Think of Painters

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Pollock’s Tree — Black Balsam, NC © jj raia

As photographers, we often look to the work of other photographers in books, galleries or on the internet, for inspiration and ideas for our own work. In doing so, it may move us to try new techniques and genres, or even drive us in a generally new direction altogether. Studying painters may also do the same. Taking a single course in college on the history of art certainly exposed me to the progression of art from the earliest examples inside caves in France to the present, but the instructor helped us view art not solely by subject matter, but also by composition, textures, tonal values, balance and light; all the things we use as photographers. Equally valuable was simply being exposed to the work of the masters like DaVinci, Rembrandt, Monet, Moran, Bierstadt, Picasso, Pollock, and many others. It was time well spent, although not known back then. It also made it more likely to visit a museum to view art in the decades to come, continually adding to the mental library of impressionable paintings.

Blue Poles © Jackson Pollock
Blue Poles — Jackson Pollock

And so, there have been times when I’ve taken a particular photograph and actually said (not too loudly, though) the name of the painter that came immediately to mind. In each of the photos in this post, a painter’s name popped into my head either upon initially “seeing” what I chose to photograph, or a bit later, when looking through the viewfinder. In fact, the painter’s name is usually included in the title of the photo. Occasionally, I did have to search the internet for the name of an artist because a painting was in the “library” for sure, but just couldn’t recall the “author”.

The wild chaos of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings immediately came to mind while hiking in the Black Balsam area just off North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, when I saw the tree at the top. But it was the narrowed view, the small slice of the expansive surroundings, that caught my eye and necessitated the use of the 70-200mm lens. The telephoto’s narrow angle of view kept the sky out of the frame in keeping with the idea of an abstract within the frame, eliminating as much context as possible that including a horizon line would have provided. Even though it was shot under the harsh light of a clear day, a polarizer got through the glare from the leaves to reveal the autumn colors. It made a world of difference, and without it, I probably would have never tripped the shutter.


Rothko - Fogbank and Surf at Dawn © jj raia
Rothko – Fog bank and Surf at Dawn © jj raia

Through the good fortune of some strange circumstances in the summer of 2013, I found myself with free air travel to Phoenix, and used that opportunity to explore the California coast around Big Sur. It was an easy decision: either the blistering temperatures of the desert southwest in summer, or the cooler climes along the coast. During the trip, there were not many expectations being out for sunrises, since it is blocked by the high cliffs, and views along the Pacific Coast Highway were mostly looking west toward the ocean. If I remember correctly, I pulled into a turnout just south of the famous Bixby Bridge, that claimed to be the highway’s highest above the ocean hundreds of feet below. There were hopes that clouds might catch some color as the sun neared the horizon in the east just before dawn, but those hopes were dashed with a crystal clear morning. Looking out over the ocean, there was the usual marine layer of fog far offshore, and a gentle texture on the water’s surface. As the sky continued to lighten, it magically morphed into the wide range of color from baby blue, through bands of yellow, orange, pink, mauve and purple, divided from the ocean by the thin band of fog. It wasn’t until I was actually looking through the viewfinder to discover what I was seeing was a Mark Rothko painting; not necessarily in the same color scheme as the one below, but the large blocks of color he used in his famous series in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Again, a number of years later, during an entire day of fog on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms, another image came about that had the Rothko markings. Although the opposite of some of his brightly colored work, this was almost monochromatic, depicting the dried winter reeds on the near and far shores of an inlet.

Rothko – Foggy Inlet — Isle of Palms, SC © jj raia

And one more created by blending two photos together. Since there were no clouds in the sky at all for interest, the real estate within the frame for the sky was kept to a minimum and the camera was moved parallel to the shoreline to blur it a bit. But since the small ripples in the water from the slight breeze were blurred as well, another frame was taken without any camera movement to freeze them and maintain the texture that was there. The two were then blended together in Photoshop using separate layers with a layer mask.

