This week Western New York got one of those raging lake effect storms it is so famous for. (Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo are the large cities with the highest annual snowfall in the contiguous United States.) My friend Sue got about two feet of snow. She sent me the lovely photo of the barn, above, with the idea that it would make a good painting.
People do that a lot. In most cases, the images are wonderful photographs, but would be less successful paintings.
The low light of an overcast winter day can lead to deep color saturation, as happened with the red of the barn siding. (Looking at the histogram, the photo doesn’t appear to have been enhanced.) The monochrome of the rest of the photo is, oddly enough, also something that happens in the same lighting.
As a painter, my first impulse is to use color to model the snow, but it would be a mistake here. The snow and sky are all the same flat grey. There is no color modeling at all. The contrast between the monolithic, brilliant barn and the lack of color in the landscape makes this photo work, and that’s not something that translates easily to paint.
Earlier this year, one of my students posted a color study by New Zealander Samuel Earp on Facebook, marveling that such a place actually existed. Several years ago, I visited that spot on a road trip with my cousins. I stood in that place and took reference photos. I never painted it. For me, the problem with painting a vast and iconic view is finding anything to say without subtracting from the place itself.
Earp’s painting clearly works, because it caught my student’s eye. However, by enlarging the clouds and the waves, he diminishes the terrific scale of the place. It is the emptiness and inapproachable grandeur of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road that make it truly one of the wonders of the world.
There are some paintings that can only be done from photos. Boats from the waterline are one example, because you physically can’t paint that low to the water. When I first saw Old Salt by Ed King, I assumed it was a painting because of the wonderful simplicity of its stripped-down forms. Turns out it’s a photograph. How could it possibly be improved with a paintbrush?