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What is the difference between a photograph and a painted landscape?

Excerpt from Suzanne's talk on July 15th.


I asked Suzanne to discuss photography and landscape painting because of conversations I have had with a number of friends They asked me, "why don't I just take a picture instead of painting a landscape?". At first I didn't quite know what to say.  While photography is a means to one end....

From Suzanne's talk:

Photographs and paintings share two things in common: they are based on the rectangle (including the conventions of good composition) and the shared perception that the image is a “window” that we look outward into the world. What was not so clearly understood initially in early photography, was that the observer was apart of the observed. So if 100 people were given a camera and told to photograph the same object, the results would be 100 identical photographs!

Cameras were invented at the end of the 1800’s and were conceived of a tool for documentation and therefore factual: this is what it looks like. This notion of “fact” lingers even today. However, even with all the advancement in camera technology, a photograph remains unreliable. Notice how on a bright day, clouds in the sky are bleached out, the lost of details in the shadows, or the color of the sky is over saturated and appears a surreal blue. The camera also has the ability to capture every detail, regardless if it miles away and close to your feet at the same time. This causes distortions in the perspective and flattens the sense of space. We believe the photograph simply because it looks “real”.

Painters benefit from working from photographs when they learn how to capture and extract their “painterly” idea. It’s not the subject of the photograph that’s important but how it’s interpreted through painting techniques to express the artist’s aesthetic vision. When photographs are used as memory vehicles we can recall the sensations of the scene such as the direction the wind, the angle of the sun, the sounds and smells or the physical textures of the terrain. We can also recall the visual sensations that caught our eyes attention: was it the seduction of vivid color or the subtle interplay of warm and cool color notes? Did the play of light and shadows create lacy shapes over the ground or animate the tree branches into living sculpture? This is our response to the scene but how do we translate that response into a painted image?

First consider all the subjects (sky, water, terrain, trees) in the scene as components that will be edited, exaggerated and organized within the composition. Often editing out details or un-necessary information is the hardest task since the temptation is to copy the photograph exactly! So no matter how realistic your final painting, your have also copied the flatness of the photograph which is why friends will ask “Did you paint that from a photograph?”

Since all images are constructed of five visual elements (line, shape, color, form and texture) it’s important to understand which of these will play the major role or dynamic in the painting. For instance, if my scene is of autumn trees along a river then is my emphasis on color (orange golds against blue) or will it be the dappled texture of foliage in contrast to the long horizontal strokes of the water? By determining my approach before I begin allows me to decide what is the final effect I want to achieve and guides the development of the painting from beginning to finish: from the choice of canvas format and size to the color of my toned ground to the selection of pigments that will build my color palette. I also need to be clear on my painting approach: will this image be better developed with subtle transparent layers of paint or broad chunky brush marks?

Painters are challenged to compete with the ubiquitous nature of photographic images (along with the long history of painting). As contemporary viewers, we appreciate now only what is captured in the image (it’s expression) but the beauty of the painted surface. In essence, we love the paint. Our goal as artists is to make paintings that are vastly more interesting than the photographic reference that engendered them. Ones that snag the viewer’s eye and imagination! 

Gallery Mack