Just about every representational artist knows the benefits of painting from life. The naked eye can see far more than a camera and constantly adjusts for each lighting situation. Our other senses tell us if it’s windy, hot, cold, and fragrant. All this affects the painting of the scene before us. For some artists, the painting must be finished in the field that day or subsequent days. For others, field studies and photographs are part of process in creating their painting.
The huge movement of Plein Air in the country has given birth to countless Plein Air paint outs, workshops, and new artists. Art suppliers and magazines are selling everything from easels to ad space to feed this new hunger for painting outside. There is a common misconception that “Plein Air” is a style or look. Artist’s for more than 100 years painted outdoors as a means to accurately document real life. Field studies were just part of the process to creating a painting. Zorn painted from life but used photography on occasion to help in the creating his masterpieces. Like a brush, the camera is a tool. You don’t buy cheap brushes, so don’t buy a cheap camera. If you are seen at a Plein Air event with a camera nobody will make you turn in your wide brimmed hat.
In fact, the camera will help you document a new area to get ideas for painting sites. When I attend Paint Out events, my camera is always with me. If I see a great scene with fleeting light that will be gone in 20 minutes, I photograph it. Taking shots panned back, up close, vertical, horizontal, and all around, I write down the time. The next day I come back an hour earlier and paint my block in while anticipating the coming light. This approach works very well because the night before I have viewed my photos and picked the best composition. So when it’s paint time, I don’t get hung up on too many problems. If I’ve been to the same paint out for several years I have lots of photos to look over and go back to those familiar places and have a solid idea to paint. You can waste hours looking for something to paint. In unfamiliar territory, I’ll sometimes use google satellite and hover over areas that might have some possibilities to paint. You can use street view and cyber drive through the countryside. If something looks good I’ll mark it on a map. My years as an illustrator made me resourceful in finding new ways to help in the craft of picture making.
The camera is also very useful when you are visiting a wonderful place for a short time. You can document the area with hundreds of photos as opposed to only having the time to paint a few studies. Back in the studio with no field studies, I must have very high quality photographs and view them on a large monitor. It’s best to paint soon after your photo reconnaissance, so your memory is still fresh and you remember what grabbed you in the first place. I know from experience that my darks tend to get inky and lights get washed out. Your camera’s aperture tries to give you all the values, but misses in high contrast situations. Our eyes adjust constantly while painting from life. So in the studio I need to open the shadows and darken the washed out lights. Color saturation can be gone as well, so I’ll adjust that too, and make sure my canvas is in proportion to the photograph or study. An inch one way or another will change a composition, and you may lose what you set out to do. If I have no field study, I’ll paint one in the studio and work out the problems first. With a complex scene and wanting to combine several photos, I’ll use photoshop and create my composition.
I like to use figures in my landscapes and photography is the only way to record a moving person. Sometimes while painting outside a figure may walk into the scene, so I’ll take a quick shot. In the studio I have the best documentation with a field study and a quality photograph of the figure to create my painting.
When photographing your finished painting it is very important to have a set up where you have diffused natural light and a solid tripod that you can level. Glare can be a common problem and is caused by another light source like a window.
So the camera can be a great tool in your art career as long as you understand it limits and know that nothing will replace painting from life.