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May 2009

5 Tips for Photographing Your Art

One of the most frustrating tasks an artist faces is how to effectively photograph their art.  I've tried every method.  I have a book on the subject, I've scoured the internet, received advice from professional photographers, and still haven't found one way that works every time.

But there are tricks you can use that work in different circumstances.

Trick #1 - Controlling the light when photographing indoors.

Okay, you've set up your artwork in a space where you can control the ambient light - either at night, or in a hall or a room where you can close the blinds.  You have your camera on a tripod, and your lights angled at 45 degrees from the work and positioned behind your tripod.  But you still get glare, particularly with oil paintings. 

Try setting your camera on automatic timer, then holding a sheet of vellum up in front of the light fixture responsible for the glare - a little experimentation is helpful. I've found cupping the paper slightly to bounce the light up toward the ceiling works. The vellum will diffuse the light.  You will still get good illumination and avoid those hot spots.

Trick #2 - Taking your paintings outside.

When I first started photographing my artwork outside, I followed the advice to do it in the shade.  I was using slide film and was able to get beautiful photographs.  But with my digital camera this is not the case.  Often the colors appear too blue, no matter how I change the white balance. 

Now I photograph dry paintings in direct sun, at about a 45 degree angle, using my tabletop easel set on the ground.  This means I have to bend down at an awkward angle, but if the painting is angled flatter, it reflects more glare.  I've found that using the automatic settings on my camera seem to work best, rather than adjusting the white balance, but I'm also in the northern part of the country and the sun is in a different area of the sky.

Trick #3 - Learn to use Photoshop

As long as your image is in focus and the colors are accurate when you upload your image, there's a lot you can do using Photoshop to clean it up.  As a safety precaution, duplicate the image before manipulating it. 

If, when you use the cropping tool, you realize your image is skewed enough to significantly alter the appearance, try using Transform first. Under Image, click on transform and then on skew.  You can adjust the image fairly easily by pulling up the corners, but when you're finished, your image will be automatically saved as  PS or Photoshop image. Go ahead and save it, then open it again and click on Edit - Save As - and select jpeg.  

DSC04103 copy  Here is a detail of an untouched image, showing the white dots where the pixels have no color.  This is a common issue when photographing oil paintings due to the nature of the oil paint and the textured surface.  

Here is an easy method to use to correct your image.

Start by opening your thumbnail.  Using CTRL and the + sign, enlarge the image so you can begin to see the details.  You'll notice white dots - these are areas where reflected light tricked your camera into seeing white, and can otherwise ruin a nice image. 

Click on the clone tool.  Something that looks like a bullseye opens up on your image.  Hold this icon over a color adjacent to the white dot that you want to eliminate. While holding down the ALT key, left click your mouse - this action picks up the color.  Then simply move the bullseye over the white dot and left click  without holding the ALT key - stamping the color.

DSC04103detail Here is the corrected image.  It's a simple solution, and with a little practice you'll be cleaning up your images like a pro.  

As you're working, you may find it necessary to increase the magnification of the pixels. Just press CTRL and + until you can clearly see what you're doing.  Then to check our image, use CTRL and the - sign to reduce the image size.

If you look closely, you can see the three darker green dots just above the orange curve of this pear. This is a .5 in the brush preferences, which shows up in the tool bar at the top of your screen once you activate the clone stamp tool. Play around with the sizes of the brush preferences (sizes of the dots) - too small and it takes forever but too large can be too obvious.

  Be sure to save the image frequently, as I have learned the hard way that 20 minutes of tedious work can be lost through one careless click on the mouse.

Tip #4 - Crop your image

This tip is not really for you but for all those other artists who think a photo of their painting should include that bright gold frame because it looks so much better than just the image. And why not show some of that doily that you set your painting on, too, because after all it sets up a nice homey contrast.  Or maybe the green plant.  Or the dog that just happened to walk into the image. 

Tip #5 - Use a professional for the important images

For your record keeping, any image will do. For your web page portfolio, a clean, cropped, appropriately bright and contrasted image is perfect.  You can check your histogram first ( look in the Image drop down menu) - it should look like a bell curve, which indicates how the camera was reading the brightness, and you can adjust up or down.  Bear in mind that color varies from monitor to monitor and you can make yourself crazy trying to fine tune everything. If it looks good on your computer, then check out your site on two or three other computers, using different browsers. If you're happy with the results let it go. 

But if you are submitting to important shows or juried organizations, or preparing images for postcards, you may want to use a professional photographer.  Find one who specializes in photographing products or artwork.  The photographer I use has been generous with his knowledge and helped me learn how to do much of the photography work on my own - which is definitely more convenient and less costly.  Try to find one who will share their knowledge with you, too.

It's important to keep good photographic records of the work you produce, and to be able to pull together professional images on short notice.  So for me, it was also important to take the time to work through the various problems I encountered while photographing my work.  I hope you will experiment with some of these simples fixes with your next painting.

What Do You Want To See?

I recently took advantage of the Critique Service offered by Oil Painters of America.  After sending in my required images, I learned that my critique would be from a master artist who teaches at the Art Student's League in New York. 

As an artist, my previous experience with critiques came either from the classroom or the public. While I always appreciate hearing feedback, it felt quite different to wait for the critique from such an experienced painter.  What would he say?  Would it be useful, or just point out the weaknesses in the work?  So I felt a certain amount of trepidation when I opened the email with his response attached. 

It was the best experience that I've had with regard to someone talking to me about my work. 

Of course, the one painting my instructor picked to illustrate his points was Tangerine Tango. And he began his instruction by telling me the question he always asks his students: What do you want to see happen in your painting?

The advice he offered me was "I would like to see more variety and unity in my painting," and he gave some very specific ideas on how I might achieve this. 

Web copy  Since I was currently working on a new still life, I looked for ways to apply the concepts.  One suggestion related to ways of describing local color.  Within a few strokes, my painting began to come alive and I could see exactly how far I could  push the color.  Studying books by Sergei Bongart and Sorolla helped, as well as the Impressionists.  Another book from my library, Problem Solving for Oil Painters, by Gregg Kreutz, as been most helpful.  With so many instructional books on the market, it's hard to decide which books are the best, but I do recommend that you take a look at this book.  Aimed at the moderately experienced painter, Kreutz discusses painting concepts and illustrates ways to achieve them.

If you are interested in the OPS Critique Service, here is the information from their newsletter:

Artists are reminded that a critique service is available for both members and non-members of OPA.  Artists wishing to participate should mail two identical disks containing three to ten paintings of current work with a one page biography.  The fee is $25.00 for OPA members and $50.00 for non-members.  Send materials and check to Oil Painters of America, P.O. Box 2488, Crystal Lake, IL. 60039-2488

How to Survive Series: Curating the Artist Website

How to survive...doesn't that just cry out for dramatic music, ominous lighting, shadowy figures lurking around the corner?

It strikes right at that primal soft spot we all have - that something awful has happened. 

What, exactly, is that "awful" thing?

Oh.  Consumers aren't buying right now.  Yeah, seen that, done that.  During the 30 plus years I operated my own small business consumer spending went up and it went down.  During the up times, it was easy to get sloppy, to think you were offering such a fantastic service there was nothing you could do wrong.  In the slow times, you realized that just wasn't the case.  The "anybody can do this" folks dropped out, and the serious players changed their game.

Have you thought about changing your game?

In a recent on-line issue of Art Business News, I found a link to a round-table discussion of gallery owners - which you can listen to here.  There were many insights I found to be valuable and which can be applied to the way artists operate their businesses.

The first element that stood out in the round table gallery discussion was how important the quality of the art experience was for a successful client/gallery/artist relationship.    As a society, we are so inundated with messages, one could argue that only the most unique messages, delivered in a way that excites the imagination and enhances the consumer's personal experience are the ones that get through.  

So I asked myself - was I delivering a unique experience to the visitors who came to my websites?

At the same time I was pondering this question I was also researching ways to curate a solo show, and it occurred to me - websites were the equivalent of an on-line solo show.

Next question - was my "show" a jumble of everything I'd created during the past three years, or was there some logic or story telling behind it?

I wasn't all that impressed with my answers to those questions, so I decided to start the curating process at Sue Smith Fine Art.  In the process, I discovered that it's more than just arranging the order of your images.

At Fine Art Studio Online, I have a generous comment field  on the home page and I started there, writing a brief intro that gives the visitor a sense of the Artist Statement and emotion behind the work.  I remembered how I once based a solo show around the work of Annie Dillard, and tried to engage the viewer in a similar manner, using written word, pulling the viewer in to the emotional experience.  I have discovered that this process can't be rushed.  I will also be rewriting my artist statement, and perhaps even post an essay on the site before I move on to curate my other site.

In the round table discussion, gallery owners continually  emphasized creating the experience of quality, seeing a major competitor in the Big Box stores offering mediocre art.  As an artist, I believe it's in my best interests to make sure that I am also focused on providing the Art Experience in every way that I can.

Take a look at your own website.  Does it need a curating makeover?

Or are you just another mini-me version of those Big Box stores?