Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Perspective, Artistic Licence, and the Limitations of Photography.

I am intrigued by unusual perspectives. I'll illustrate using a couple of my paintings. To see the full size versions, please visit my Flickr page.

Courtyard Flat, Bath

This watercolour is entitled "Courtyard Flat, Bath'. In my Flickr description, I say'.....the perspective challenge interested me: when viewing the scene it is actually impossible to get all the elements shown into the picture at once photographically, without distortion'. This statement was quite legitimately queried, and here is the answer:
Notice the railings at the top right, over the jack arch. These railings continue around the front, along the sidewalk edge, in front of the basement well. Note also that the visual horizon is (more or less) exactly at the top edge of the picture. So, to get this picture without those railings would mean poking your camera between them at about two feet above the ground, and then you'd have to use a very wide angle lens to include the window on the left and the white cupboards on the right. Another thing is the sunshine illuminating the scene, which is just as important. To get the sun to shine in at this angle, first, you'd have to demolish a whole row of historic houses on the other side of the street. And then, you'd also have to shift geographically, which is better explained using a second painting. If you compare this picture with photos of the same scene (found in my ‘England’ set), you will see what I mean.

Here is another painting from Bath, in southwest England; latitude, about 52º north.

Pamela's Garden
The picture is called 'Pamela's Garden'. In this case, you could more easily reproduce the scene itself photographically, although I have taken some small artistic liberties to improve the composition. But that, in this case, is not the point. The photographic impossibility here is the light. Here, we are in fact looking to the west. To our left, the high wall seen in the top left of the picture extends right along to join the back wall of the house. The top would be perhaps eighteen feet above the courtyard floor. The sun begins to light up the courtyard just after noon, but doesn't truly shine in until much later in the day. Note the shadow cast by the top of the wall on the steps. See how high the sun is. Even in midsummer, it is impossible to have this much sun. Remember, we are in a latitude of 52º; (that's equivalent to being around the southern end of Hudson's Bay, to those of you who are not geometrically minded). To get this sunshine you'd have to be at least as far south as the Bahamas, say around 35ºN. I took similar (though less extreme) liberties with the sun when painting 'Courtyard Flat'.

Right now I am working on another perspective challenge. This one is more difficult still, as there are curved buildings involved, and the best vantage point to get the composition I want would be approximately 30 feet above the sidewalk. I lugged an aluminum stepladder to the scene so as to get as high as I could, then held a camera over my head to take reference photos, but that only brought my observation point to about ten or twelve feet above the sidewalk. I am still having to create in my mind the higher perspective that I need. A photographer will find something magical in an everyday scene and lead us to see it; but even the greatest photographer would be unable to capture this view in the same way.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Colour and Values in Painting

To anyone who has been to Art School, or been involved in fine arts for a while this will probably be old hat. Read no further. You must excuse me. But for those of us who are self-taught, haven’t yet achieved much, and are groping our way towards an understanding in this discipline, matters of colour, hue, shade and value need exploring. I find that putting my thoughts on paper helps me. Whether it is helpful to others is open to question.

I climbed onto my exercise bike again today and started off.

‘What shall I think about today?’ I asked myself. Wrong. Well, … actually, there’s nothing wrong about choosing a subject and thinking about it. The process will most likely lead to a workmanlike solution to whatever the problem was. But that isn’t what I’m after. I don’t have a particular problem or research topic that needs addressing in that way. I’m anticipating,… what? The insights that sometimes come when the mind is free. Was yesterday just a one-off? I think maybe the Buddhists have it right; the trick is, to empty the mind.

It’s windy today; and bright. Partly cloudy. I look out the window. The sun is going in, coming out; playing with the colours. The wind is from the southwest and strong; must be a cold front on the way. Zero at the moment, it’ll probably be colder later. The air is crystal clear.
When the sun is out, the colours are perfectly saturated, when it goes behind a cloud the colours are not just darker, they are duller. And the colour of the shadowed boards under the eaves of my neighbours house is not the same hue as the boards lit by the sun. Why is that? It occurs to me that this de-saturation has basically just a straight inverse relationship to the amount of ambient light. At night, everything is in greyscale, black, grey and white. You can easily explore the effects of desaturation in ‘Photoshop’. Open any picture in this program, and then click on the ‘brush’ tool, or the ‘paintbucket’ on the toolbar at the left side Now pick up a nice colour from your photo by clicking the mouse with the ‘Alt’ key held down. This colour will show as ‘Foreground’ colour in the little square. Now click on that square to ‘Choose Foreground colour’. This will bring up a small page, with your colour marked by a little circle. Drag the little circle straight up towards the top of the page (totally saturated) or straight down towards the bottom (totally desaturated). Notice in the ‘selected colour’ window, how the hue has actually changed. I am trying to figure out why this is. Going back to the shaded board versus the sunlit ones, partly it must be because the sun is lighting up the bright boards with a unique spectrum, or mixture of light wavelengths. The shadowed board, on the other hand, is lit by light reflected from other surfaces, (clouds, buildings) or light from the ‘blue’ sky. So the end result, light finally reflected into the eye of the beholder, is actually a reflection modified from a quite different spectrum. So it makes sense that the perceived colour should change I suppose. But then again, 'Photoshop' doesn't know the unique conditions in which this colour is presented, so there must be more to it than that.

