Painting from a Photo

Photo of Prairie Tree

Prairie Tree, Acrylic 18″ x 14″

It’s always good to be offered a commission, but it usually involves painting from a photo someone else has taken.  Recently I was asked to do a panting from the above photo, which the woman was very enthusiastic about.  A friend had let her family stay at their country place while work was being done on their house.  What she wanted me to do was to paint from the photo they had taken while there so she could give the painting to their friend.

I said I would do it but I didn’t tell her what I thought of the photo.  The tree in the photo was directly in the center, and artists are taught never to put the center of interest in the middle of the painting.  Secondly, the size of the foreground was too near the same size as the sky, another no no.  Also, the foreground in the photo was so dark that it was difficult to see the vegetation.

The painting above shows how I handled these problems.  I moved the tree a bit to one size and shortened the foreground and made it lighter.  I thought this preserved the  essence of the scene while making it more pleasing to look at.  She was a little concerned that the painting did not look exactly like the photo, but did buy it.




Anaheim Beach, Acrylic, 19″ x 14″

In my mother’s day people stored their memories in photo albums with photos first in black and white and later in color.  Underneath was carefully written in ink where the photo was taken and who the people were in it.  In this way I learned what I had looked like as a baby and young child.  My mother also had saved photos of her parents, herself, and her brother and sister when they were young.  I still have some of those.

I have boxes of photos I took back in the days before digital cameras.  I even took a class on how to develop film at one point.  My photos were mostly stored in the envelopes they came in when they were developed.  I even wrote on the backs of some of them where they were taken, when, and who the people were in them.  I have passed some of those on to my children and grandchildren.

These days most people seem to take pictures with their phones.  They then post some of them on Facebook or they may send some by email.  But what, I wonder, happens to the photos after that?  When the phone’s photo space is full are they simply deleted?  Some people post photos on Facebook quite often.  How would someone wanting to remember a favorite vacation photo find it when several years had passed?  What is happening to those visual prompts to our memories?  How will today’s young people share photos of their youth with their children?

I now use a digital camera and transfer many photos to my computer.  I use Picasa, which I don’t much like but it didn’t cost anything.  Photos I really want to keep I print with my color printer.  That is how I save scenes that I might want to paint some day.  I have several envelopes filled with these photos.  They come in handy during winter months.  I found the photo on which the above painting was based in one of those envelopes.  I took it on the beach at Anaheim, California in 2007.  I am glad that I saved it by printing it.  To me computers are somewhat of a mystery.  While I keep most of my photos on my computer, I know that they can be hard to find because there are so many of them and Picasa doesn’t always file them as I think it should.  Having a photo that I can hold in my hand still seems like a good idea.

Among My Souveniers

Along the Canal, acrylic, 18″ x 24″

Husband and I have been fortunate to be able to travel quite a bit to a wide variety of places.  And everywhere we go we see souvenir shops.  People want to remember an especially enjoyable trip.  But is another tee shirt with some sassy comment written on it the answer?  As an artist I don’t think so.  I know that the really artistic way to capture where I’ve been would be with a sketch book and pencil.  But that is hard to do if one is with other people who want to move on to the next site, or the weather is not great, or there are a lot of strangers around who will want to look over my shoulder.

So I do the next best thing and take lots of photos.  And you do have to take a lot to get that one or two that will make a good painting.  Most people these days take photos with their phones, but I still carry a small, simple camera in my pocket or purse.  And of course you have to have your camera with you at all times because you never know when you are going to see something you just have to paint.  I remember a teacher in a photography class I took long ago telling us that at a time when cameras were big, bulky things with detachable lens.

So here I was in Amsterdam in October of last year out walking by myself while husband attended a convention.  The day was sunny and warmer than usual and there were people everywhere enjoying the day.  I took the photo I based the above painting on standing on a bridge over the canal.  There were more people and bicycles in the photo than I included in the painting.  One does have to edit and people and bicycles are hard to paint.  The buildings were hard to paint too, especially trying to get the correct perspective.  But I’ve found a way to do that.  If you have a tile floor in your kitchen or bathroom as I do, lay your painting’s horizon even with one of the tile lines.  The choose a vanishing point somewhere outside the painting and mark it with charcoal.  As you draw in the buildings, lines of windows and doors, take two yardsticks, since one may not be long enough, and lay them across the tops of the windows, etc. and down to the vanishing point.

I think I captured the essence of that scene with young people hanging out beside the canal enjoying the sunshine.  It will be my souvenir of a lovely afternoon in Amsterdam.  I won’t need a tee shirt or wooden shoes.

Remember Me

The Sightseers, Acrylic, 18" x 24"

The Sightseers, Acrylic, 18″ x 24″

May 27, 2014

One way for an artist to keep the paintings from overrunning the available wall space is to occasionally give a painting as a gift.  Three years ago when a granddaughter was the first of my grandchildren to graduate from high school, I let her choose a painting from among those hanging in my basement gallery as a graduation gift.  She was surprised, I think, and chose one of my sunflower paintings.  This year her brother graduated from high school.  When I told him he could choose a painting as a graduation gift, he surprised me by telling me he had already picked one out.  He had never shown any interest in my art that I knew of.  Yet because his sister had received a painting he assumed he would too.  “I’ve had my eye on it for some time, he said.”

So now that grandson has the above painting.  Although he is still living at home, who knows where he and that painting will reside through the years and what sights he will see.   I hope he will take that painting with him.  And maybe some day when he has children and they ask him about those elk, he will tell them about his artist  grandmother who traveled to Glacier National Park and stayed in a great lodge, saw those elk on the terrace, took  a photo and turned it into a painting.  That would be a good way to be remembered.


March 7, 2012

The kind of painting I do is probably regarded by many as old fashioned or simply out of date.  An artist friend says I should refer to it as representational, that is it depicts a real place.  But one advantage of this kind of painting for the artist is that it recalls memories.  I can look at one of my paintings and recall how it felt to be there, who I was with, what that particular scene looked like.

In my dining room is a large painting of a lagoon and a large gnarled tree.  I took the photo I used as reference in Kew Garden near London many years ago.  I had accompanied husband on a business trip.  While he attended meetings, I took a train, changing trains several times, to the large expanse of Kew Garden.  It was November and the air was rather cold and damp.  I wandered around the place by myself with my camera.  Few people were about.  I don’t think I realized what a good photo opportunity I had by that tree and lagoon until later when the photos were developed.

Other paintings hanging in the main rooms of my house remind me of a boat trip on a Norwegian Fjord, wandering about the Denver Botanical Gardens with my daughter, a family reunion at a Y Camp in Colorado and a camping trip in Yosemite National Park.  Now I’m painting new memories recalling an Elderhostel trip to Ireland six years ago and more recently an autumn scene at the edge of a pond back in the woods at a friend’s farm.  I had hauled my easel, chair, etc. out onto a rickety old dock that was almost too narrow to hold me and my equipment.  I was attracted by the bright red clump of vines clinging to a tree on the other side of the pond.  Yes, I know it was poison ivy but who cares?  To me it added just the right touch to a beautiful scene.  I finished that painting today and have added it to the Rural Midwest page.