I’ve mentioned before that I’m not formally trained… what I know I learned from other photographers/artists and by experimentation with my own work. Lots of experimentation.
As a developing photographer, I found it very difficult to find advanced lessons in color theory, composition, and artistic design related to the art of photography. EVERYBODY seems to want to talk about photography gear…cameras, lenses, software, etc., etc. Likewise, articles and books that discuss the basics of photographing are abundant. But once you’ve grasped the basics, where does a photographer turn to learn the advanced techniques so critical to becoming an accomplished fine art photographer??
I decided some time ago that I wasn’t going to find what I needed to know about ‘what makes a great fine art photograph‘ by reading photography magazines and photography web sites (a few exceptions aside). So now I spend more time reading blogs and newsletters that cater to fine art painters than I do to those that cater to photographers. I’ve found I can learn a lot from advanced artists, regardless of which tools they use to express their art. As an example, an article about lighting and color was written by acclaimed artist Lori Woodward (a repost appears below). Read her article by hitting the embedded link, then continue with my article as I describe how I apply this kind of theory in my own art.
Painting Colorful Lights and Darks
by Lori Woodward
Please don’t hesitate to ask me questions. I, by no means, am saying this is the only way to paint. There are many valid approaches to art – some artists are tonalists, others are colorists; some are realists, and others are impressionists or abstract artists, and that’s perfectly OK. I am here to present ideas to you – which you may take or leave as you like. [...]
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So what Loris is saying is essentially this: neutral whites and grays, being devoid of color (by definition), typically fail to add anything to a colorful presentation of a landscape scene, a bowl of fruit, or even a portrait. In real life, shadows are rarely dark neutral gray or pure black and whites are rarely neutral light gray or pure white–shadows and highlights are affected by surrounding colors. She advises painters to think about the various hues (colors) and values (‘lightness’) that their shadows and highlights must have to produce the intended emotion in their paintings before they even paint the first brush stoke.
What can we photographers learn from this? After all, this appears to conflict with the common, albeit important, basic rule of photography to white balance our photographs to reduce tinting artifacts that might appear otherwise. Unless intended for artistic reasons, a tinted photograph will more likely be accepted as distracting/disturbing instead of pleasing.
So we all white balance our photographs. And the way we do this is to find a subject in our image that “should” be without color, and remove all color from that subject, which then removes the same color globally from the image. This makes everything balanced colorwise. Whites are neutral white and grays are neutral gray, just as they should be, right?
Well…..sometimes this is right, but it may come at a cost to your creation. As fine art artists, we need to consider color confluence as Lori describes in her article. I do, and have for a long time, so let me describe how I approach this lesson with an example.
I captured the landscape scene below early one morning near my home in Loudoun County, Virginia. As I reviewed this scene, I was taken by the rising sun hitting the left most boughs of this willow tree with wonderful warm light that contrasted nicely against the baby blue sky and clouds. I white balanced on the sunlit clouds as they were the only subjects in the photo that I perceived as ‘white’ (other than the swan, which swam into view rather late during my set up).
Morning light is typically warm on the landscape, and shadows are deep and cool (meaning they don’t get much of the direct warm sunlight). Under these conditions, there is no single best white balance…any setting you use will compromise the other end of the spectrum. So balancing on the cloud tops produced the resulting image below. It is generally cold, comprised largely of cyan and blue green, with just a weak hint of the warm sunlight that inspired me to capture the image in the first place.
The rendition below is much more how I envisioned the scene when I took the picture. The impact produced by the warm yellow/yellow greens is enhanced because I retained the shadows as cool blue green. This is as it is in nature. None of the shadows are neutral gray, and even the cloud tops, which I perceived as neutral white, in this image has retained a very slight cyan tone.
As photographers, we should to be aware that, as Lori implied in her article, rarely are shadows and whites truly neutral in the environment. Neutral subjects pick up the colors of surrounding articles, even sky. We can create images of much greater impact and beauty if we exploit this lesson. Let’s not be victim to the dumb white balance algorithms in our cameras/ scanners.
The other lesson I want to return to is that fine art photography is, in fact, art. I continue to learn more about creating art from fine art painters as I do from fine art photographers. Go where the lessons are, and your photography will reap the benefits.
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