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Monday, July 4, 2016

Places Begging to be Painted

Sète, France--Don't let a tremendous amount of detail intimidate
you in shooting, selecting, and painting your travels.
Virtually any artist who travels is constantly on the lookout for outstanding people, places, and things which would make ideal subjects for their art. I'm going to assume here that few artists today carry with them on vacation easels, paints, canvas, folding chairs, or a giant umbrella to ward off the sun. The art tools which they do encumber themselves with often fits in a shirt pocket or hangs around their neck from an embroidered strap. Though a few artists may still carry with them a sketchbook when they travel, for the most part their digital sketchbook is far more practical and, in fact, better, given its potential in the hands of a competent artist. Thus I'm going to suggests some content I've encountered, not for the purpose of supplying painters with digital source material, but to awaken them to the possibilities and sensitizing traveling artists in recognizing similar content.
New York City--a study in contrasts--crying out to be painted.
Despite the title, I'm not talking here only about landscapes involving famous landmarks leading to the zillionth painting of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls. In fact, the people and things encountered may, be far more the fascinating than the landmarks they're there to see. The scene from Sète, (southern) France (top), perfectly captures the sidewalk café scene so intimately associated with the Côte d'Azur (azure coast). Notice how the single figure in the center making eye contact draws the viewer into the scene. However, from an opposite point of view, the contrasting urban and woodland landscape of New York City (above) evokes the unseen human contrasts teeming within the city.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The home of Margaret Mitchell, Atlanta, Georgia
--as if she'd left momentarily for the corner grocery.
In general, the traveling artist should strive to capture the essence of a location rather than merely its appearance. One of the first places my wife and I visited in traveling through Atlanta, Georgia, on our way home from visiting our son and his wife in central Georgia was the early home of the famed author of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell. The house itself (above), unlike many such literary abodes, is actually quite forgettable, the peculiar, "L" shaped portico not even authentic. But inside, its as if the little lady who gave birth to Scarlett O'Hara had just momentarily gone out to buy a loaf of bread. The tiny portable typewriter is left waiting for the next chapter.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Formal symmetry is stiff, and uncomfortable.
Informality creates a feeling of warmth and pleasure.
One of the pitfalls traveling artists frequently encounter is the dazzling realization I call the "I can't believe I'm actually here" syndrome. As the mind struggles to take it all in, the artists' normal instincts tend to get lost at the ticket booth or left behind in getting off the bus. The artist struggles to separate that which is touristy from that which is ancient or authentic. I endured this conflict in touring Alhambra, in Granada, (southern) Spain (above). As a devotee to ancient architecture I tended toward traditional views with which I was already familiar rather than seeking out scenes making for good painting composition. A very basic rule of thumb to remember in visiting famous sites is that, what looks good (works) in a photo won't necessary work in a painting. The aesthetics are different. Photos are more random and spontaneous. Paintings aren't.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Notice, you can paint (parts of) the Eiffel tower (top)
while also capturing the view from it.
Another problem for the artist sporting an instantaneous sketching tool (camera) is the "done to death" factor. Artists should instinctively reject that which is the safe, common approach to a subject (be it a landmark or a landscape) in favor of a more in depth, and hopefully, revealing image bearing the mark of (to use a trite expression) "been there, done that." But how do you paint an instantly recognizable icon, nearing two hundred years of age rising up in the middle of the most "arty" city on earth? I dare say every nut and bolt of the Eiffel tower in Paris has been photographed and painted (literally, at least) dozens of times. The answer is, you don't. Instead, you paint the effect the tower has upon those visiting. For me, aside from the weird elevators, the sheer height and panoramic view (above) were more impressive than that which made it possible. The city of Paris, from its people, buildings, food--its ambience--is a work of art. But few other perspectives (aside from the hated Tour Montparnasse) allows the visitor to take it all in, photograph it, and then paint it.
Copyright, Jim Lane
City landmarks are exceedingly difficult to
photograph well at street level.
If Paris seems to be a city designed and build specifically to inspire artists, then just to the south, the city of Barcelona is a photographer's paradise. Its also one hell of a hard place to shoot artistic photos. I concentrated on Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia and his Casa Mila a mile or two away. Both fall somewhat into the "overexposed" category, yet their physical presence is so undeniable that simply imposing the "Eiffel Tower solution" is impossible. The details embodied in the Eiffel Tower only a structural engineer could appreciate. Gaudi's church, on the other hand, is so bejeweled with intricate details as to be nearly overwhelming. So, you buy postcards (or maybe a book) for the iconic presence and go in search of the myriad details--something like photographing an elephant through a microscope. Casa Mila is easier. I simply worked to capture the neighborhood, using the turn-of-the-century apartment complex as an interesting backdrop (above).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Guests of the Vanderbilts.
Last year my wife and I visited for a second time (in thirty years) the George Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which he called Biltmore. The running joke is that once he got started, his simply "biltmore and biltmore and biltmore." The place is huge and his ancestors are still at it, building hotels, golf courses, restaurants, a winery, and every December, a fantastically, ostentatious, gilded-era Christmas wonderland. Here, the "Eiffel Tower solution" works. My wife is not a great fan of antique architecture and décor. Plus, she's walking adverse. The photo (above) of her with her cane and another lady with a walker relaxing on the 19th-century rear terrace of the massive stone mansion would be far more interesting as a painting than the static, formal, mall view of the Gothic Revival front.
If I'd shot this, I'd probably decide with was worth painting.
Having gone on at some length now, let me set down a few "rules of thumb." Don't be beguiled by color. Color is good, but it is only one of the elements of design. All too often, for instance, the traveling artist goes off with the idea that every sunrise/sunset would make a beautiful painting. It would be better to remember that most such solar occurrences make for rather trite paintings. In other words, if you shoot a beautiful sunset with the idea of painting it, you'd damned well better make sure it's also the most interesting, most daring, most spectacular, mind boggling, eye-catching splash of pigmented medium ever to grace a canvas (above). If not, turn your attention to something with more depth of expression. The same goes for landscapes minus the colorful dusk and dawn displays (bottom). Sometimes simply turning the camera slightly one way or another, zooming in or out a little, makes a tremendous difference between a good photo and the source of a great painting (below)
Plan your painting with your camera viewfinder.

Photos do not abide by the same
aesthetic rules as paintings.

Hungry children in North Korea.
Nowhere is it etched in stone that art
must be beautiful. If you travel in search
of beauty but encounter the ugly,
consider it your duty to awaken the
world to what you've seen.


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