I wrote in a recent post about my interest in manipulating my photographs to make them look like paintings. The sample I included was a skyscape. I like skies. And water.
Skies would not be skies without clouds. I could look at clouds all day.
The photo above is another skyscape. It is a combination—a collage—of photographs and paintings. I used oil paint for the sun and some of the clouds and watercolor for parts of the sky. It looks almost surreal.
A lot of effort went into making this picture—more time and effort than I usually contribute to this style of art.
But it was fun. And for me, that’s what art is all about.
Photo manipulation has a long history, beginning not long after the creation of the first photograph (1825) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Anyone interested can read the history at Wikipedia.
I recently became interested in manipulating some of my photographs to make them look like paintings. I tried various methods of applying paints and inks to the photos and came up with some interesting if not bizarre results. Learning to control those results has become a skill with a bit of good luck thrown in.
Other methods—to name a few—are cutting and pasting different photos into “coherent” collages, scanning and printing photos to paper, and using computer programs like Adobe Photoshop to manipulate the photo images. These three methods are not new either. I made photo collages 50 years ago in high school, scanned and printed photos at college, and played with Photoshop in the 1990s. Using Photoshop is a major task to learn and one I never had time for or took seriously.
Manipulating photographs has a stigma of deception to it because it fools the viewer into believing something that is not true. This issue arises because too many of us believe the camera does not lie. Any photographer can tell you that our camera lenses distort reality every time we snap a photo.
But I am not here to argue the science of photography or the ethical implications of photo manipulation.
For me, manipulating a photograph is another artistic form of expression. I did it with 35mm film when I froze it and then thawed it before loading it in my camera. Freezing cracked the emulsion on the film and made interesting web-like lines on the photos when developed. Adding inks and dyes often enhanced the crackled images.
I also experimented with double exposure, negative scratching, shooting with special lenses, and darkroom manipulation involving dodging, burning, and masking.
Lately, manipulating images has been fun to do again. And having fun is the key to being an artist who constantly produces art. The more I work with manipulation, the more abstract my art is. I understand better how colors, shapes, and designs attracted abstract artists.
Whichever side of the fence you are on, photo manipulation is an interesting visual tool—it makes a picture well worth a thousand words or more—and requires a lot of creativity, precision, and skill.
I enjoy watching small animals skittering and dashing about with their daily activities. I have my favorites, like chipmunks and squirrels, that I try to capture with pencil and paper. But lately I have been studying birds more than usual. Although I’m not a bird painter, per se, I have done a few paintings with birds in them based on life sketches from my wildlife sketchbooks. And I did a finch painting based entirely from reference sketches.
With so many species of animals, each with its own particular charm and beauty, the wildlife artist never lacks a subject. No matter where you live, there are always animals to sketch—in cities, gardens, parks, forests and farmland. Sketching them in their natural habitat gives you an opportunity to study their fascinating behavior. Whether sitting in a park, at a roadside, at the edge of a river or lake, sketching critters is a wonderful way to spend a day. And your sketches give a rich source of reference for your paintings.
When you have found a subject and settled down, spend a few minutes looking hard at the animal, in the same way as you would carefully consider a still life before starting to paint it. Ask yourself questions such as, “How long is the neck and how much of it disappears when the animal stands up?” This will help you understand the form better. Then, when the animal adopts an interesting pose, begin sketching. You’ll find this is when your patience is tested. The subject moves all the time, so you have to wait until it returns to either the original pose or something close. It might even scurry off or fly away and leave you with an unfinished sketch.
If the animal changes pose quickly and a lot, don’t continue with the sketch—it won’t be precise, and therefore useless for reference. To use your time well, have several sketches of different poses going at once, and dart around the page as the subject shifts position. This is challenging, but you should end up with a page of interesting studies. Don’t worry if the animal you’re sketching doesn’t return to the same pose—just a few lines can be full of information. And get down those shadows too. Their shapes help describe form and make your sketches more convincing.
