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Thursday, 16 December 2010


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There is one other advantage painters have over photographers--that is, they can exclude unwanted elements from their landscapes, which is a little harder for the photographer.

I am referring to the many times I have seen a good landscape shot spoiled by--among other things--phone poles, power towers, ugly buildings (i.e., the metal storage sheds favored by farmers these days), roads, cars, and my particular perennial curse, jet trails in the sky.....

Goeff, thank you so much for explanations that reveal the obvious, albeit missing truth: most teachings of the Zone systems have overemphasized its MEANS to the expense of its actual GOALS.

I took me a while to figure out why would I place this thing on Zone III, then that one on Zone IX, and that other one on Zone VI. Why would I do that? The day I figured out that Adams was in fact painting with the resources of photographs, i.e. trying to nudge his tools into the correct light/grey/dark tone on paper, my girlfriend was worried I fell down, given the amount of expletives I eructed upon such a realization...

That said, I also want to share my favourite quotation about Zonies and the Stieglitz school, from Berenice Abbott: “These latter-day pictorialists did not know that they were pictorialists. They were what I can only call, for lack of a better word, the advanced or super-pictorial school. The individual picture, like a painting, was the thing.” (From the essay "It Has to Walk Alone", 1950).

Abbott's words where the first one who made me realize that all the Pictorialism-bashing was 1) completely misguided, given the amount of incredible work done in that so-called "style" and 2) utterly oblivious to the beam in their eyes for pointing to the straw in the others' eyes.

The difference between the Pictorialisms and the so-called "Straights" is more or less the same difference between the Symbolists/Pre-Raphaelites and the Modernist painters.

Abbott raises in my opinion a very valid question: can photography really "walk alone" and not perpetually pay tribute to painting? In terms of techniques, they obviously share a lot of baggage, since they are both visual arts on reflective surfaces, and unless you are absolutely dedicated to the dubious claim that a photograph is always more "true" than painting, I don't personally think photography can fully divorce itself from painting, pictorially speaking, even if photographs have brought incredibly interesting innovations in the field of visual arts.

An excellent essay, Geoff! I am always delighted on the rare occasions when someone takes the time to bring insights from other art disciplines into the photography sphere. Your notes, and suggestions for additional reading, are spot-on.

Personally, truth be told, I spend far more (10x) time in my museum's classical galleries than in its photographic or contemporary galleries. The lessons to be learned from the best of hundreds of years of painters are more instructive, at least for me, than from 170 years of photographers.

You tagged many of the little topics that I so often think about when looking at paintings; specifically how the artist used their palette to create illusions of depth and light. How underlayment was often used to establish chrominance and luminance platforms. Using shifts in color temperature to create more subtle and effective shifts in contrast, even locally. And on, and on...

But, alas, there is one very significant difference between painters and photographers. The painter is continuously working on the presentation medium. It becomes part of the work from the very first moment of creation. Not so for photography, particularly these days. Trial and error becomes the standard for the printing process. And let's not even talk about the fundamental differences between working on a light-emitting medium (usually) to create a presentation on a reflective medium!

But there's gold in them thar' paintin' hills for every type of photographer with the energy to go prospectin'. Your book recommendations represent some good starting maps.

Thank you for reccomending both Carlson and Schmidt. I do think that Carlson's book is classic useful both to painters and photographers. (Copies can be found used for a dollar), but its an immensely valuable resource for landscape artists. Schmid's impressionism is a little less transferable to photography in my mind, but is a terrific book.
You make a valuable point: artists often scorn photography, but just as practicing watercolor can improve ones oils, and vice versa, so the problems of photography can transfer into improved paintings, and also vice versa. Nice essay.

As a painter, now photographer, I would also suggest The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.

It's pretty much required reading as a painter.

..."Carlson taught that the entire range of contrast in nature could be described in visual "shorthand" using only four values: bright sky, lit ground, darker distant hills, and darkest nearby trees."

Geoff, was it coincidental or intentional that the cover of Durand's book, in full view when reading this quote, perfectly illustrated the points? Great juxtaposition, one might say.

