technology

Yesterday I went all digital on a schooner. Allowing for the learning curve, this has potential.

Underpainting of American Eagle passing Owl’s Head, by Carol L Douglas
I’ve toyed for a while with the idea of doing a large, Fitz Henry Lane-influenced scene of the American Eagle under sail. A large canvas of a boat in motion is not something you do en plein air, but the studies I’ve done in harbor certainly influence it.
A student recently asked me if I like painting ‘just water.’ I do, indeed, because to me there’s no such thing as ‘just water.’ There’s light, reflection, movement, the skipping of the wind, clouds, and promise. I showed him the wave study I did while cruising on the American Eagle last spring. That is the closest I get to a purely personal painting, one that has meaning for me and nobody else.
This field study of waves from last summer was the genesis of the painting above.
It was also the genesis of this larger idea. What better landform to use as a background than Owl’s Head, which sits just outside Rockland harbor, and where I paint many times every season?
When enlarging a sketch to a final composition, I generally use gridding, which I’ve explained here.  It’s laborious and time consuming. It’s also extremely accurate and allows you to execute a pretty decent grisaille on the fly, depending on how much time you want to spend.
The horizon has to be straight on a nautical painting, or else the oceans will run dry.
My daughter gave us a cast-off video projector last year. Yesterday I decided to experiment with it. I haven’t used projection to enlarge a sketch since the demise of 35mm slides. 
These projectors are designed to shoot an image high on a wall, so they are set up to correct for the keystone effect, which is the distortion you get when you project an image at an angle. Once I managed to undo that correction, squaring the image was relatively easy. Making it exactly the size of my canvas was harder.
Level and square relentlessly.
I started with relentless leveling and squaring. The easel was perpendicular to the floor, the canvas leveled, the two lower corners the exact same distance to the projector. Even with all those preparations, the image was slightly canted. Fixing that took a lot of fussing.
From there, it was just a question of tracing the lines in the original sketch. However, my ability to see differences in value was vastly reduced.
I couldn’t see values but it was a neat optical effect.
Lest you think tracing is the answer to all your drawing problems, it’s still possible to make drafting errors. Note the slight sag in the bowsprit. I’ll fix that in the next iteration.
With all my fussing, I was able to finish underpainting this 30X48 canvas in a single day. There’s promise there.
It’s anemic compared to my usual gridding, but I still think it has potential.
I tell my students to use a combination of ultramarine and burnt sienna for their initial drawing, but in practice I generally use leftover paint for this step. The exact color isn’t nearly as important as the value. Yesterday, I chose an old tube of Williamsburg Brown Pink. I don’t use this brand because I find the pigment load in the blues to be too low for my style. 
That wasn’t true with this color. This morning my whole studio is swimming in a butternut-colored haze. There is brown stain everywhere—creeping along the canvas, in my brushes, on my hands, possibly in my hair.

Shipwrecked? That was partly in my mind.

Unfinished painting of the wreck of the SS Ethie, Newfoundland, by Carol L. Douglas
When Mary and I stood at Martin’s Point in Gros Morne National Park, we knew there would be no work done that day. We’d driven there specifically to paint the wreck of the SS Ethie. This is a lovely shipwreck story featuring a Newfoundland dog and a baby, but I’ve told it before.  
However, Hurricane Matthew was rumbling up the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The beach was windswept, cold and wet. It was starting to snow. This was one of the moments in my trans-Canada adventure where I just took photos and moved on.
The Ethie’s hero, a Newfoundland dog, came from tiny Sally’s Cove, seen in the mist.
Sadly, my photos captured nothing of the grinding energy of the sea that drove the Ethie into the rocks in the first place, on a similar wintry day. Her iron remains are scattered along a surprisingly long stretch of rock-studded beach, but that doesn’t really work in a painting.
Occasionally, I like to let my subconscious do some work. I reverted to a technique I used frequently about fifteen years ago. I improvised a series of shapes on a large canvas. The only guidance I gave myself was the word “maelstrom.” I didn’t start this with any sense of up or down, and I rotated the canvas as I worked.
My underpainting.
One of my former students in Rochester recently broke his leg. He is using the time experimenting with abstract painting. “I have come to believe that representational painting is easier because there is some reference,” Brad told me. In some ways, he’s right. That reaching down inside yourself is difficult business.
I can grip on to reality too hard, and one of my current goals is to let go, at least a little bit. There are important things to learn in the completely subjective side of painting, and it’s been too long since I’ve visited it.
As interesting as this was, I had to set it aside and return to my regularly-scheduled work. I’ve just bought a new laptop. My old one was, like my old dog, falling down regularly. It had developed the whiff of corruption in its hard drive and did not want to give up its secret gnosis, by which I mean the more than 32,000 images I consult on a regular basis.
Parts of the Ethie are scattered along the shore.
I’m not good at logical, hierarchical work. For one thing, there’s too much sitting. I just get mad and punch buttons until something happens. However, two days of pacing and swearing at a machine did give that abstraction time to settle in my head. Last night I sat down and converted it to a realistic painting—of sorts.
It’s not that I literally took the abstraction and applied it to the painting, or that I took my reference photos and applied them to the abstraction. The underpainting was my sense of the motion of the surf, and I plugged in details of the wreck where I wanted them. I’m pretty sure I can make something of it.