Spend some time looking at the pattern of fur and feather masses, too—this is essential reference when you come to paint. Try to catch the “personality” of the animal by noticing any characteristic features that make it unique as a species.
You might find it useful to use cubes, oblongs and cylinders to describe the general body shapes. You can also use these to show the relative shapes and sizes of different species. If you are sketching many ducks on a lake, for example, do a whole page of these simple shapes. This is invaluable information when it comes to painting various ducks together. Try to show the size of an individual duck—or any animal, for that matter—by sketching its surroundings.
It goes without saying, of course, that you should take a note of the date, place, and time of day in your sketches—these will help you recall the scene later when working in your studio. Also, note the colors of the animal if you’ve not sketched it in color.
My favorite sketching tool is a box of watercolor pencils, but you should use whatever feels comfortable to you.
So make a day of drawing critters … and happy sketching.
You may, like I do, have stretcher bars normally used for stretching canvas waiting to back your next canvas. But have you ever considered using those bars to stretch paper instead?
Here’s an easy technique for stretching watercolor paper with those bars—a technique that has many advantages over other ways. One, it avoids the awkward weight of a solid board. Two, the paper will dry faster because both sides are exposed to air. Three, you’ll have to be gentle while painting (which is what watercolor painting is about). And four, the clean-up time consists of simply removing pushpins from the frame. Afterward, the frame is ready for you to attach a new sheet of paper.
To begin, you will need to assemble your four stretcher bars into a frame. (I use 16”x20” because they’re easy to assemble and carry.) I glue my frame together and allow the glue to dry overnight before I begin attaching watercolor paper to the frame. This makes the frame permanent, but you can choose not to do this.
You will also need a box of pushpins and a soaking tray filled with room temperature water. My soaking tray is a shallow 24”x30” Formica baking tray that I bought from a bakery, but a large aluminum baking tray or a clean bathtub work just as well. Fill the tray or tub with a half-inch of water (I use the distilled kind).
The dimensions of your watercolor paper should be two or three inches longer than the height and width of the stretcher frame, which means I use 20”x24” sheets of paper.
Before attaching your paper to the stretcher bars, draw any information you intend to use in your painting on the paper’s front side. Do not draw on the paper after you have stretched it.
Next, soak the paper for a minute or two by submerging it in your water. Do not soak the paper too long. You may end up washing off the sizing and your pencil drawing.
When both sides of the paper are completely wet, drape the paper over the stretcher frame so about two inches overlap the edge on all four sides. (The frame should be laying flat on a tabletop or workbench, with the stretcher frame’s front facing up.)
Once the paper covers the frame evenly, attach the paper to the sides of the frame using your fingers GENTLY, and your pushpins to wrap and fasten the paper around all four edges. The stretching sequence goes:
Wrap and pin the paper at the top center of each length (the side that would sit flush inside a picture frame). Start with the top bar. Place a pushpin in the paper and bottom bar, then the left side, and finally the right.
Return to the top bar and place a pushpin half an inch to the right of the first pushpin. Then place a pushpin half an inch to the left of the first pushpin. Proceed to the bottom bar and do this until you have three pushpins on all four sides.
Return to the top bar and pin again until you have five pushpins half-an-inch apart on all four sides.
Continue until you reach the corners.
When attaching the watercolor paper to the frame it is best to gently tug the paper taut while pinning. If the paper is not taut, you may end up with a warped surface to paint on.
After you have attached the paper, allow about three hours for it to dry. Or, you can use a portable hair dryer to speed things up. Just don’t scorch your paper in the process. Keep the frame lying flat in a horizontal position—resist the urge to lift the frame and chance knocking it out of alignment (even if you glued it earlier) and warping the paper.
Once the paper is dry, you’re ready to paint. Use gentle touches when applying your paint so as not to tear your paper.
Give it a try, happy painting, and let me know what you think.