An Artist’s Guide to Using Camera Technology, Part 2


Richard McKinley, pastel

A finished pastel painting.

In last week’s post, I shared some observations concerning photography and fine art. This week I want to share a few ways that digital camera technology can be utilized, whether working on location or in the studio.

The biggest change that digital has afforded the painter is the ability to review a photographic image instantly. This can make a digital camera with a good-sized LCD screen, smart phone with a camera function or digital notepad very useful when painting. Assessments can be made now rather than waiting for film to be returned from the processing lab. This has had an effect on how painters are able to utilize the new technology. One of the most useful I have observed is the ability to evaluate a potential scene or working painting in grayscale.

Many painters struggle with the relative lightness or darkness of a scene. They become so enthralled with color that value relationships become compromised. This can lead to a flawed compositional design or issues of depth perception within the painting. While value and color coexist in nature, neither is separate from the other. It’s often better for “value challenged” painters to evaluate the relative lightness or darkness of a scene, absent the allure of color. A common practice is to use a red or green colored piece of plastic as a viewfinder when working from life. Depending on the general temperature makeup of the scene, most of the color will be neutralized and a monochromatic image will appear.

Another helpful tool is to set your digital device to record the scene in grayscale. It’s akin to old-fashioned, black-and-white photography. By analyzing a digital grayscale image in advance of committing pigment to surface, it’s easier to ascertain if the scene has a strong value composition or would be better served with some adjustments. This grayscale shot can be referenced occasionally while you’re painting and will be useful back in the studio along with your regular reference shots and sketches when it comes time to evaluate the final painting.

Richard McKinley

The same image in grayscale.

It’s also helpful to periodically photograph the development of the painting in grayscale. This allows you to check the overall value structure of the painting and again make necessary adjustments. It’s important to note that the camera’s ability to record value accurately is limited. Often extreme light or dark areas will lose detail and may appear overly contrasted. The purpose of the digital grayscale review isn’t to supersede an artist’s eye, but to serve as an added tool. It can prove very helpful in allowing those of us who are “value challenged” to see more accurately, ultimately leading to better paintings.

In Part 3 of “Using Camera Technology,” I’ll discuss a couple of other means for utilizing these modern photographic tools.




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One thought on “An Artist’s Guide to Using Camera Technology, Part 2

  1. carolsvu

    Richard This blog is particularly useful for me as I am one of the value challenged artist out there. I have just started to take a digital of a finished painting to check it values in black and white to see if they work. It is useful, although sometimes I am impatient with the process. It is del work the time though.
    Carol Carol