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May 2011

Advancing Toward Artistry with Photo References

Early photography was a great equalizer.  It allowed ordinary people to create a visual history that was important to them.  No longer did they have to rely on artists to create that small portrait, or paint images of historical places visited on the Grand Tour.  By the 1850's photography was well on the way to being commercialized with most people being self-taught to use the new technology.  

With this rise in the use of photography by ordinary people, artists were also exploring the new medium. Storytellers emerged, stepping away from the accurate recording and investigating visual concepts that would convey an emotional experience.  Eventually technical advances and the curiosity of photographers led to innovations in the nineteenth century, including arrested action, spark exposures and images considered avant guard. These photographer artists were transforming the aesthetics of the medium and several distinct "styles" of pictorial expression have remained in the public sphere.

What I find interesting is that once photographers could record the natural world, they began pushing away from it and into poetic expression.  But how many of today's artists, using photo references to create paintings, are actually thinking along these terms?

How many are still thinking like those early photographers?  This is what I see, this is what I record?   

Edward Steichen was a master at creating the evocative landscape, as you can see here in this image of "Moonlight: the Pond."   And one by Clarence White, titled "The Orchard."  These artists heightened the visual experience of form, edges, narration, taking the familiar and creating compositions that were interpretive of both emotion and experience.

If you are working from photo references and are looking for ways to push yourself away from mere replication and toward artistic expression, here are two exercises that have worked for me.

Paint from Memory.  This was a standard exercise for advanced students according to Robert Henri. The model would be placed in one room and the studio was often on another floor.  The young artist was required to study the form, memorize aspects that were important, and then return to the studio to paint from memory.  Study your reference material, create your drawing of the important elements to get compositional placement if you need to, then put the reference away.  You will be surprised by your ability to draw upon knowledge of your subject matter without getting caught up in the details.

Turn your photo reference into a B & W copy.  This is an excellent way to break away from the trap of local color.   Using a black and white photo gives you accurate value relationships and you can confidently work with expressive color.

There isn't a stigma with using photo references - the trick is creating an expressive painting that convinces the viewer that this space you are describing is more than an arrangement of objects. This requires the serious artist to push away from replication and into something else.


*"Seizing The Light- A History of Photography" by Robert Hirsch, McGraw-Hill, 2000


Outdoor Landscape Painting Tutorial by Sam Adoquei

In the previous post on composition I mentioned the book, How Successful Artists Study by Sam Adoquei, and he was gracious enough to pass along this tutorial on outdoor landscape painting to share with other landscape enthusiasts. 


Thank you, Mr. Adoquei.

Please visit his website for more information on his teaching philosophy, the atelier program he is offering in NY, and look at his beautiful paintings.  You will find a lot to inspire you. 



In Samuel Adoquei's book, How Successful Artists Study, the artist/author tells us that "Composition can make or break a painting."

He also tells us that "behind every great successful painting there is an artist with an understanding of the laws of composition..."

If you're an artist then you're already thinking about this.  On the internet there are plenty of paintings that demonstrate the artist learned (or has not learned) the basic compositional arrangements - perhaps five or seven, there are many books that will give you the diagrams.  I have several in my own library, and I've painted work that follows one design or the other. 

Following along is a valuable learning exercise, like practicing the scales by rote, but in the end all it gives you is the ability to structure a painting using an S curve design and little else.  This is because composition is both very specific - and very ephemeral. 

There is something beyond the basic armature that goes into beautiful and lasting art.  And by studying theories of composition - from all cultures and all styles -  the artist develops an understanding, not a list of recipes. With understanding you can study a work of art that appeals to you esthetically and appreciate why.  You can approach your own work with both confidence and the willingness to experiment.  You have more of an opportunity to produce something beautiful, innovative and successful.

It's a lot easier to go with the recipe.  There's the argument that the public appreciates what it recognizes and understands.  And there are limitless ways to arrange elements within a work of art that still conform to a set structural design. 

But Adoquei also tells the student "All great paintings demand the deepest knowledge, wisdom and an unfailing craft." It's why we practice so much, study so much. 

What books have you found most useful in understanding compositional theory?  Comments?