Why go to the trouble of painting from life when our cameras can take such great pictures? Digital cameras have gotten so good at taking properly exposed, beautiful photos that they can fool us into thinking that they are also accurate. To be sure, the technology packed into even an inexpensive camera is incredibly powerful, but that technology comes with a big bias toward the “pleasing” side of things. Pleasing the greatest number of people may be a good marketing strategy for camera makers, but it isn’t necessarily for art, and unless one wants to spend big amounts of time massaging photos in Photoshop, the pictures we take outdoors, especially, don’t compare with what we see with our own eyes.
|Waiting by John Hulsey, oil painting.|
One way in which the technology is weak is in the way the camera measures light in a contrasty subject–one that has strong shadows. The camera sensor cannot see as broad a range of values as our eyes can, so it must decide what is important based on how we have set up the light meter. Most people just shoot the factory, or average, setting, which means all values will be averaged out for a pleasing exposure. This often results in unnaturally dark shadows, with a concomitant loss of color in them. This is not good for when you use those photos as references for a landscape painting. Novices will often paint those shadows with a lot of black, resulting in a lifeless and artificial cut-out look.The two photos shown here illustrate the problem.
The photo on the left is an average exposure of the scene, and while most things are acceptably rendered, the shadows are too dark and lifeless.The right hand photo is an exposure made to correct the shadows. This required a full F-stop over-exposure, or doubling the light of the average! (Each full F-stop either halves the light or doubles it, for under- or over- exposure adjustments.) Notice how the highlights are now way too bright. The two photos can be put together in Photoshop, but why bother?
Photoshop is a wonderful tool to have in one’s repertoire, but it is no substitute for learning to see. This is why painting from life, especially plein air painting, is so vitally important to the artist. The education we receive each time we are painting outdoors cannot be learned from photos or books. We must learn it the hard way, out in nature. Thankfully, that is also the fun way!
We hope you’ll join us at The Artist’s Road for more interesting and informative articles.
–John & Ann