Interpreting A Photo

I recently taught an indoor weekend workshop for the Foxboro Art Association in Walpole MA. Twelve students of various painting levels braved the snowy morning commute and it was a good weekend of learning and fun. The workshop was titled 'Interpreting A Photo'. The idea was to give students the knowledge that a painter needs in order to make a truthful expression using a photograph as a painting reference.

As a plein air painter, my first passion is to pack up all my painting gear and head for a beautiful location in order to paint from life. For me, there is nothing quite like it in all the world. Outdoors on location I can breathe the fresh air and look around at nature in all its vastness. I can feel the sun on my shoulders and listen to the sounds going on all around me. As I paint I can react to all this stimuli and subconsciencely use it as a means of expression as I paint.

The bottom line though, is that I am painting with the hope of capturing light. The type of day, the kind of light is what I am trying to depict. The subject matter itself is what sets the stage, but light becomes the main player.

One of the first things I tell my students, is that in order to interpret a photo, one must have some knowledge of how photographs are distorted and averaged compared to what the eye would really see if on location. The other bit of knowledge needed in order to make a convincing painting from a photo is an understanding of how light affects things outdoors. Some painter's live by the creed, 'paint what you see, not what you know' and while I can understand this idea as a means to self expression, I have to say that without the knowledge of how light affects objects outdoors, we are left with a kind of guessing game as to how it should all go together. When working from a photo, how could we possibly get the desired results if we only 'paint what we see'?

My advice to students is to gain an extremely thorough knowledge of 'light' so that in time, as you paint more from both a studio location and from life, you will be able to  use this knowledge at a more intuitive level. Having to overthink each step is certain death for a painting. Having knowledge in your pocket and using it at as a more intuative response to what we see means better paintings. It will enable you to make paintings that will feel truthful as well as heartfelt.

In the workshop, I demonstrated from a photo reference each day and talked about every step as the painting developed. As I painted, I explained in detail, the use and principals of Defraction, Gradation, Compression, Halation and also the use of Atmospheric Perspective. In his book 'Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting' John F Carlson explains these principals and states that light is the unity of tone and the meeting of edges. Suffice it to say that if we just paint objects at varying degrees of color and value between white and black and then think of edges by simply mushing or blending, this will not create the feeling of light in a painting and is a poor substitution for the knowledge of how light behaves outdoors.

After my demonstration each morning, students worked from personal reference photos while getting individual instruction with the interpretation of their particular photo along with painting instruction. On Sunday afternoon we held a critique at the end of the workshop. Doing this as a whole group is a good way to talk about each painting and to explain any beginning problems and the adjustments the artist made throughout the day. This helps to cement what was learned over the two days and gives participants a more thorough understanding of the unique challenges that each of them faced with their paintings. Critiques are positive and provide reinforcement of principles learned. I also make suggestions as to any adjustments that may be needed in order to make a strong and convincing finished piece.

Emile Gruppe once said that some artists paint all their life only to find out that they essentially painted the same painting over and over again. I have a strong belief that an artist continues to grow only when taking chances and learning to paint both on location and in the studio. There is wonderful work that can be done in the studio from small sketches done on location, but some beautiful work can also be done just from the interpretation of a photo taken while on location. In my travels, I take many photos. It only makes sense to learn to work from them. Here are a few images from one of the demonstrations I did for the 'Interpreting A photo' workshop.