Photographers and Painters A Symbiosis
What can photographers learn from painters?
What can painters learn from photographers?
By: Jack Perkins
Call it symbiosis. (I know. I hate the
word too, but it so aptly describes the artistic interaction
possible between painters and photographers that I cant
avoid it. Forgive me.)
For several years Ive been artistically
engaged with a small group of artists, (the photo above is a
gag publicity shot; please disregard the attire.) eight of us,
living along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Some are painters (including
John and Suzie Seerey-Lester, probably the nations preeminent
wildlife art couple), some, including me, are photographers.
We are four couples who appreciate each others art, greatly
enjoy each others company, and make amiable traveling companions.
So off we go, for long weekends or multi-week jaunts around
Florida, up to Maine, out to Wyoming, over to Cumberland Island,
Georgia wherever the spirit and artistic possibilities
At the end of one of these junkets, this
to Useppa Island, the Florida isle where the CIA trained Bay
of Pigs fighters back in the sixties, we realized that our little
band of artists needed a name. Several of us around the dining
table in the dignified Barron Collier Inn had surely caught the
spirit(s) of the evening but it was one of the teetotalers, of
all people, who came up with the idea that since we were a cabal
of both PHotographers and ARTISTS we must surely be designated
henceforth and forever as The Phartists!
Logo-ed shirts, caps, vests and name cards
made official the designation. And we set off on another trip.
It was in the restaurant in terminal C,
Logan Airport, Boston, that finally someone had the nerve to
come up to us apologetically, Sorry to bother you, but
my friends and I saw the logos on your shirts and caps and just
had to know. The name Phartists one of us thinks that
means youre some kind of artists; one thinks it means youre
just a bunch of Old Pharts.
Youre both right, we
Enough of that. We were discussing the
symbiosis that can be so healthily generated between painters
and photographers. Even though, at times the disciplines seem
so different. Differences such as:
- Painters like to call
themselves artists and the rest of us photographers, the adjective
mere implied if not intoned. As though ours is not
every bit as much an art as theirs.
- Photographers, for their
part, note how painters, if they dont like that tree over
there, just garden it out. On the other hand, if
they want a deer to wander across the meadow theyre painting
they wander it there. As one of our photographers noted, You
painters, changing nature to meet your wishes, think youre
God. We photographers, capturing natures glories without
embellishing them, know who is.
- Painters need time on
a scene to commit their plein air paintings. Several hours, probably.
Two field paintings a day is good output for painters. Photographers
tend to accept Ansels dictum that if you wait here for
just the right conditions, youre missing something over
- Photoshop notwithstanding,
the photographer must take the light as it appears. Hence, the
favoring of dawn and sunset light and the need to be up early
and work late. John Sexton popularized the term Quiet Light,
many of his finest images captured in lengthy exposures well
after the sun had set. Painters, on the other hand, can backlight,
frontlight, or quietlight their work at will, any time of day.
They can sleep in.
- Those are some of the
procedural differences between the art forms. But were
here to talk about how the art forms can work together, the practitioners
of one learning from colleagues of the other. Thats certainly
what happens among The Phartists.
- One of our painters has
developed quite a niche depicting old barns. Many of these, she
locates for herself. (Ive got to interpose: One day, spotting
a great old barn, she stopped, approached the farmer working
outside, introduced herself and said Id just love
to paint your barn. To which he replied, Thanks,
but dont really need paintin.) Her paintings
show creaky barns perhaps with a flock of doves taking wing from
a misshapen, glassless window, perhaps with a barn owl in residence,
or a cat spooking swallows. This oeuvre sells well for her so
we photographers try to help. Given free time in the country,
should one of us come across a picturesque old barn well
make a few photographs to provide her additional source material.
Even if we dont have any intention of using the photograph
ourselves well do it to help her. She, in turn, may one
day steer us to scenes we might have missed for photography.
- At times, several of us
will tackle the same subject. Makes a good exercise in comparative
composition. Each of us taking part sees the subject with his
own eyes, renders it with his own skills. Studying the results
is informative. We are all still learning and will be.
