This week I have been reading a somewhat elderly book on watercolour painting, by Ron Ranson. I was interested to see a chapter entitled ‘Using Photography Properly’ and skipped ahead to take a look. At the time of writing, it appears that painting from a photograph was considered something of a no-no by the purists. However, apparently even famous artists such as Degas used photographs, so it can’t be all bad.
Ranson suggests that painting from a photograph encourages us to leave in all the details…which might be better lost in the spirit of creative licence. I can entirely agree with that, as someone who is aiming for greater simplicity in both painting and photography. When using a camera, I tend to opt for a shallow depth of field to isolate my subject. The same can work in a painting, with a fuzzy, ‘out-of-focus’ background allowing the main feature to stand out strongly. This happens naturally in the landscape, where haze causes distant features to be fuzzier, paler and cooler in colour.
This same effect can look a little odd if used in other ways. I remember looking at a beautiful oil-painted portrait and eventually figuring out that it looked weird because it had been painted with such shallow depth of field that the eyes were in focus and the nose was not. Whilst this is currently a popular technique for portrait photography, it looked strange as a picture as the depth of field in this instance was a facet of the camera’s functioning rather than how the eye would see.
Whilst Ranson feels that painting has made him a better photographer, I am hoping that photography will make me a better painter…eventually! Certainly painting from a photograph simplifies the issue of composition as the scene is already neatly framed. There are no worries about the changing light and shadows and the flower will not wilt or drop petals between sittings. A quick switch to monochrome and the tones are displayed if I need help, although with my preference for black and white my ability to read tones has improved immensely. And most usefully, I can paint the same subject several times and try out different approaches in each.. Definitely a match made in heaven.
A recent challenge pushed me into painting trees. This is a subject I find particularly challenging and therefore tend to avoid. I discovered that if I just paint a tree, I paint what I think a tree looks like…which is actually completely different to what a tree actually looks like. If I walk round looking at trees, considering them as a possible subject to paint, I realise I am dismissing them for not being suitable. It seems I have in my head an idea of how a tree should look, influenced by years of not seeing trees and a good dose of my preference of the neat and tidy to go with it. And this, of course, is why the trees I was painting looked wrong!
So, I took myself and a camera off of for a walk, specifically to look at and photograph trees. This is what I learned:
- None of the trees near where I live look like the imaginary tree in my head
- Branches come off in all directions, from all sides of the trunk, and they are not tidy!
- Trunks are lumpy and bumpy and not straight
- Although the pattern of division into branches may roughly follow the Fibonacci sequence, it is by no means that precise
- Every tree is different and they are all weird
- The little twigs and branches all follow a set growth pattern – right out to the tips, you can see this repeated – but it varies between tree species
I now understand why my trees looked odd…my attempts to create a randomness in the painting of trees still reflected my subconscious impression of a tree and not the reality of that particular tree. More study is required!
It has been a few years now since I began using my photography as a contemplative practice. Working this way enables me to connect more deeply with the subject of my interest and explore the world around me to see the beauty that exists everywhere if we but choose to look.
More recently, I have taken up watercolour painting, and will doubtless share some of my trials and tribulations with this medium when I am feeling brave enough. Today I wanted to share a new realisation that has come to me as a result of my dabblings.
When out with my camera, I allow myself to be drawn by what catches my eye in that moment between perception and judgement. This means that often I am attracted to an overall composition, to the shapes created by objects or light within the imaginary frame of my mind. Alternatively it might be a splash of colour that grabs my attention, or the improbable juxtaposition of two unrelated objects.
I can record an image in this moment, using my camera to preserve the moment for posterity. For that moment I feel a connection with my subject, we become one. Time passes and I move on. Later, if I want to paint that scene, I realise I need to see so much more than the overall pleasing composition that caught my eye. Immersion in that moment was not enough. The desire to draw or paint the subject takes seeing to a whole new level of detail.
This summer I have been experimenting again with watercolour painting. I found myself drawn to try painting as it is another way of deepening the connection with my surroundings and encouraging me to look more deeply into whatever I see. As I have been reading up on the subject, I have been interested to discover that experts sometimes recommend using a black and white image of your subject as a reference to help identify the tones in the scene.
These days I rarely photograph anything in colour, and I am finding that my ability to read the tones in a scene is growing daily. Even if you wish to display photographs (or paintings!) in colour, an understanding of tones has a direct influence on the success of the final image. Tone is not about the shade or hue of the colour, but rather about how dark it is.
For example, a display of white daisies against the green of their leaves will stand out much better than a red rose would. This is because red (and orange and strong pink) are of a similar tone to green. In monochrome they all show up as mid grey, with the result that there is little contrast in the image. One way to help here is to introduce some strong directional light. If you can position the flower such that the leaves are in the shade, this will improve the contrast because the relative difference in the tones will be greater. Even if you don’t like monochrome images, it’s well worth looking at your digital images in this way in order to assess the range of tones you have in the scene before you go ahead.
Oddly, although I like to photograph in monochrome, my paintings are all brightly coloured!
I love taking pictures. I generally amass them in large numbers, even on days when I am being careful to limit the number of times I press the shutter. Just one more, maybe this angle now, and a couple more in case they are out of focus. However, my interest in post-processing is luke-warm. And even that may be an overstatement of the appeal that hours spent tweaking my images in computer-land holds for me.
Just recently I hit on another type of post-processing, one which I had never even considered before. Watercolour painting.
“Excuse me?” I hear you say, “Watercolour painting?” Yes, that’s right.
With my camera, I frequently find myself looking for abstractions. I use photographic techniques such as intentional camera movement, long exposures or my Lensbaby to add movement and blur to my images. Time does not stand still and I like the way these techniques reflect the inaccuracies of our seeing. Whilst watercolours can be used to create incredibly detailed paintings, they also have the power to bring softness and a depth that draws out the essence of the subject, just as I am trying to do with my camera. So, I thought, why not take the picture and then paint it?
I should say at this point that I have absolutely no experience at painting and drawing, beyond the specimen pictures I had to produce for ‘A’ level Biology many years ago. My interest in arts and crafts has always leaned towards fabrics, wool, thread and beads. So this is an entirely new adventure. I smiled to myself as I remembered that a fair few people seem to take up painting when they retire…is this wishful thinking?
Taking a mindful photograph and then creating a mindful painting from that image. I’ll let you know how I get on!