Sunday, January 11, 2009

Don’t be too literal! Working from Photographs

There’s always been a controversy in the art world as to whether it’s a good idea to work from photographs, or not. Photographs rarely show the real truth and beauty of the subject. They give some quick information – compare a news photo as compared to a painted portrait by a master- but don't give the emotional content, the emphases and nuances that we are aware of in front of the real scene. Start really looking at the photos in the paper/magazine and see which ones really seem to convey something of the spirit of the event or person portrayed, and which are just dull and flat.

A camera only has one eye – and you have two…a camera doesn’t move and you move constantly. So what we’re actually seeing when we look at something is more like 20 or 30 frames a second. Take a look at the table now with one eye, and then the other – 2 different pictures!! Move two inches to the right and two to the left each time doing the one eyed thing (and it’s fine to do this in a public restaurant by the way!!! It’s especially good to do in a really boring meeting where you’re sitting around a table with your colleagues and boss and boss’s boss!). So in a few seconds of this activity you see many different views of the subject. When photographing something to make a quilt therefore, take a lot of pictures from slightly different angles, side to side, up and down….David Hockney did a wonderful series of photo collages illustrating this point.

Since the camera has a single point of view, pictures or quilts made as a direct copy may, therefore, tend to look a little flat. I think it’s better to distort the perspective slightly to give more of an idea of what the real experience was….because what we actually see is shifting all the time. So try not to flatten out your images - instead consider using different angles, or adding shading or having two building in a slightly different perspective - the result will be more real.

Photographs don’t show movement – but how might one indicate that in a piece? How have various artists shown it? Of course the famous DuChamp painting is one solution.

The camera records everything in the scene – from the aspect that most interested you,

to the one that is of no account at all. So when you’re looking at your photographs (note – plural now!!)
of a scene, first think what was it about this scene that was so attractive to you?

When you make your sketches from the photograph
(and I definitely advocate working from sketches rather than from the photograph itself),
drop out the details that were of no interest, emphasise the main idea.
At this point my DH loves to come in and say “but the tower wasn’t that tall!”….but
if my main idea was “how tall that tower looks” – then of course in philosophical (and artistic) terms
it was that tall.

Be sure to omit those details that are inconsequential, putting them into your piece will just detract

from your main area of interest. Photographers do airbrush out after all!!!
And, as well as omitting, you can add…..if your main interest was the poppies in a field, put more in!

make them bigger and brighter!!
Use all the techniques you know about emphasis and focal point to bring them out.

Other odd things that may happen in photographs that you can (and should) change –

are those weird effects where a tree is growing out of someone’s head, or 2 heads are growing out of a cow!

You can also move element – take a tree out from the middle and move it to one side,

or plant a tree on the right to balance something on the left, and so on.
Colour and value may also need some adjustment.  Photocopy  the photograph

(or scan into Photoshop and desaturate) so that you can see where the main values are…
it can really help to increase these if a greater range of values will express your main idea more clearly –
and obviously the converse is true.

And change colours!!!! Quilts with blue skies, green grass and brown or grey trees are Boring!!!
And I’m sure you’re not making a quilt about a scene because you find it excitingly Boring!
Photographs are immensely helpful in reminding us of most of the elements in a scene

but can be very unhelpful if you copy them too literally!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS the quilt at the top is called What Pretty Smoke!

It's on the Industrial Landscape page of my website.

PPS I apologize for the weird formatting - there must be some hidden code somewhere doing this!! one of the elements I would have liked to drop out!!


Beverly said...

Thank you for a thoughtful post that I will refer back to many times. I like to work from my photos, and you've given some good ideas and advice for making the artistic work more. . . artistic!

Jackie said...

Thanks for your blog about photographs and design. I have struggled with the literal in photos finally realizing that I don't have to make my quilt exactly the the photo. That branch on the tree that's wrong--I can take it out! The angle of the sun that wasn't perfect--I can make it so. On and on, I appreciate the freedom of claiming an idea from the photo and going on from there, not being tied to every detail. Thank you for articulating all of this very clearly!

Connie in Alabama said...

As usual, your blog hits exactly on what I'm wrestling with! To avoid being "fatally realistic," as Jane Sassaman warned us in her class Abstracting From Nature, I work from real subjects (or no subject at all, if it is totally abstract). And last year my drawing teacher required us to work from real life as well, creating "extra" lines (or more expressive lines) that convey motion. However, I am now going back to looking at photos that exhibit good composition, even after the quilt is in pieces up on the design wall. The photo subject may have nothing to do with my actual quilt, but its composition may inspire me.

I also like what you said last week (and again here) about removing that which is not relevant, to simplify down to the essence. And then perhaps I can even remove a little more, to not be so explicit, to leave something to the viewer's imagination.

You have been giving me much to ponder lately!

connie said...

Thank you for your blog. I am dealing with that exact thing in my journal squares. I am relatively new to quilting and blogging. Thank you again for your in site. I also love your work.....

Karen said...

Thanks for the reminder about photos as starting places. I work from photos a lot, mostly ones I have taken. I "saturate" my mind with images, then put the pix away and sketch from memory. As the design is refined and resolved, it inevitably looks less and less like the original picture, which is great.