Friday, June 13, 2008

"The Lobster Pot"

The Lobster Pot Restaurant is one of my favorite Provincetown landmarks.
This painting was done from a photo reference on one of the rainy evenings during my trip to Cape Cod. I had really hoped to get back to Ptown to do some street scenes, but the weather kind of went sour on us. That should not have kept me from painting outside, but we just were not up for getting wet in a cold rain.
I need an umbrella.

"The Lobster Pot", 11" x 14" oil on linen, Frank Gardner © 2008
$950. Framed. Available at Galeria Gardner

Reference photo for "The Lobster Pot", Frank Gardner © 2008

My friend Jack Riddle was talking about painting from photos on his blog the other day and suggested that I might write a few of my thoughts about that.

Here goes.

I always feel like I am taking a big risk when I post the reference photo next to my painting or a photo of the scene with the painting. Will all of my "mistakes" stand out like sore thumbs.

There are so many things to consider when using a photo reference. I could go on and on about pros and cons. One big con is that the values are usually a bit off. The darks are too dark and or the lights are too light and washed out. One pro is that it does not move and the light does not change, but that can be a con too.

Something I take into consideration when working from a photo is the look and or feel that I am aiming for in the finished piece. How much detail will I try and put into it. The problem with working from photos in the studio is that you can just keep going and going, adding in every little thing until it is really tight and probably over worked. It becomes a matter of taste and style.

The look that I decided on for this one was a solid design with a loose plein air feel. This was a plein air trip after all, and I wanted this painting to fit in well when hung together with the rest of the stuff from the trip.
I'm sure that this scene would look just as good if I had done a tighter job and brought it up to a more detailed finish, but that is not what I wanted in this particular painting.
By solid design I mean a strong pattern of light and shadow. Little details that are not real important can be edited out. Kind of like when I am plein air painting. Get the basic light and shadow pattern down first, add variety of color to the large value pattern, work up the detail in the center of interest. Get the important stuff down first, and then you can stop at any point.

The first thing that I did was evaluate two photos that I had of this street scene and chose the one that best suited my needs. I wanted the Lobster Pot to be the main interest, but the people are also an important part of Provincetown, so I wanted to feature them too. Couples walking, someone with a bike, that is all part of what makes it real. I liked having the building on the left to frame the street, but I did not want to add detail there that would take away from the Lobster Pot.

The neon sign is such an icon. I wanted to show it, but I did not want so much detail in it that it would hold the eye and not allow for movement in the painting. What I tried to get was the color and glow without even putting in any letters. It was one of the first things that I painted in. Almost pure cadmium red, thin enough to get the glow from the white tone of the linen showing through. Then I concentrated on just blocking in all of the shadow colors. I wanted to keep them lighter than what I was seeing in the photo. I tried to get a lot of variety in my colors but keep them all in a simple value range. I wish that I had taken some progress shots to help explain how I went about this.

Since I had determined that this would be a loose piece, working fairly fast was key. I approached it as if I was standing there on the corner trying to catch the important stuff first and fast. The big picture. When you see the reference photo along with the finished painting, it is easy to pick out little things that I did not include or may have drawn a little off, but is that detail important to the statement as a whole? Not for ME in THIS painting.
I'll try and point out a few examples of what I mean by lack of detail. Take a look at the budweiser sign. Did you know that it was a bud sign without having the words written out? O.K., my lobster may look a bit like a little red dog, but I bet that anyone that know Ptown knows that it is the lobster Pot. How about the tree? There could be a lot of picking at that and spotty leaves painted in, but the simple light/ shadow pattern works good enough in this case. The two figures in shadow walking in front of the restaurant. Can you tell that is two women? or at least feel the gesture of two figures walking casually? Good enough then. I think that the storefront windows behind them has just enough detail to know there is something in the window. When you stare at a photo you may be tempted to put in more and more in a thing like that.