I do landscape, both in painting and in photography. Both have their own strong points, and from both I learn things I use in the other discipline. After 2 years of ‘mucking about’ with photographs I took in Norway, things only started to work when I decided to use the same ‘drama’ in my prints as I did in my paintings.

I have always loved Adams 'way' of choosing his values in a print like a painter would do. What he teaches basically boils down to ‘do not accept what a camera, film and paper do on their own, make your own decisions and make them do what you envision’. As for his view on photographers trying to make their pictures like paintings, I think he meant something different; do not try to make a painting using a camera. If you want a painting, get a brush and paint. But both are flat objects on a wall, the decisions one makes, are the same...

As for the freedom to edit reality as a painter; as plain aire painter I can only say that this freedom comes at the expense of very cold fingers and regularly soaked clothes when painting a Norwegian fjord in dramatic weather. Taking a picture takes me 10 minutes, a painting takes me over an hour...



Hamnoy, Lofoten, Norway

Geoff recommends visiting any large landscape painting of the 19th century greats for learning how to depict light. For those of you in the Portland, OR area, there's now a brief opportunity to do so: Thomas Moran's huge (12ft wide) "Shoshone Falls on the Snake River" is on display at the Portland Art Museum until mid-January, on loan from Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.

I was happy to see Geoff's "watch the light masters, even if painters" recommendation here. I saw Moran's painting around the time that TOP posted Eric Ogden's (painterly) photograph of Cormac McCarthy, and couldn't help but think that this particular portrait really supports that kind of advice.

There's a photography geek reward for those folk that go. Along with PAM's display of Moran they've mounted nearby a vast panorama photograph of the same falls--6ft wide or so, and apparently pieced together with some printing and retouching work--done by William Henry Jackson from around the same time. It too is quite a technical feat of a different sort, and worth the trip. And another artifact worth seeing up close, live.

Well, this post managed to push about every one of my buttons, and I have a *lot* of buttons. I do some photography, and think about it and even write about it sometimes, but I'm primarily a painter and most of my non-news, non-family photography is done in support of painting. I would caution that books like Richard Schmid's are charming, and interesting, and contain some useful information, but *are more like photography how-to books* than they are useful sources of painting information. In my view, the problems of painting and photography are radically different, and other than the fact that they both involve two-dimensional somethings made to be looked at, there's not much relationship between them. Authors like Schmid tend to teach painting as photography...the application of techniques to a scene.

Screw it, I can't really get into this here; I'd have to write a book. I would suggest, though, that in addition to any of these painting books that people read -- I would agree that "The Art Spirit" is among the more useful of painting books -- that they also take a look at Roland Barthe's "Camera Lucida," and in particular, contemplate the fact that "the referent adheres," and the questions of time and composition.

And, I guess, specifically contemplate the differences between Ansel Adams, who, with his pals, were basically painters, and drove American photography into a ditch, and people like Robert Frank, who attempted to get us back on the road.


The ways in which painters can manipulate light was brought vividly home to me a few years ago in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. I walked into a gallery at one end, and at the other end was hung Monet's painting "Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son" (http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=61379). I'd seen it in reproduction, but was not prepared for the impact of the real thing. The sky and the outlines of her dress just glowed. It was an amazing manipulation of my visual system by a master.

Terrific essay - really got me thinking. Also helped with my Christmas shopping (and Mike's wallet). I ordered the Schmid book for my daughter - a painter now getting into photography. Hope to borrow it from her.

Thank you Geoff for an enlightening essay. As someone who's Fine Art education is sorely lacking, I appreciate any suggestions which contributors of this blog offer. Incidently, as an example of how well the internet can be used to inform,(reference the previous topic) you're timing could not have been better.(I doubt this was an accident on Mike's part.)


I can really appreciate the time and care that went into this wonderful essay. Well done, and thank you for including the great references. Color scientists have other terms for the visual "tricks" you addressed in this essay... lateral adaptation, simultaneous contrast, etc. But when all said and done, it takes considerable skill on the part of both artists and photographers to use these perceptual techniques successfully in their work.

Wouldn't it be great to have a beer with an old master and discuss lighting? Strobist did.





