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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Painting from Photos

Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day, 1732, Canaletto.
Not from a photo, but nonetheless using a camera (obscura).
Many artist in the past have used photos in producing their paintings. Or, as in Caneletto's case, (above), a camera obscura, in drawing his Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day. Dealing with such art and artists in a learning mode presents one major, largely insurmountable problem--the photos which these artists employed either no longer exist, or are purposely not available. Because of this fact, and as a matter of simple convenience, I shall be detailing the use of photos in producing my own work, not because it is historically significant (at the moment, anyway), but because the source material is readily available.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The simplest use of photography as source material occurs when an artists snaps a single photo, likes the result, and chooses to translate his or her photographic art into some other medium (painting, in my case). The photo of the mirrored garden ornament (left) is a recent example. It was unavoidably a self-portrait. The resulting painting (below, left) I titled Golden Globe Self-portrait. Few if any changes were made from the photo to the painting. Any apparent differences are the result of my personal painting style, lack of skill on my part, or peculiarities of the acrylic painting medium itself.
The source: photo manipulation
was minimal. The photo print
was four by six inches. 

Copyright, Jim Lane

Golden Globe Self-portrait,
2012, Jim Lane. The photo
of the painting did not capture well
the subtle gradations in the reflected sky.

Of course, being able to use photography and actually using it are two different things. Far be it for me to suggest that photography should replace drawing as an art skill (though, conceivably, it could, given all the modern technology artists today have at their disposal.)
For the past hundred years or more, portrait artists have become the most beholden to photography, first, in improving the quality of their work; secondly in reducing the time and effort involved; and finally, in allowing a reasonable pricing structure. Here, however, the use of photography becomes more challenging in that seldom is the portrait artist allowed the simplicity of working from a single photo. For the accomplished artist this is a blessing in that it more closely mirrors the traditional advantages of a live model without the torture of endless sittings.
Several years ago I was privileged to do a series of portraits for a very demanding client involved in the faithful restoration and display of antique autos. Not only was each painting a portrait of the car, but each included portraits of the man and his wife in period costumes. Moreover the average size was about 18 by 24 inches (extremely small for a painted portrait of the human face). Happily, the client was far more interested in the accuracy of the car than his own visage.

Copyright, Jim Lane
1909 Ford, 2000, Jim Lane
The 1909 Ford (above) was typical of the series as was the main source photo (below). However, given the degree of accuracy the client demanded and their quite modest sizes, a single parade photo was far from adequate.

The background was simplified to remove visual clutter
while maintaining the festive parade ambience.
Fortunately, the client proudly provided a wealth of photos of his little red masterpiece (below) allowing me to fill in the numerous gaps not plainly visible in the parade photo. The vintage Ford Motor Company logo on the side of the vehicle was barely discernible in the main photo. It and the side basket required additional photography (below, left). The work took some 10 hours to complete. Sitting up my easel in the client's garage would have involved two or three times as long and my presence as a houseguest for a week or more (he lived in a distant city). The cost would have been at least double, and most importantly, the work would probably not have been as satisfactory.

In painting a collector's item, detailing is a vital element.

A detail demanding its own photo.

More important than detecting photo usage or whether or not to use them are decisions involving “when to” and “how to” use photography in painting. Photography should be seen as just one more tool the artist has at his or her disposal; one that can be misused as surely as a palette knife or a fan brush.
In 2010 my wife and I returned from a Mediterranean cruise with a whole "boatload" of pictures. Most were decidedly of the "tourist" variety. However, on a previous visit, I had discovered the island of Capri. It was love at first sight (site). I later did paintings of the Marina Grande and the rear of one of the island's vacation villas. I'd gotten lost (below, left). Both were based on single photos.
The Back Gate: Capri, 2001, Jim Lane
The source photo. Sometimes it
pays to get lost.

In returning to the island, I especially wanted to paint the main harbor again. Of course, a five or six hour visit would have been totally inadequate for much in the way of on-site painting (not to mention the difficulties in carting along the needed paraphernalia). Also, I wanted to see much more of the island than I had on my first visit. So, I spent about an hour prowling around the waterfront shooting lots of source photos. Unfortunately, the weather was not ideal (cloudy, even a brief shower).

Copyright, Jim Lane
It's always better to take too many photos of a scene than too few.
Hope for good weather too.
In returning home and studying the pictures, I found adequate (barely) material for two paintings. One depicted the harbor itself (bottom) while the other was much more a waterfront street scene (above). Both images were composites of two or more separate photos. The first demanded a 2:1 ratio format. In creating them as a set, I was thus forced to contrive a less than ideal composition for the street scene. In doing so, I discovered I simply did not have the necessary photos for the upper left quadrant of the painting. I also improvised a more attractive sky for both paintings from stock Internet cloud photos (below).
A Caribbean sky over the Mediterranean.
The "borrowed" sky was used mostly for the naturalness of the cloud formations, the color was derived from the earlier companion piece. The final painting (below) was 15 by 30 inches, rendered with a palette knife.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Marina Grande 2010, 2011, Jim Lane
In not having my own photos of the missing imagery, I was forced to explore a considerable mélange of source photos downloaded from various websites featuring the harbor area (the two photos below). Of course none of these photos were from the same angle as my own so traditional drawing skills and perspective came into play as I filled in the missing upper levels of the waterfront structures.
Having photos from several different angles helps identify details, though often the quality of Internet downloads leaves much to be desired. The brick building in the center served as a vital landmark in all the half-dozen photos utilized. The pale, listless sky seen here was a liability in my photos too.
In other downloaded source material the images were somewhat superior to my own.
For the representational painter, photo imagery is not an inconsequential tool any more than the pencil or the eraser. Skillfully used, good photography can save lots of pencils and erasers, not to mention time, energy, money, and frustration. If you were expecting a more detailed discourse on “how to” use photos in art, that’s the subject for a whole book.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Marina Grande 2011, the companion piece for the Marina Grande 2010, this one presenting the view in the opposite direction.

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