I did not start adding any light family colors until I had a solid drawing down of color in shadow and most of it all linked together into a big pattern. Then I quickly laid in the light family colors. I put them in thick and then even scrapped some back off because texture always comes forward. I left the thicker stuff for the foreground and mid ground. I really had to rein in my urge to keep adding detail at this stage. My natural tendency is to make it all perfect. I wanted this to look like it could have been done on location in one go, so I stopped while I thought it still looked fresh. Could I have done some things differently? Sure. But each painting has to be thought of as an expression of your feelings. This is how I felt about it on this day. If I did it again today I might have a totally different set of colors and criteria.

That's all I'll write on my thoughts on this piece, and painting from photos for now. I'll probably end up expanding on this in the comments anyway. Thanks Jack for thinking that I might have some skills to share here. I'll work on some other posts along the same lines.

If anyone is still reading at this point, thanks.
I usually don't write such long winded posts.


David Lobenberg said...

I read the whole thing and as much as I try, cannot disagree with anything you wrote! I liked the painting before I scrolled down to see that you had painted from a ref. photo. The bane of ones existence as a representational artist is picking out too much detail from a photo. In a photo, everything is frozen and easy to go over with a fine toothed comb. You're right, you want to edit as you do outdoors and get the feel and emotion. Good job!

Anonymous said...

That's exactly one of the things I love so much in your blog (started a comment on that, once even, but erased it): seeing the photos along with the paintings. The photos reveal the choices you've made, and they are always so amazing to me - the paintings, then, so much greater than the photo! I enjoyed reading all you wrote, very much.

Don Gray said...

So great to see the photo and see and read your decisions on what to keep and leave out. Your editing process left you with a beautiful painting that looks absolutely plein air and full of life.

Dean H. said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the read, Frank. Most all of my painting is from photos in the last few years. I agree with all your thinking here.
I remind myself often that I don't want to reproduce a goal is to create a piece of art...a painting. The photo is good only for essential details.
That Lobster Pot painting looks done on the spot.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi David. I like that about you. You are not afraid to disagree with something I write. That is how it should be.
Oh yes, I know all too well about picking out too much detail. Usually I realize that I have done it when it is too late.

Frank Gardner said...

Anonymous, I am glad that you like seeing the photo with the painting. There are a lot of choices that go into working from life or from photos. It is one of my favorite parts about painting. You can set 20 people up to paint the same scene and they will all make different choices about what to include, colors, emphasis and then add individual style to that.
I could, and do sometimes, paint the same scene many times and each time I come up with a new feel. Monet did that so well.
Thanks for your visits.

Frank Gardner said...

Glad you like seeing them together Don. Everyone's support on that makes me feel a little more comfortable about posting them together.

So much of your work looks done on the spot as well, that is why I asked about that the other day.

Frank Gardner said...

Thanks Dean, I try and keep my posts shorter so people won't get bored and move on.
Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read it all.

You are right about not wanting to reproduce the photo. When I see a painting like that I accept that there is some skill involved, but I move on a lot quicker than when I see a looser interpretation. That is the kind of stuff that keeps me interested. I want to look closer. Think about how the suggested details are finished in my mind.
Ahh, topic for another post all in itself.

Have a great weekend!

Anonymous said...

...that's not what I meant, "painting the same thing over and over." One can paint the same THING over and over and NOT have painted the SAME thing over and over. And one can paint a different thing but STILL have painted the SAME thing over and over.
: )

Frank Gardner said...

Hi again anonymous. I was kind of going off on my own thing there and not really referring back to your other comment. It was more about the "choices" you've mentioned here.

I appreciate your saying this in the other comment, and for clarifying it again here. It is hard to put into words, but you have done it well.

Bill Sharp said...

Great post, Frank. I also enjoy seeing reference materials, photos, sketches, etc, because it's so interesting to get a view into an artist's thinking.

One thing I notice is that you've keyed your values high. I wouldn't be able to resist delving into those shadows. I can see that not doing that has left this piece feeling airy and adds to the plein air feel.

On working from photos, I enjoy the convenience of it but, personally, if I don't continue to work from life, I forget what the world really looks like and the paintings suffer.

Jack Riddle said...