Paul Luscher remarks that he was "referring to the many times I have seen a good landscape shot spoiled by--among other things--phone poles, power towers, ugly buildings (i.e., the metal storage sheds favored by farmers these days), roads, cars, and my particular perennial curse, jet trails in the sky..... " whereas I would argue that the real contribution of photography as a visual art form is when the practitioner includes just these things. They are visual contrapoints to the artificially beautified world of many landscape photographers and painters which are both emotionally and intellectually significant. This connection with what is actually there, rather than what we would prefer to be there, is photography's great strength.

Geoff, great article. Here's a little addition just for the subject you said you wouldn't talk much about. :)

Landscape Composition Rules on Wet Canvas, a painting site. It taught me a lot.

Enlightening! Thank you Geoff.
Got the "ALLA PRIMA" book through TOP's amazon link, Mike.

Interesting article on a subject that is, of course, extremely broad given the wide range of painting. My own approach, at least conceptually, is that the most immediate thing for photographers to learn from painting is composition, for the simple reason that painters can create form — putting down each element deliberately leaving out what they don't want, while photographers must search for it, frame it so to speak, although a photographer can change a lot by burning and dodging.

To learn about form, in the sense of the graphic design of a painting, the best way to look at paintings is to sketch them roughly to reveal their form and design. Interestingly in this respect, someone once sketched one of my photographs to analyze it, which you can see by clicking here, and the photograph itself is here.

I like a lot of what Geoff says in the article, but the painters that I'm interested in terms of photography are Cezanne, for his approach to form, to leaning horizons, for example, and to Gaugain and Matisse for their color, including "arbitrary color", and how this can be applied in, shall we say, in a post-modern context (using Artspeak shorthand). Easier said than done. The closest I've come is a series of photographs, a work-in-progress that still requires a lot of work, inspired the great Basquiat retrospective currently at the Musée de l'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris called Paris au rythme de Basquiat


Robert Henri's Art Spirit is indeed an inspirational book of aphorisms and perceptual tips. Henri was one of the late 19th/early 20th century "Ash Can" school of urban realist painters, and a very influential teacher whose students included Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent.

Similar inspiration can be found in Hawthorne on Painting, a collection of observations and advice compiled by the widow of American impressionist Charles Hawthorne. Then there's Hensche on Painting, another compilation of lessons from Henry Hensche, a student of Hawthorne's who taught for fifty years. Also painting in an impressionist style, Hensche taught the importance of actively seeking out and depicting the hidden colors to be found in shadows. Both of these books are available as inexpensive Dover paperbacks.

Finally, you might also consider James Gurney's (just published) Color and Light: a Guide for the Realist Painter. It presents a thoughtful analytical approach to understanding the behavior of natural light and color, and methods of depicting it on canvas. Gurney is the author and artist behind Dinotopia; but don't hold that against him. Illustrators have often been disdained by 'real artists', but folks like N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish surely understood light.

John C.: I don't think Geoff is really inviting fellow photographers to take up landscape painting. Rather, it's my impression that he's inviting us to take a whirl at seeing like a painter. The additive acts of painting and drawing are, of course, nearly diametrically different than the subtractive acts of photography. Nevertheless, they do have imaginative intersections and Geoff's invitation is very healthy, and potentially productive.

Whether or not his reference recommendations will make anyone an accomplished landscape painter is not relevant. I'd estimate that less than 10% of our fellow TOP readers have had any meaningful art education at all, and perhaps only half of that crowd has ever even tried painting. So, for them, just the simple act of slowing down and starting with a blank canvas would be both terrifying and revelatory. The next revelations would come from observing the actual interactions of liquid colors. No, the canvases will be crap. But such experiences can facilitate experiential lessons that have the great potential to tattoo the mind and influence photographic seeing.

So while you've had plenty of experience as a painter I would not discourage others from (literally) baby dabbling to gain new perspectives!

Adams' objection to the pictorialist style of photography was an objection to the deliberate obscuring of detail via soft focus and filters to soften the image as opposed to the sharp detail which was the very thing that made photographs photographic. He had no problem with borrowing compositional or lighting techniques from painters.