- The photographer, by the
etymology of the word, is a light-writer. The object
of a photograph may be a horse or a waterfall or a group of trees
but the subject is always light. Painters need to consider this.
You see too many paintings where the artist apparently didnt
know or care where the light was supposed to be coming from.
Didnt bother with highlights, shaded areas, to say nothing
of cast shadows. Such painters need to be more aware of light
as photographers always have to be.
- The most accomplished
painter in our group conducts occasional art classes, people
from across the country (and abroad) coming to his studio to
partake of the wisdom of his experience. One thing he teaches
regards composition. Too many artists (and photographic artists
as well!) tend to place their principal subject smack in the
center of their frame when, in fact, that is usually the weakest
positioning possible. There are exceptions of course, when central
placement heightens a desired symmetry. But for many, even most,
images our friend teaches that the most powerful positioning
places the subject in the upper left corner, or upper right,
or lower left, or lower right, in that order. I had this in mind
in Yellowstone last winter when I came across a lone bison beside
a river. I framed the shot so that he was not in the center but
powerfully placed hard in the lower left corner, leaving plenty
of open space at the top.
- For a photographer, the
temptation is great to shoot too quickly. Especially with digital
gear, you can shoot quickly so you do. Without taking the time
for the forced deliberation large format film cameras required.
Here again, the photographer can learn from the painter who is
required to spend reflective time on a piece.
- A devoted photographer
usually has gear close at hand, some camera, any camera, ready
to deploy instantly should cause appear. In this, the painter
can learn from the photographer by having a sketch pad or hand
held watercolor kit close by. Its gotten so that one of
our painters seems never to stop. On the plane heading toward
our next outing, hes sketching an unknowing man across
the aisle in the row ahead. As his wife drives along the highway,
he watercolors what he calls ZoomArt on postcard stock that he
then mails to friends back home. One of our photographers does
the same thing, carrying a small, dedicated postcard printer
in his luggage. Works up an image in Lightroom, prints it off
to cards. Not necessarily cheaper than store-bought but more
to be treasured by the recipient.
- Photographers learn to
consider the Near-Far relationship in a scene, to enhance the
feeling of depth with a nearby object focused in the foreground,
a distant object in the background. We use small f/ stops or
shift/tilt lenses to accomplish this.
One of our Phartist photographers, though,
expounds another theory of Near/Far. His premise is that an image,
to be successful, must be engaging whether one is standing far
from it, or up close. How often have you seen a picture on the
wall from across the room and it has drawn you forward only to
find that up close it let you down? It was badly focused or over-sharpened
or simply ill conceived? It happens the other way as well. Up
close a photograph may be technically superb, a subject of interest
well captured and printed, but step back. From a distance the
whole image may dissolve into a framed blur of no distinction,
nothing to catch the eye at all. A photograph, to be successful
must work from either near or far.
From afar it must have something that,
without the detail to be seen later up close, will still capture
a viewer. Likely this will be the overall geometry of the elements
of the composition. In March of the Trees, a photograph
taken on a trip with Michael Reichmann across The Palouse, the
rolling farmlands of eastern Washington State, the dark, slanting
tree shapes and echoing, angled cloudline create the geometry
that stands out even at a distance. Moving closer one notes the
precision of the trunks and the crop rows and finds himself admiring
up close the measured labor of a fastidious farmer. Whether from
near or far, the image works. Painters, if not merely illustrating
for a book or magazine, but painting for the wall, might keep
in mind this importance of Near/Far impact.
The greatest lesson, though, that both
photographer and painter can learn in each others company
is the mutual joy of creativity. We Phartists go back to our
rooms at the end of a day of work and study each others
output for the day, commenting, discussing, and mutually appreciating.
We know that whatever the medium, an artist is blessed to have
the privilege each day of seeking the stunning, finding and using
his or her skills to share the exquisite beauties that non-artists
too often ignore and pass by.