From Newsletter 160
Thoughts on painting, and on using photos
BY CLAIRE FORBES
The thing I love about painting – one of the things – is the way it sharpens my awareness of the world. It really has ‘opened my eyes’ to some of the subtleties that surround us. For me, that moment of ‘seeing something’ about a particular light, or view, or activity, transforms it from the unremarkable to an exciting and challenging subject to depict.
It’s this personal connection with the subject that offers a chance to produce something much more than simply a copy of the environment. Because we’re human and subjective, we have an attitude about what we see. When I’m looking at anything with a view towards painting it I’m trying to divine the feeling it gives me and what it evokes. Once I know the ‘feel’ of the picture I want to make, I need everything I put into it to support that sense.
I use photos and sketches to work from in the studio, as well as sketching and painting on site. I always remember though, that a camera makes no distinction between the ‘special something’ that I wished to record, and all the other incidental information in front of it. In my sketchbook and painting from life, I can
isolate a subject and fit it onto the page in many ways. I choose what I want, what size to make it, how close to the foreground it should be, where to put empty space, what I want to make more or less obvious with contrast, colour temperature, sharpness, or shadow.
A camera “sees” differently from the way we see, giving it limitations as a recording tool. The lens of a camera can’t sort space like we can. Often if we manage to include what we want of a vista in the viewfinder, the camera has had to make ‘fisheye type’ distortions and distant objects become very small. Be aware that painting from photos is a bit like trying to piece together a reality from information handed over by a practised liar with faulty vision. It takes prior knowledge, personal experience, and discernment to extract what is useful from everything else.
Some Suggestions When Using the Camera
Be cautious about always composing the painting ‘through the lens’. Try sketching a scene from life before photographing it. See the difference between the way you’ve organized your two dimensional space, and the
way the camera did.
- Shoot bits of your scene - just the sky and just the ground - so the exposure is as correct as possible in each part.
- ‘Play God’ with photographic images. A great example of ‘improving’ a photo reference is provided by the artist Joseph Zbukvic in the series ‘Colour in Your Life’ by Graeme Stevenson. You can view it on YouTube.
- Learn to recognise and compensate for obvious photographic limitations - blackened shadows, burnt out skies, distorted distance, clutter, unnecessary details, to name a few.
- Trust memory, imagination and personal vision, and take only what is useful from a photo to support this.
There’s nothing like standing in front of the real thing. I’ve found that when I work past the hurdles that plein air painting presents to me - wind, cold, discomfort, insects, lack of shade, noise, interruption, and that first awful feeling of nervousness that really putting myself out there in front of my subject still engenders in me - the rewards of working this way are huge. Everything I need to know is right there, beautifully apparent. The light is just what it should be. There is an imperative to ‘get it down’ before it changes, adding freshness and excitement to the experience.
The observations and impressions from working straight from the subject are where I think my best work comes from. A photo can’t replace taking time to really look, attempt to render, and understand how something works visually. Over reliance on photographs may actually be stopping us from honing these skills.
Having said that, I feel that if I can bring the understanding I have of the real world home to the studio, using resources such as drawings, colour notes, and sketches - alongside photographs- then all these tools can assist me in recreating my personal vision in paint.
Claire Forbes was born and raised in Nelson. She attended Nelson Polytechnic in 1993/94, specialising in painting. After travelling overseas in 1996 she resettled in her home province, first living in the Mapua area and then near Wakefield. During this time she concentrated on oil painting, with still lives and landscapes predominating.
In 2003 she moved to Timaru with her husband and two children and soon after joined the local Arts Society and started painting watercolours. She has exhibited in both group and solo shows in Wellington, Dunedin and the South Canterbury area. She has won numerous awards and merits, including First Prize at the Edinburgh Realty Art Awards in Dunedin in 2012. Claire’s local town and city scenes are well sought after by collectors and she is represented by York Street Gallery in Timaru. Claire has a particular interest in “plein air” painting and works on location whenever possible.