The poles, towers and sheds are what originally drove me from photography to painting. I never quite left, and the effort to improve the photographs I paint from has informed both mediums.

I find the principal difference between the two is in photography, the greatest proportion of the time is spent in preparation, waiting for the sun, the clouds and that cow to arrange themselves just right. In the painting I do, the greatest proportion of time is spent in post-production, arranging and combining the reference photos and plein air sketches into something that expresses what I originally felt - and that is where painting and photography return to common ground.

'This chiaroscuro technique is central to much of the drama in paintings from Rembrandt onward.'

Surely from Caravaggio onward?

Dear Paul and Len,

So, I'm guessing that neither of you print digitally, since such alterations to photographs are entirely straightforward on the computer.

Of course, said alterations are excoriated by True Photographers (tm).

Fortunately, only other TP's pay attention to the cries of "Heresy!"


Dear John,

I went the other way -- I stopped painting because I realized I didn't have time for both photography and painting in my life, and I felt that I was a much more promising photographer than painter. I still imagine getting back to painting... one of these days. Real Soon Now.

Like you, I don't feel much connection between painting and photography. I can't decide if there really isn't much of one for me, or if I'm like a fish trying to notice water.


Dear Ken,

"Trial and error becomes the standard for the printing process."

Would you please elaborate? This is a most intriguing teaser, and you've certainly caught my attention.

pax / Ctein

Great essay on a fascinating subject. I'd been painting landscapes long before I discovered a collection of Eugene Atget's work at the local library, and was inspired to try my hand (and eye) at making photographs. As a student, we would photograph our paintings in Black and White as an aid to fine tuning the values. A tattered and well used copy of Carlson's Guide still resides on my bookshelf. I believe that making paintings has a strong effect upon how one sees the world through a viewfinder or upon a ground glass. The essay reminded me of a quote from the great American illustrator and teacher Howard Pyle, that pops into my mind quite often when making photographs, I believe it is apt to producing images in any medium:

"Look upon this.
Study it. Absorb it.
If you see it tomorrow,
the light will be different,
and you will be different.
This moment is unique."

Thanks Mike, for a great blog,

Ron S.

Very interesting and thought provoking essay. With the Richards Schmid book it is cheaper to order direct from him than Amazon. http://www.richardschmid.com/book.html

My mentor in art matters had disdain for the Henri book, referring me to the books of the illustrator, Andrew Loomis, as actually having some relevance to the crafts of drawing and painting. YMMV, 8-)

Geoff, the painting unshaded, produces work that has less "dynamic" range. The Shinnecock Hills paintings of William Merit Chase are a good example, and then look at the plein air work of Sargent, who did use an umbrella.

"Dear Ken,

"Trial and error becomes the standard for the printing process."

Would you please elaborate? This is a most intriguing teaser, and you've certainly caught my attention.

pax / Ctein"

Painters can immediately see the results of their decisions on the final medium. Yes, they can scrape or wipe away those decisions but they're working in the real world on their presentation platform.

Photographers, however, are working in a virtual world until they apply the image to paper. If the mating of image to paper doesn't meet their expectations (as it rarely does in the first pass) it becomes a do-over. And over. And over.

Well, Len, I'm not sure. I don't think, for instance, that a panoramic shot of the Grand Canyon would be enhanced by a line of power towers marching along the rim, or by including one of the car parks in the foreground.

Ctein: I do print digitally. But even so, it can be quite difficult sometimes to remove an unwanted object from a shot (either that, or my Photoshop skills aren't that good--quite possible).

And of course, it would be much better if the nasty jet trail or beige pressed-metal shed, in the middle of the lovely green landscape, wasn't in the shot in the first place....

Excellent post on all fronts Geoff, et al. Ordered two of those titles for my wife.

Surely the landscape is as it is, power lines, car parks and beige sheds included? Our task as photographers is to present what is there in as pleasing/involving/inspiring a manner as our levels of ability and vision allow us; to show the landscape as it is, the way that it appears to us at that time, in that place, contrails included.

Anything less, and we may as well just paint the scene sans unwanted obstructions.


(/me removes Devil's Advocate hat)

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