Frank--this should be a chapter in the Book that should be published with all your posts! I have to work a lot from photos primarily because of our long winters, and also the work I do of photos of our travels. You recite accurately and sensitively the mental conflicts and difficult choices that an artist has to make. If you think about it, it's not only when working with photos but also on site. Except for the latter, you have to work quickly--that helps speed up the decision making, and your eye is far more accurate than a camera. This goes in my reference file along with a lot of your other stuff. Thanks, Jack

FCP said...

Great post, Frank. It is impossible to always paint only from life, and as Jack pointed out, there are so many wonderful travel photos to explore in paint. I enjoyed reading your thought process about what to include, and I'm certain you would agree that the reason you are able to make such informed decisions and avoid pitfalls is because you have painted so much from life already. I think there is great value in learning from that process first, as one informs the other in a way that painting only from photos never can. Thanks,as always, for such a thoughtful post.
When IS that Frank Gardner book coming out?

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Bill, Thanks! I have been trying to keep the dark values pretty high key. I think that in a lot of my paintings I try and have more values dedicated to the darks than the lights.
Even if I am working a lot from photos I will LOOK a lot when I am outside. Shadow colors in a street scene for example. In a photo they are always so dark, but when you look at it in real life there is a lot of room between that value and a REAL dark dark.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Jack. Thing about that book is why would someone pay for it if they can get it on my blog for free?
Thanks for the idea on this one.
Hope some of these ideas resonate with you.

Anonymous said...

why would someone buy the book? because you can read it by candlelight if the electricity goes out, because you can take it with you anywhere, because you can read it on the beach, because you can hold it in your hand, because it's on paper and paper is real, because ink is lovely, because covers are wondrous, because you can have all the pages there at once, because you can smell it, because it has texture, because because because. I vote for the book!
~Solveg (pronounced, solvay)

Stacey Peterson said...

Thanks for the insight into your editing process Frank! I work from photos a LOT (having a toddler doesn't let me paint plen air as much as I'd like), and there are a lot of decisions that have to be made when making a painting from a photo reference. You've shown that here by not being a slave to the photo. This is a great example for beginners on how photos often make shadows appear too dark and colorless - you've done a great job of instilling them with life and color that don't show in the picture.

mike rooney said...

did you paint it off your computer screen or print it out on paper? just curious.
i hardly ever paint from photos except when i'm stuck out of town in a motel room for several days. better to make something than kill a few days AND pay a motel bill right. you did a great job. i'm going to go higher key on my darks outside for a week or two and see if i can get that light, airy feeling you do. thanks for showing the photo and the painting. its extremely helpful. p.s. i want to go to ptown and paint it looks like the northeasts version of key west fl.

Alicia Padrón said...

Beautiful amigo!! I really love it!

I think is wonderful that you post the picture too. And true, you are being brave.

The funny thing though is that when the photo is near the painting people tend to look for similarities and differences. But really it shouldn't be like that at all. If we wanted something so similar to that photo, why not take another photo? What's the big deal of having replicate the place right how it was? There is truly not fun in that what so ever.

What I do enjoy in looking at both your photo and painting together, is that I'm able to take a glimpse and hint as to how your mind works. It is a perfect way to see how you see something, digest it, interpret it and finish it as you see it, with your thought and feelings right in there in every stroke.

For example, the way you summarized the tree's shadow is very bold and to the point. But then the soft and warm yellows you decided to use instead of the real color of the house with the pointed roof.. is just very subtle and lovely.

Well this comment turned out in length very much proportioned to your post :o)

silvina said...

Frank, excellent post! Because I only recently started PA painting, I'm beginning to see all the pitfalls of painting from photos (a biggie is values). But to make a painting from a photo look like you did it fast and loose on the spot takes a lot of know how and experience.

Thanks for taking the time to write all this valuable information. I enjoyed reading it.

Sheila Vaughan said...

