Paint Schoodic

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Why paint from life? For one thing, you can't wander through a photograph

This is the site from which I did Friday's painting of the Chugach Range. Which is more "realistic"? My painting, of course. The mountains in Anchorage are an everpresent force, not a nice little outline in the background.
“Why should a painter work from life rather than photos?” a reader asked me. “I can see that work painted from photos can lack a certain depth, but I don’t understand why.”

First, let me be clear: almost all painters work from photos at times, if only to clarify something they didn’t understand out in the field. On a morning like today, when Mother Nature is creating a ruckus, there’s no way I’m going to be anywhere but in my studio, with slippers on. And that means working from photos.

But that should be the lesser part of the experience, not the greater.

I mentioned last week that neither the human eye, nor the camera, nor my monitor are objectively correct about the color of distant mountains. If I had used photos to paint my trip across Canada, the mountains would have been large cutouts in blue-violet shapes because that’s what my camera recorded. In real life, they had dimension, shadows, and rocky ridges—all things that disappeared in the photographic record. A better camera would have given me a better image, but no camera can equal my own eyes, as old as they are.

Chugach range from Anchorage, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. The colors in my painting are warmer, and the mountain is more important and detailed.
“Digital adds lots of cyan to an image, usually about 30% in the lighter and mid-tones. And RGB color space doesn't ‘see’ as many colors as a human's eye/brain perceives,” responded Victoria Brzustowicz, who, in addition to being a painter is a graphic designer.

The human eye is a dynamic sensor. The resolution in the center of our eyes is far higher than at the edges, so we create images by shifting our focus very, very fast—so fast, in fact, that we’re not aware of it. We do a similar thing with darks and lights—although our eyes have less dynamic range than cameras, we just record the full range of impressions in our memories, stitching them seamlessly into an image we think we see.

Put away the camera and draw, draw, draw. You can draw anywhere, and in this climate, you can bring your own still life with you.
We don’t see in rectangles, either, but in a cone shape that somehow takes in lots of information at the periphery. That’s the big reason I don’t like my students using viewfinders in class. Viewfinders reduce what is possible to what can be contained inside a rectangle. Often, what’s actually there in life includes something amorphous and looming that gives character to the whole scene. Yes, it’s harder to capture that, but that’s the difference between an artist and a scribe.

Cameras also distort our sense of space. There is no one lens that exactly duplicates our range of vision. We humans see in neither telephoto nor wide-angle. The photographed view is, sadly, a choice somewhere between the two. That doesn’t match human perception.

My hiking poles, along with my tam (left) and mittens (above) went to church with me on Sunday. I'm listening to every word, but I'm also keeping my hands busy.

Years ago I took an anatomy-of-drawing class from the late Nicki Orbach. I had the shape of the shoulders wrong. “Get up and look at him from the other side,” she suggested. It was only then that I could see how I’d ignored the pull of the trapezius muscles, which control the neck but are mainly visible from the back. You can’t get up and wander through a photo to collect more information, and it’s something I do surprisingly often.

1 comment:

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

Envying you in your cozy studio with the snow blowing outside!
Interesting article on seeing.