Colour is not as solid, real and defined as I used to think. It’s partly subjective. Different people see colours differently. Even the same person can see colours differently. I learned this one night when I was flying a 767 over the Atlantic. Sitting quietly in the dark, the First Officer an indistinct shadow beside me. Checking the instruments, making position reports; steadily proceeding towards Europe. The lights turned low, so we’d notice anything outside, untoward or not; the cockpit bathed in a soft reddish glow from the instrument lights. One of the instruments, a distance measuring device with LED readout, was a little brighter than the others. It caught my attention as being different. How different? Something about the colour. I studied the numbers. What was it? I looked away, to one side, as I had been doing when I first noticed the difference. The colour changed! I looked back; it reverted. I closed one eye and looked – the light was red. I opened that eye and closed the other. The light was orange! I was getting two distinctly different colour interpretations of the same thing! Very strange. This condition did not present any difficulty, nor was I particularly worried about it. The anomaly stayed with me, on and off, several years. When I would wake up in the morning, the bedpost would appear reddish-brown through one eye, yellowish brown through the other. Now remember, I was a pilot. My eyes were regularly checked, including a test for colour vision. I never had any trouble interpreting the colour charts and reading the numbers. I have perfect colour vision. But? My wife will often see something as a brown colour, that I see as a shade of green; (this in connection with the colour of my trousers). I am merely illustrating here that colour can be interpreted differently. It is not simply a matter of wavelength; it has, for want of a better word, flavour.

Now value; that’s something else, and just as difficult sometimes. Is the blue sky lighter or darker than the sunlit building? Sometimes I really struggle with that. No matter how much I narrow my eyes and squint, I find it hard to decide. Somewhere I read, or heard, the suggestion that the artist should try to assign a lightness/darkness value to each component of their painting on a scale of one to ten. This makes sense, but is again often harder to assess in practice than in theory. Here again, ‘Photoshop’ can come to the rescue. Open a picture and ‘Remove Colour’ so you can see it in greyscale. That’ll tell you.

All this makes leads me to think about the colour sources we use when painting pictures. Some are purer and more reliable; others, less so. Upon reflection, I consider that the two best sources for colour are – the Mind, and the Real World. That is to say, your imagination or what you actually see. Depending on the subject and type of painting, either one of these would be the best bet. For myself, I have to say that my imagination is not as fertile as I would wish, and so making a sketch in ‘Plein Air’ is, ideally, the way I like to go. However, the limitations there are clear: the light is always changing, the weather may be inclement, and you may simply work so slowly as to make this impractical. So what’s next? Oftentimes you end up working from a photo, but this is third-hand colour at best. What I mean is, firstly, the camera interprets the colours. - Recently I was in a camera store, looking to upgrade my digital camera; (these days, you have to change cameras at more or less the same time interval as you change computers). With the bewildering numbers of choices on offer, I asked the manager for his advice. Well, he said, I like Nikon. Why?, I asked. I like the colour better, came the answer. That set me back for a moment. Until then I had not considered that different manufacturers, using differing technologies may end up presenting subtly different colours, depending on the algorithms used. That’s the first divergence. Next is the printer. It too has to measure the colours and values, and decide how best to reproduce them. Thirdly, the ink and paper selected will in turn present a slightly different and unique resultant print. Now you are looking at the print in order to copy it. What kind of light are you working under? Sunlight?, indirect daylight?, incandescent?, fluorescent? (I hope not!). By the time you lay the brush on the paper, you may be a long way removed from the original colour. You can shortcut some of these problems by working from an image on the computer monitor instead of from a print. I prefer this as next best to ‘Plein Air’, but it also presents problems. Is it convenient to paint where your computer is located?

But take heart. Finally, I am learning to trust my instinct, and gain confidence in my painting by constantly reminding myself that the picture is just a representation! In the end, it doesn’t matter which colours are chosen, so long as they provide a happy and recognizable result.

