Images from my world

mining visual memory to alter photos when painting

Of all the photos I’ve taken in my life there are special images that stick in my memory for decades. At some point I suddenly have the time and the will to dig the image out and set up for painting. My memory for names and dates is horrible, but I’m convinced all of that brain-space is devoted to visual memory. I never forget a face and never forget what attracted my attention to an image and caused me to want to capture a photo for future reference. Sometimes when I pull out a photo it takes a while to remember what that was. The picture usually looks flat and uninteresting. It didn’t capture the narrowed vision and focus that I, the viewer, had at the time. A good example of how I mined my visual memory to alter the photo image to paint an image that reflected my memory is “The Clammer”. I intensely remembered how the breeze ruffled the man’s hair, his movement, the rhythm of the water, glinting of the sun off the water (but not enough to detract from the man), the sand under and swirling through the water as the tide ran out, the reflection of the sky on the deeper water, the footprints and rake marks of former clammers who worked there at other times. I’m not going to try to describe in words how I used memory to change the image, posted below are both the original photo and the altered painting so you can see for yourself.

“Miss Peanut” is an excellent example of how memory is way better than the photo, even if the photo is essential. Posted is the low resolution camera-phone snapshot, taken in bright sun that washed everything out, with funky overall color. But I really loved the pose, gesture, and lighthearted joy of the facial expression. Most importantly for me, how the lines of her body mirrored the lines of the peanut truck behind her. I prepared for painting by drawing a linear study highlighting flow-through lines and accentuating parallels between the figure and the lines of the background. This was taped to the wall behind the easel so I wouldn’t forget during the intense focus of working. Additionally, a major goal for me with this piece was to make the yellow peanut truck recede, as yellow, like most bright colors, visually projects forward.

I’m currently working on “Granite & Silk”, another example of a striking image that stuck with me for years, until I finally felt confident enough to capture the moment in pastel. This painting is about textures (hard, pitted stone, soft skin, the silky sheen of fabric) and, to expose myself as an art-nerd, value and chroma. The challenge here is to describe a human form with shadows and light, retaining the impression of a living person pausing for a moment without becoming stiff and mannequin-like. Just as importantly, to retain the vibrant hues of the woman’s clothing while retaining the relative value of each part of her form. The reason why this is difficult to do with pastel is because of the opaque quality of the medium. While mixing colors is possible, it must be done carefully and judiciously. If an area becomes overworked, a muddy color results and there are very few ways to remedy this, if at all. Glazing a bright hue to achieve a darker value while retaining the visual purity of the chroma might just end up as mud.

Below: The original picture, a value study in charcoal, and a detail of the figure in progress.


Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

-Edgar Degas

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