When is a Scene Best Left as a Photograph?

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Photograph of this year's fall spectacle in southern Oregon.

Each year I eagerly await the arrival of fall and the turning of the leaves. The visual stimulation is always inspiring and becomes an annual obsession. While the northeastern area of the United States may be the most famous for their spectacular color show, all the other regions of the country have something to offer, too, even if it is more subtle. In southern Oregon, where I live, we’re fortunate to have a diversity of trees, some deciduous and others evergreen. This produces wonderful variety and contrasts. The valley oaks turn to shades of orange and rust and the aspens in the high altitudes become a blaze of yellow. These are offset against the evergreen firs and pines to create a wonderful counterbalance.

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Photograph of this year's fall spectacle in southern Oregon.

As the color show unfolds, I always find myself attempting to paint these images. With a few exceptions, the paintings usually come up short. This year, after spending a couple of days totally immersed in spectacular fall possibilities, I began to think that this may be one of those nearly unpaintable situations. Unless painted on a grand scale, like the romantic Hudson River School of painting employed, it may be that these images are better left to the photographer. I’m not saying they can’t be done (see, for example, a good tip for dealing with fall color in my November 17, 2008 blog post), but often, the scens are so spectacular that no matter what we do, they end up looking fake.

This is sometimes referred to as the “sunset effect.” As beautiful as it is and as drawn to it as we are, the sunset usually doesn’t make for a good artistic painting. The inherent beauty is too much, allowing no room for personal expression, and is nearly impossible to put down on surface. These spectacular subjects, unless finessed properly, become a postcard. To make them work, we need to step back from the high drama of the moment and allow the viewer a little more to anticipate, engaging their imagination in how beautiful the subject matter might become. There is no hard and fast rule as to what works and what doesn’t. Many artists have painted highly successful renditions. However, museums and galleries are rarely full of spectacular sunsets and over-saturated fall scenes. When they work, they work well, but when they don’t, we walk right past them as overly sweet, decorative wall art.

I will continue to be drawn to the beauty of what the autumn season has to offer and the breathtaking drama of a sunset, and, inevitably, will continue to attempt to communicate that beauty with pastel, but I do realize that some things might be better left to the photographer. This is not meant to diminish what some artists have accomplished by painting these subjects. I just realize that because it is beautiful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make for a worthwhile painting.

Are there any other subjects you might place in this subjective “unpaintable” category? If so, please post a comment.

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12 thoughts on “When is a Scene Best Left as a Photograph?

  1. Jala Pfaff

    I really hate seeing paintings (obviously done from photos) of "stop-motion" scenes, whether of athletes, animals, etc. (Though a subject in movement can be beautifully done, when shown as movement, e.g., blurred.) Come to think of it, I really dislike wild-animal paintings in general. That’s a beauty left best to photography, in my opinion.

  2. Kathy

    I have attempted to paint steam rising from pots on the stovetop. I have sunset light streaming in almost horizontally, which gives the steam an orange-ish glow. But steam is an incredible challenge to represent, I believe.

  3. K Hansen

    I believe that what is unpaintable is highly individual. In my opinion: If you feel strongly about your subject you already have the seed for a good painting. It may be that it takes years of study to develop required skill and sensitivity to the subject. So to truly paint from within oneself it has to be a subject that connects deeply within (regardless of what other people might say), then have great patience and the drive to go the distance to achieve it. With that anything is possible and worth it. This I think is much more important than searching around for beautiful scenery. For that reason I keep away from anything to do with high rise buildings and modern cityscapes, I just do not have a sense of inner connection with those subjects.

  4. Shari

    I am relieved to read this. As you know, I have tried and failed at several autumn scenes and I could never understand why. I think I will stick to taking a long walk in the autumn woods! I often want to capture a sunrise but it is so fleeting, I haven’t been able to do it.

  5. Mary Ann Pals

    I think rainbows fit into that category of too much to capture. But I disagree with some of the other comments here about clouds. Many many artists have rendered clouds very beautifully and successfully. I do agree, though, that trying to paint the whole enchilada will probably fail miserably. Have to leave room for the viewer’s imagination.

  6. Wendy

    Many times I have looked at beautiful or unusual cloud formations and said to myself (or anyone who might be with me), "If I painted the sky just like that it wouldn’t look believable at all."

  7. Wendy

    Many times I have looked at beautiful or unusual cloud formations and said to myself (or anyone who might be with me), "If I painted the sky just like that it wouldn’t look believable at all."

  8. Marsha Hamby Savage

    Thank you Richard for putting this into print. I have said it many times to my students about what might make a good painting — and what might not. I have never really enjoyed painting "high" fall colors, but the fall color just as it starts turning is so subtle it does make good paintings. I don’t think I have ever done but maybe one or two fall paintings that turned out as good paintings! Same for sunsets — and I think it can also apply to waterfalls — very difficult to get a good angle to make it a "painting" and not a "postcard" as you said. I will pass this along to my students to reinforce what I’ve said before. Thank you so much for your insights!

  9. Jennifer

    Great post! I love doing sunsets in pastel, so I can’t agree about those being unpaintable, but fall color does sometimes seem just too pretty to paint. The big "unpaintable" subject for me is Tuscany–its just so picturesque, everywhere you look, that it becomes unpaintable. (Of course I love it anyway)

  10. Dot

    This is an AHA! message for me. I just yesterday finished an attempt at capturing fall colors and I’m not happy with it….I agree with you…it’s best left to photographers.

  11. mike

    The surreal view fits this for me. An example can be found on the Point Buchon trail near Montana De Oro. The first part of this trail is filled with fantastic seascapes. There is one formation when viewed from the right angle, resembles an offshore Stonehenge. The challenge from artists standpoint, is painting this scene and have it not look like fantasy art. It makes for a wondeful photo though.

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