Moody, Minimalist Landscape Painting

Photographic Reference

Coming from a contemporary background, it never occurred to me to question the notion that any and all tools that enhance your process and get you to where you want to go are a good thing.

Even while studying in Spain at the Royal Academy, the most traditional of places, once students had put in their years working from plaster casts and very extensively from the model, it was assumed that by year four each student needed to load up their own tool bag with materials and techniques uniquely adapted to their emerging style.

After settling into my contemporary style of landscape painting in the early 1990’s, however, I began showing with realist and plein air painters who—often very aggressively— eshew the use of a photograph. With my first real gallery representation, the James Cox Gallery, Jim encouraged me to develop the discussion of why and how I use photographic reference, since in the context of his gallery of representational art, that had heretofore been unheard of.

Decades later, my discussion has evolved as follows below, honed by years of  teaching and writing about my work.

There are considerations of style, technique, and subject matter  in my choice to use photographs to create my landscape paintings. My technique involves applying semi-transparent layers of color over a dark ground, allowing them to dry in between. This, of course, would be difficult to do in the field. Working this way builds up the luminosity that I achieve with the finished piece, and also enables me to  softly flatten the shapes that make up the composition while retaining subtle variations within. This is an important ingredient in my intent to hover stylistically between representationalism and abstraction, exploring the narrative of the land within an aesthetic of color-field painting.

A key practical consideration is my love for ephemeral weather moments, late day light, and road, bridge, and highway scenes. How would I set up an easel on the West Side Highway, the road opening up with dramatic painted lines right in front of me? And what about a twister, wending toward me, or late sunset, viewed in the almost dark?

Traditionally, it is argued that using a photo rather than working from life creates an image that lacks vitality. It is true that a photograph is already two dimensional, and so creating a painting from it is less of a leap than working from life. For me, this works in my favor, since I am a minimalist and flattening and reducing detail while looking at a photo is far easier than while standing in a field. The photo is just a tool, and so I can move things around at will, crop, change the color, use four photographs if I want, and make whole landforms up. Always, the reference serves the painting, and not the other way around.

I often tell a student who is stuck to first look carefully at the reference to see if it has any information that will help solve the problem. If that doesn’t help, then resort to the opposite strategy—put the photo away and scrutinize the painting from an entirely different perspective, considering elegance of and variation of shape, directionality in composition, and melding of color as being fully as important as a notion of accuracy.

One of the first things that I often hear from a student who has not painted landscapes before is how much the experience has changed their ability to see. This is a gift in itself, of course, but also essentially part of the process if your work is studio-based. Hiking, walking, swimming. driving, flying…looking, always looking, and then bringing the impact of that feeling back into the studio.

I love photography as an art form, as well as appreciating the information that photographs convey. The color that exists in a band of blur: the vignetting that happens with old cameras; and the work of contemporary landscape photographers who are exploring mystery and ambiguity—all of these strike a deep chord for me.

Nonetheless, I am obsessively wed to the process of painting. As a finished artwork, paintings also offer a rich experience in the viewing, changing when seen from afar and closer up.  I feel fortunate, though, to have access to photography both as inspiration for my specific images while working and as an art form that I identify with.

4 responses

  1. This is an excellent analysis of how photographic reference works for you Christie. I came to your painting class several years ago because you worked with photos! I had also come to that technique (maybe because of my severe astigmatism, everything looks flat to me anyway!). I find that now I choose a photo (or several in a mash-up) because I like the forms and the values, and then I let myself go with a fantasy color palette. One more thing to mention: Be sure to use your own photos. I know photographic artists do not take kindly to having their work appropriated for paintings.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    • Thanks, Kari! And so right about the photos—with permission only, or so changed that the photographer wouldn’t recognize it. Best to use your own, though when I do ask for permission it is usually granted with great pleasure.

      November 15, 2012 at 1:39 am

  2. Christie, as a constant observer of the landscape, I think photos are a great tool for the process. Think of Vermeer, said to have used the camera obscura to compose some of his interior masterpieces! I work from life and from photos, and ironically, I find myself less tied to reality working from a photo than when I work outdoors. Each process compliments the other, and for me, with a life schedule that doesn’t always allow the luxury of a few hours spent outside painting, I’m happy to use photos. What I find, whether painting from life or from photos, is that at some point in a painting which is going well, it’s the painting itself that takes over regardless of what the reference is. Thanks for your post….

    November 16, 2012 at 12:47 am

    • Great observations, Nancy—the paintings do seem to have a life of their own!

      November 16, 2012 at 12:56 am

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