Whoa – thirty minutes already today? Heart rate is up; aerobic effect achieved. Time to climb down off the bike; go and have a shower.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Unexpected Paths to Meditation

Last summer I bought an exercise bike, at a garage sale, for thirty-five bucks. This was some little time after I had, (so pleased with myself), told my doctor how I was biking down the Niagara Parkway most days. “What are you going to do in the winter?’ he asked. For thirty-five bucks there were of course, no bells, no whistles, no computer on this device. Accessories, if you don’t count the basic speedometer/odometer, consisted of a simple kitchen timer. This thing has sat at the back of my studio, unused, reproaching me, for the last six months. Just looking at it filled me with ennui. How could anybody survive such boredom?
This morning I finally got on it, don’t ask why. I set the primitive brake adjustment so that I felt it a bit in my quads and buckled down. After what seemed like a fairly long time I checked my watch: two minutes had elapsed. Not so easily daunted as all that, and determined to get some good out of it, I pressed on. I thought to myself – I should build a kind of easel to hold a book, and clamp it onto the handlebars here; then the time would pass fast enough. I looked up. On the wall in front of me was a print of a watercolour of mine, that had been used as a calendar picture. July, it said. I studied the picture; traced the perspectives. I thought about summer. I thought about my route down the Parkway. Where would I be right now? I checked the odometer. Just about at the river. In my mind’s eye I saw the bright morning reflections off the water; such a lovely deep viridian. Why is that? Every river seems to have its own predominant colour. The Aare in Switzerland has a wonderful pale milky green shade. Glacial melt I guess. I pedalled on. My mind drifted into other paths. When the body is on autopilot it’ll do that. I thought about the painting I am working on now. Where should the sun be, in order to get the shadows just right? Perhaps I should darken those left hand side buildings.
I was getting warmed up. I set the brake a little harder; let’s go uphill for a bit.
I began to think about the book I have been reading, and my plans for the afternoon.

January is a good month for home redecoration. This year we’re tackling a bedroom. I’m still at the preparatory stage. Scrubbing down, sanding, removing old wallpaper. I’ve kind of settled into half a day of work on my watercolour, half a day of redecoration.
Once, when I was discussing, perhaps lamenting this business of home maintenance with my nephew, he wisely remarked ‘House painting is a meditative experience’. He knew, he’d done more than his share. But I thought, yes, you’re absolutely right, and ever since I have not begrudged that time spent so much, realizing that thoughts can be sorted and creativity can flower. Plans may be made; problems addressed. When you’re sanding walls, you’re pretty well on autopilot again, and the mind is free.

People often say they will go to sleep on a problem and wake up with the solution. It’s not exactly that way in my case. More that if I am wakeful my mind plays and roams and settles on some aspect of what I am doing during my days. Often there will be something yet unsolved – how best can I extract those rotten old concrete encrusted fenceposts? how should those dollhouse walls be fastened together. When the mind is not distracted by having to control the body it’s amazing how well it will work. I do indeed wake with the solution, and perhaps it is arrived at partly subconsciously.

There’s more paths than one up the mountain.

What time is it? Oh, twenty minutes already?. That didn’t seem so long. Some analysis, some synthesis, some conclusions reached. Unexpected.

I worked up a bit of a sweat there. Time for a shower.

Flickr, Friends, and the Balanced Life.

Flickr, Friends, and the Balanced Life.

I’m sure you’ve all been through this. You start on Flickr just to archive your pictures. Then you begin to meet people; people with the same interests. Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? All of a sudden you have friends out there. It just snowballs, doesn’t it? It’s not that you’re actively seeking out more ‘Contacts’, but somebody new comments, you look at their work, their profile; you say to yourself ‘I like this person, I want to keep in touch, see what they’re going to upload next.’

You started off uploading a few photos for half an hour the odd evening, now you’re on for two hours, three? Most evenings? Well, you like these people, you’re learning from them, you’re inspired. You’re enjoying yourself.

Yes, but with work, family, chores and everything else you just can’t fit in that much time for something new for the long haul. Something has to give, and generally it shouldn’t be work or family or all the other really important stuff. So the sad part is, the time comes out of your other hobbies; like the painting.

So this is for my ‘Flickr’ friends: I’m telling you this so that you’ll know and understand if I have to pull back a bit; if I can’t perhaps chat at such length or so often, or make as many comments. It’s not that I’m bored or tired of it, or you. Quite the contrary: I am stimulated and motivated as never before. And when I’m commenting, I like to think about that picture of yours that inspires me, and ask myself why do I like it so well. It tends to take a bit of time to figure out what I want to say in a comment.

So if I don’t respond to your comments in quite the same way, or address each one in the future, please know that I really appreciate hearing from you just the same. I’ll still be here, but I’ve just got to get everything into a proper balance.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Purpose of My Blog - and 'Hello World'

Well now. I'm making some attempt to keep up with the modern world.

A few months ago I signed up to 'Flickr'. At first, my plan was merely to archive all my photos off-site, but I quickly discovered the pleasure of sharing and meeting others with similar interests. This in turn led to me posting increasingly long and sometimes only marginally relevant comments at the bottom of my own photos, in response to the kind remarks of others. In some cases, people have been curious about my techniques in connection with hobbies such as woodworking or card-making. It seemed to me inappropriate to enter into a long dissertation in the 'photo comment' format, so I felt a need for someplace like this where I can talk to (and listen to) friends (and relatives) around the world. So here I am.

This is beginning to cut into my painting time, so I will sign off. I look forward to exchanging news and views with my Flickr friends, and, who knows? maybe ...you.