Frank, everyone has said it before me! Thanks so much for this very useful and interesting post. One thing I would like to hear more of is when you said to Bill Sharp that even when working from photos you LOOK a lot when you are outside. Before we take a particular photo that relationship we feel with the object, thing, landscape, whatever has to be really "remembered" if the painting is going to be meaningful. It's that initial vision which motivates us I suppose. I mean "remembered" as a painter and not as a photographer. Is that what you mean? I'm not saying I find that at all easy. I don't and so every now and again I have to escape from my "working from photos" routine and set up some still life and work directly from it.

Jack Riddle said...

I remember a comment made to me by a photographer comparing photography to painting. He said "we seek the perfect moment, you create the perfect moment." Much truth in that I think.

Barbara Pask said...

Great stuff Frank. It's really helpful to understand your thoughts in doing this painting. Your right about adding too much detail, hard to stop sometimes. Blogging for me is one of the best things I've done. So much great advice from generous artist's like yourself. Thanks, Barb

Susan Carlin said...

SO great to see one of the icons of Ptown among your paintings! It's terrific. Thank you for the bravery of posting your reference photo. I'm sometimes squeamish to do that, and I always appreciate when artists let us in on their reference. I'll try to be braver!

Paz said...

It's good to read your thoughts on your work. I like your painting of The Lobster Pot and the scenery around it.

Happy Father's Day! Enjoy your day.


Frank Gardner said...

Thanks Faye. Painting from life DOES help a lot with the photo work. Also, I like to OBSERVE. People always think that I am not paying attention, and I guess I am not. I am always thinking of how I would paint something or how dark I would make a value.

I don't know about that book. I might start with a blurb book of my paintings.

You have been doing some great paintings lately Faye. I have not had a chance to comment on most of them. Kevin will be real happy to have you in his class.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Solveg, Thanks for you support on the book idea. I may need to think about it one of these days. I could use another 8 hours in a day to get extra projects going.

Frank Gardner said...

Toddlers do cut into our painting time Stacey. It sure is great to have one around though.

Thanks for adding your thoughts on the process of painting from photos.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Mike, my buddy printed this one out for me. I touched up some of the plein airs like "Blue Skies Blue Ocean" from the lap top.
I don't think that your paintings are too dark in the shadows. But it can't hurt to play around with limiting the value range. A lot of the impressionists were great at fitting it all in two or three values. I like a broader range, but you can learn a lot from that idea.
Ptown is a great place to paint. Anywhere on the outer cape is good fun and good light.

Frank Gardner said...

Gracias Alicia, Thanks for your comments. It is always great to hear what you think.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Silvina. Thanks, I am glad that you liked it. There is so much to add to the topic of painting from photos. I'll need to come at it from a few different angles one day.

Frank Gardner said...

Thanks Sheila.
What I meant in the response to Bill is that I try and solve problems or observe colors and values that I know from experience are consistently off in my photos. Not just when I take pictures but walking down the street or driving. I am always squinting etc.
Shadow values are something that I am always looking at and comparing to something really dark to see how dark the rest of the shadow is. Does that make sense?

Sheila Vaughan said...

Ah right, I see now what you mean. That is very interesting, something to think about. Thanks for that Frank.

Frank Gardner said...

Good one Jack, I like that.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Barb. Glad you enjoyed it.
I agree, blogging has put me in touch with a lot of great people.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Susan, I thought that you might get a kick out of seeing the Lobster Pot.
I'm glad I am not the only one squeamish about posting the reference shots.

Frank Gardner said...

Thanks Paz. I'm having a great Father's Day.

Anonymous said...

Last night, I was thinking more about music and painting and photographs, and about this whole discussion you inspired from your post, and I wondered if there's ever been a show/exhibit in which a painter and a photographer (or one person who does both) used the same subject(s) for their work and then hung their works in the same show. Does that make sense?
(it seemed okay to sign my name, finally - and not be anonymous anymore.)

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Solveg. It seems weird not addressing you as anonymous.
I am not aware of a show like that. It would be an interesting idea.
It would be hard for me personally to post reference photos next to paintings in a show. I feel that there would be more interest in seeing how I interpreted a photo, or what I left in or out, than in the paintings themselves as art.
On the other hand, if it were a painter and photographer it would be more like comparing different artists visions or interpretations.
That could be cool.