Rothko – Before Dawn at Falls Lake © jj raia
Rothko -
White Center — Mark Rothko

In 2014, during a month-long trip through the American Southwest, it was very late afternoon when I was driving through the Rio Grande National Forest in the southwest corner of Colorado. I pulled over when I saw a beautiful stand of aspens decked out in their autumn gold. But it was the light on the slender trunks that really caught my eye. It seemed that they were being lit from both the right and the left, while completely in shade! The bright sky to the west may have provided the lighting on that side, and recollections don’t come to mind for the light on the right side. Maybe there were some clouds or a sunlit hillside reflecting the light back onto the scene, but I don’t really recall.

aspen-blur-no-4-rio-grande-national-forest-co
Blurred Aspen Grove (Gene Davis) © jj raia

In any event, I wandered back and forth along the highway and took some photographs of the grove with the 70-200mm that really illustrated the glow on the trunks (below) as realistically as possible, and since by that point in the trip, I had begun using intentional camera movements (ICM) to create painterly images of aspen groves, I then tried that approach as well (above). When I took a look at the image on the camera’s back screen, it was if I were looking at a painting that seemed very familiar to me. I kept taking quite a few frames from which to choose as the most pleasing composition with just the right amount of delay to register the individual leaves, before moving the camera to create the streaks during 2-second exposures.

Aspen Grove — Rio Grande National Forest © jj raia

It wasn’t until I returned home a number of weeks later that a search of the internet was made and discovered the painting in my mind was probably done by Gene Davis who, like Rothko, did a series of similar paintings over the course of many years. They were simple vertical lines where the color choices were made with either harmony or dissonance according to the whim of the artist. Here in the aspen grove, the color palette was chosen by nature and the light, having a blue cast on the white trunks being in the shade of a mostly clear blue, afternoon sky,

Tarzan (Series 1) — Gene Davis

There was no major photographic trip in 2015, but in 2016 I spent two weeks in Wyoming and began the trip in Grand Teton National Park. For the first few days, I spent the overnight at Schwabacher’s Landing to catch first light on the famous peaks, and each morning was met with clouds and/or fog, never seeing the mountains. On what would be the last day there, I finally got the light I’d hoped for and recorded this reflected scene in one of the many beaver ponds in the area. A two-stop, soft, split ND filter was used to balance the brighter sky with the reflections on the water along with a small aperture to keep the foreground in focus using the 17-35mm lens. It was a great way to begin my way north toward Yellowstone to continue the trip.

2016-west-trip-grand-teton-np-1094
Cathedral Group and Reflections — Grand Teton NP, WY © jj raia

The painting by Thomas Moran (below) was first seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I was simply mesmerized by the lighting on the cliffs along with the beautiful sky and the extra large canvas. It was the light, and knowing that Moran made many powerfully spectacular paintings of the area, especially Yellowstone, that made the connection to him when I made the photograph above. It is no wonder that his paintings provided the impetus to make Yellowstone our nation’s first national park. While driving along Route 80 from Denver to Green River, Wyoming that year, I was shocked when those beautiful cliffs came before me! I was giddy with excitement when they were initially recognized, since that painting, by then, was a distant memory. There I was, seeing them as Thomas Moran had seen them over a century before as I drove along the interstate late in the afternoon.

Green River Cliffs © Thomas Moran
Green River Cliffs — Thomas Moran

Claude Monet is almost synonymous with the Impressionist paintings of the 19th century. The small points of color dappled onto a canvas meld when viewed into recognizable shapes and subjects, and the harmony of color choices is nothing short of remarkable. I’ve always admired his paintings, and have marveled even more so when viewed them in person. So it is no surprise that emulating that style in a photograph has always been in the back of my mind when I’m out photographing.

Monet Wisteria — Wake County, NC © jj raia
Monet’s Wisteria — Wake County, NC © jj raia

If I see something that may work well with an impressionistic style, I’ll give it a try either by dragging the shutter speed and moving the camera while the shutter is open, or multiple exposures on a single frame. It was the multiple exposure method that was used for the image above during a spring explosion of wild wisteria. Simply moving the camera slightly for each exposure in the sequence, the camera records the scene out of register each time creating the small spots of color that work together to create the scene in an impressionist style.

Pathway of Flowers — Claude Monet

In my experiences generally, most of the images that use multiple exposures or intentional camera movements resulting in a more painterly result, are created utilizing a longer focal length such as the 70-200mm, or now a 70-300mm lens. The majority of attempts using these methods with a wide angle lens have had only sporadic success, and require larger movements of the camera.


It certainly can be helpful to have a variety of options available to you when photographing, either out in the field, or in the studio (kitchen). And those options can help in the creativity of the work by tapping into your personal library of both other photographers and artists. When facing an uninspiring photographic result, reach into that library for alternative interpretations in how that particular photo might be helped with additional energy. Sometimes, both interpretations work well, and other times the artist, both you and those in your library, can bring out the best in what is before you.

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