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Learning Fundamentals By Practicing Other Media, Part 2: Painting

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Welcome to the second installment of the series. We're looking at alternative art forms to pursue or peruse in the pursuit of broadened horizons. Moving on from sketching, which is probably the most vital and fundamental skill to stock your visual arsenal with, we'll now be talking about painting.

Generally when I talk about painting I'm referring to digital painting with Photoshop and a Wacom. But all this information applies to physical painting if that's more your forté. I could never quite nail real painting for some reason, but doing it digitally is something I rather enjoy.

I love the look and feel of concept art, as well as being a scifi/fantasy fan, so this is the style I tend to paint in.

Painting effectively takes sketching to the next level, but also brings its own considerations to the table. Not only must you use the same lighting and shading knowledge you learned by sketching, but due to the usually increased scale and complexity of the scenes, you then have to add in environment lighting, more prominent bounce light and atmospheric effects to take into account, and the effect of these all mixing.

Mixing atmospheric effects and lighting colors with different surface materials.

The Value System

The primary motivation in my interest in painting is the use of the value system. Where photographers tend to know what highlight clipping and underexposure are, painters are the masters of using tone to direct their art.

There's never any doubt about what you're supposed to be looking at, or the emotional atmosphere of the piece. From the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt to the scifi environments of Feng Zhu, there is always a story and a manipulative linearity. This direction of the human eye is achieved with its greatest sensitivity; light.

The image reads so easily because our eyes don't actually need color to see.

Ansel Adams achieved this control of light through his use of the value system, or his own photographic version of it, the Zone System. Even in color images, the viewer is most sensitive to the luminance values in the image, and this should always be the highest priority.

Translating the readability factor into a color image. It looks little different in black and white.


Color Mixing

So while painting can be done in black and white like above, it's generally a color medium, which means that all of these lighting situations are then colored, likely combining with other different colors in different ways.

It's not an easy task, but the more one understands lighting, the better they can be at any imaging medium. For example, if you understand the way colors of light and surfaces mix from painting, why couldn't you buck conventional wisdom and use different lighting color temperatures in your photography, mixing them with confidence in interesting ways?

Good old fashioned blockbuster orange and teal coloring in this sketch. The same effect is easily had with daylight and tungsten.

Unlike sketching, however, paintings require a lot of accuracy. A piece must stand on its own, as an image in its own right, even if it's just a relatively quick concept design. The composition must be strong. It must read well.

The perspective should really be as close to perfect as you can make it, and all the lines from the undersketch should end up gone. That said, being able to try out a variety of compositions without being constrained by physical reality as with a camera can lead to some interesting experimentation.

A quick sketch of a painting, but the composition, color palette and perspective are all fairly solid.


The perspective aspect is interesting, too. Learning the mechanics of and how to explore perspective simply on paper is a fascinating activity that can definitely lead to photographic ideas welling up in your brain. While the fundamentals are a part of sketching, there's a lot of leeway and looseness in sketching that painting doesn't generally allow for, although it can in certain types of watercolour painting.

In sketching the lines can be all over the place and quite visible, and this is useful for speed and a sort of artistic abstraction. However, the lines disappearing in painting is a vital exercise. Obviously, in reality there aren't lines around the edges of every object denoting boundaries and details, which we take for granted in photography, but in painting is a deliberate effort.

Manipulating perspectives in paintings trains your mind to look for alternative perspectives like here, where a front view just wasn't having the impact I was looking for.


This effort leads to even greater observational power than sketching, as you cannot simply approximate a line and add a little shading; a boundary must be observed, analysed, and reproduced through conscious thought.

Where sketching is the art of wireframing, painting is very much a case of rendering. This also engendered in me a minor obsession with boundaries, which as it turns out is really a very good thing, as I'll describe in the next installment. The observation, however, shouldn't be overlooked. The way things look from different distances and angles can be a fascinating exploration (with or without a camera).

In a relatively detailed but fairly monochromatic image like this, edges become very important for readability.

Color Limits

Paintings also teach the value of a limited color palette, as well as the hows and the whys of your color choices. This optionality was traditionally missing from photography, hence "fine art photography" being so heavily associated with "black and white," since the only fully controllable element the majority of the time was tonality. However, with modern digital manipulation techniques, color can once again be easily at the direction of the artist.

Again with the color contrast. Just remember that while this can improve readability, if it looks muddy in monochrome, it likely still looks muddy in colour.

Being able to restrict your colors in order to both make deliberate communicative statements and reduce the visual clutter of the image for greater readability and impact is an important element of artistic shooting. Consider, for example, how many landscape images you've seen where 90% of the image was a tone of orange or blue, or fashion shots with pale models and warm set dressings and/or outfits.

Simplicity is always to be strived for, both in painting and photography. Here nature provides the composition, contrast and color contrast in one neat package.


In the end, consider painting to be a course in the practical fundamentals of photography. Instead of eventually coming to understand the image through trial and error and post-shoot analysis, you understand the image partly before putting anything down on the canvas, and the rest of the way by actually creating. If, like me, you learn better by doing than by looking, you should seriously consider taking up painting.

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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