Anonymous said...

You are certainly welcome to call me anonymous, if you like it better. It has a nice rhythm to it, after all!

And, no, not show reference photos next to paintings, but show the photographer's vision next to the painter's vision...from the same artist's eyes, or from more than one artist's eyes. Either way.

~Anonymous Solveg

Mike said...

Hey Franko!

Great post here. this sort of *giving* really endears you to us readers looking for more than just another painting. Hope all's well in your part of the world.

Anonymous said...

...and, yes, I know you said that same thing at the end of your note (was trying to leave a short comment...but now it bugs me that I didn't refer to that part of what you wrote).
It would be cool.
Solveg Anonymous

Frank Gardner said...

Solveg, I guess we can leave the anonymous for someone new to use.
It would make for an interesting exhibit.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Mike, Great to hear from you!
Things are good here. Have been spending a lot of time with my family since I got back. Need to break out the brushes soon.

onpainting said...

Wow, that is a lot of comments, and I can see why.

Excellent post, thanks for sharing. While painted from a photo it certainly has the feel of a well painted plein air work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to those of you who suggest Frank should write a book - I have been telling him that for years - maybe he will listen to his peers - I sure hope so.
Frank, Dad and I are so proud of your work - and you. See you soon.

christine mercer-vernon said...

really great post frank, you points are all true and it's nice that you are posting reference photos with some paintings. it really demonstrates that photos truly are reference and not necessarily just used for dead on reproduction. you make interesting choices and make them obviously without hesitation. i love the subtleness of the details in this, everything is very apparent without all the fussiness.

Frank Gardner said...

Hello On,
This one did generate a lot of comments. I really appreciate everyone that takes the time to post, but I REALLY appreciate the QUALITY of all of the comments I get as well.

Frank Gardner said...

Thanks Mom!

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Christine. I pretty much stuck to the design of the photo in this one and edited details. Sometimes I am a lot more liberal with editing and changing design.

It might be fun to post one some day that I really change around.

Alicia Padrón said...

Awwww... I like your mom Frank. She is very cool! :o)

Amy Sullivan said...

WoW, very cool to see & read all of this. Yes, I made it to the end with no problem.
Guess it may surprise some people, all the decisions an artist makes while working on a piece.

Listen to your Mom, write your book.

Amy Sullivan said...

WoW, very cool to see & read all of this. Yes, I made it to the end with no problem.
Guess it may surprise some people, all the decisions an artist makes while working on a piece.

Listen to your Mom, write your book.

Jennifer said...

Frank-- I think you'd better listen to your mother. ;-)

And I second the person who called this post generous. I love being able to enjoy your work and learn something at the same time.

Frank Gardner said...

Thanks Alicia. She is very cool, so is Dad.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Amy. Thanks! I think that it does surprise people all of the decisions and hard work that goes into a piece. Some may think that there comes a point that it just becomes "easy". That is not the case at all. I think the better I get the harder it gets, because I ask more from myself. That challenge and constant growth is what attracts me.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Jennifer. The thing with a book is all of the painting time it would take away from me. I feel crunched as it is. Maybe one of these days.

Stephen Magsig said...

Frank, Great post. I work from photos and found your methods very similar to the way I work. I wish I could work a little looser like you but we are who we are. Photos are just information, just like the location, to be filtered by the artist.

E. Floyd said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and descriptions of working from a photo. Typically I paint from life because when trying to paint from a photo I find it difficult to edit. Your advice is very helpful and I will work to incorporate some of what you shared! Thanks also for posting the original and then the tweeked versions of your plien air paintings as well!

Frank Gardner said...

Oops! Sorry Stephen. I answered your comment somewhere else.
I agree on the "we are who we are". That is just how it comes out naturally huh? I have a looser style and a tighter style, but I think they both show the same hand.

Frank Gardner said...

Hi Liz. Editing is from photos is harder than it looks. Also adjusting values. Thanks for visiting, I'm glad that you find posts like this useful.