by George Allen Durkee


Photographs hold still. For another thing, the light doesn't change. Besides that, you can shoot a pile of pictures and then decide which ones you like best. You can paint a landscape indoors at your leisure. . . And yet, how often have you taken a picture of a beautiful scene only to be disappointed when holding the photo in your hands? The recorded image looks like the place, but somehow the feeling has been lost. So how can you paint from the photographs you have taken and yet capture the emotion of your subject?

To begin with, do take your own photos. While you're at it, study the actual subject and think about how you would paint it. Take time to understand why your subject feels the way it does. Don't just shoot a picture and move on, planning to get everything you need from a recorded image alone. While photos will give you important information, not everything you need to know will be captured, and some of it will be inaccurate. It is the quality of light that even the best photographs cannot record. Colors become generalized, losing the subtleties of atmosphere that make a scene feel the way it feels. When you shoot your pictures, note the overall tone of the landscape. Is the sunlight bright and the air sharp and clear, or is there a slight hazy overcast? A photo may not distinguish between the two.  Look into the shadows; they're not dark and dense the way your photo may make them appear; they are alive with light and color. See how reflected light makes them cool here and warm there; the camera may have overlooked this entire range of color. And by the way, what color is the light? What the camera can't record, you will need some way to remember.

It may help to make a pencil sketch or two and write color notes on them. This may seem like extra bother, but if you plan to invest time to paint a painting, at least get to know as much as you can about your subject before you begin. By studying the overall tone of real life subjects when you photograph them, noting value relationships and the hue and intensity of colors, and then comparing what you have learned with how your photographs look, you will see how photos differ from real life subjects. Rather than slavishly copying them, you will partner with your camera, coming a lot closer to capturing not only the physical appearance, but the subtle nuances that are the soul of your subjects.

My bias is that painting from life rather than photographs gives you a better chance to capture the immediacy of a bright, sunny day, a subdued, overcast day, morning, evening, fog or other moods of nature. But it's not the only way.

George Allen Durkee

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