How I use photography in my painting

I was asked by Frederick Turner about the use of photography in my paintings in the Bath House Show.

Although I used to paint primarily on location directly from nature, all eight of my works in the Bath House show involved photography, and, as Turner aptly put it, the “translating” of photo imagery into painting. 

For example, for paintings like The End of the Lost Mine Trail and The Great Blasket Island, I took multiple shots, always with a 50 mm prime lens (to avoid distortion) on an old Nikon D90 digital SLR camera.  I would take these multiple shots by moving the aim of my lens a small, careful amount so that the resulting images overlapped slightly.  I would then print out full page prints of each shot, so that I could assemble on a presentation board a composite image of the various shots, and thus get a large image to sit in front of and paint.  Sometimes, each one of the individual shots would be divided and blown up onto two full pages of photographic paper for an even larger composite image.  And often I edit the composite image by cropping off portions at the top, bottom, or sides to arrive at the correctly shaped rectangular image.

Other times, as in West Texas Moon at Dawn, The Window at Big Bend, or September Aspens Near Westcliffe, I will be able to get everything I want for the painting into a single shot through that 50mm lens—so that I am essentially composing the painting itself at the stage where I am composing the one photograph.  I will then later  divide the shot up into eight sections, and print each section out on a full page sheet.  I will then assemble the eight full page sections onto a presentation board, again resulting in a large image that I can sit in front of to paint.  For The Window at Big Bend, I used as a source a single photo turned into 8 full page prints, so that the resulting image that I was painting from measured roughly 21 inches by 32 inches.

But a lot goes on between shooting the photos and creating the presentation board.

First of all, I shoot lots and lots of photos, getting many different compositions and angles.   In the 24 hour period when Joann and I and Bruce Dubose and Katherine Owens were trapped down in the Rio Grande and Pecos gorges, for example, I took over 900 shots.  That was an extreme case, but on my last 2 week trip to the west coast of Ireland with Joann I took over 3200 landscape shots with that 50 mm lens.

Having all these images to select from is an important part of the process for me, and one I spend a lot of time on.

Once I’ve picked the images I want to use,  I do some “translation” of them with my PC.  I do not have or even know how to use the full version of Photoshop, but I have had for many years used a simplified version called “Photoshop Elements.”  For example, I do the division of individual shots into sections described above in Photoshop Elements.  And when I am working from multiple shots, I use Photoshop Elements to make the adjacent images that I will tape side by side on the presentation board “go together” better—the slight changes in camera aim with multiple shots result in surprisingly different exposures that don’t always blend together well.  It is again much simpler when I’m working from one shot.  In both cases, I also use Photoshop Elements to increase color saturation and vibrance, which are both of great importance to me in these paintings.  I also sometimes play with different exposures and different “levels” with regard to individual sections of the photos.  For example, to bring out the shape and density of clouds.

Once I have my large image mounted on the presentation board up on one easel, and my canvas up on another easel next to it, I then draw freehand the image onto the canvas.  If the canvas is large, I first establish certain fixed points in the composition which I mark with little Xs.  I then transfer these landmark points from the source photos to corresponding points on the canvas.  I do this by first measuring the height of these landmark points from the bottom of the composite image and their horizontal distance from the nearest side of the overall composite.  I then use simple algebra to determine where on the canvas to put the landmark points so that they will be a height and distance from the side in the painting that corresponds proportionally to their placement in the differently sized source. 

This step is not necessary on smaller canvases, although sometimes I do it anyway.

So with or without resorting to algebra to put in established reference points on the canvas, I then draw in a few main lines of the composition onto the canvas, either with a small brush or with a soft pencil.  I have previously put a wash on the canvas of some color.  I then almost always paint in the first layer of paint for the sky, and then the first layer of the earth or sea.  At this point the “translation” from the photos involves omitting, moving or reshaping certain elements of the scene to simplify what is in it, seeking to arrive at what part of me feels is essential in the vista.  For example, if two lines of the composition already “rhyme,” it may be that slight changes will accentuate that rhyme.  Similarly, I exaggerate or alter color, striving to enhance the color saturation and vibrance while at the same time trying to make the view look “real,” so that the viewer will feel he is seeing some actual, although very special, place.  I want the final painting to be at once lyrical but also natural looking.    I should note that only when the entire canvas is covered with at least one or two layers of under paint can I “see” precisely what colors needed to be changed and refined in subsequent layers of paint.

Thanks so much for reading about my process. I talk some more about it in this video: