Looking back to 1970, if someone would have predicted that thirty years later I would embark on a new career as a dedicated and recognized oil painter… the laughter coming from me would have shattered eardrums. Yet that is precisely what happened and photography had a big role in shaping my personal quest and vision today. You may even have had similar experiences that guided and prepared you for a late in life painting adventure. After all, where we are today is largely influenced by where we have been. Here is a part of my journey.
Two years after receiving my undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona in 1969, I attended Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA for a year… it was one of the most respected photography schools in the country at the time. My goal was simple, to learn all I could about the technical side of large format photography. Brooks would have liked me to pursue a career as a studio photographer, but it was clear to me from the start that this was not going to be my path. I wanted to apply the extensive knowledge gained at Brooks toward my pursuit of producing highly detailed, controlled and luscious B&W prints of places, people and things. It was my intention to avoid traditional photography and approach compositions that evoked a reality that transcended the ordinary. It was a noble pursuit championed by Ansel Adams and his zone system, Edward Weston with his magical shells, Minor White, Immogen Cunningham and so many others. I was an eager participant. The training I received was rigorous and has remained a part of me and still guides my vision today except painting has become my medium. I’ll explain.
Large format 4x5” and 8x10” view cameras are nothing like today’s small format digital photo experience. No judgement on today's methods… but they are different in so many ways. View cameras are large, require many accessories and a large cumbersome tripod. The numerous accessories needed are large film holders, meters, head cloths to provide darkness behind the glass viewing screen, large protective camera cases and more. Heavy and bulky are the key words. Trekking out into the wilderness, without knowing what you would want to photograph often led to exhausting days with no tangible results. This was only the time and energy needed to find and shoot an image. Then there are the countless hours invested in developing the film and producing prints in the darkroom. In short, this pursuit was daunting and only for very dedicated people.
Quickly in one’s pursuit of suitable subject matter, you must learn to be very discerning with what to photograph. You begin to ask important questions before shooting a single sheet of film. Is it a compelling composition? What do you want to communicate? Most importantly, can you pre-visualize the end result? All this is important so that time and energy isn’t simply wasted on something that might turn out lacking delicate intensity. You might see where I’m going with this now?
Here is a story from my early large format photography days that directly illustrates an important lesson which impacted my way of considering and composing paintings.
In 1972, I attended an Ansel Adams workshop in Yosemite Valley. Although Ansel had already passed away, the workshops continued on bringing together leaders in the photo world to spend a week with students in pursuit of higher education and inspiration. In some ways much like the plein air workshops being conducted around the country now, except the workshops usually had five or six nationally recognized individuals working within the fine art photography field. Every morning began with group lectures and demonstrations and viewing of prints from the artists presenting. In the afternoons, one of the instructors would work with a small group of four or five students out in the field.
One afternoon I accompanied Paul Camponigro, a master, out into Yosemite Valley meadow. He took me and four other students out into the middle of beautiful meadow and had us set up our view cameras. There was Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Cap, the Merced River and all the iconic peaks above. First Paul took his own 4x5 camera and pulled out a ten sheet box of Polaroid 4x5 film. His objective was to show us that a meaningful photograph could be composed without wandering around searching for the perfect spot. He proceeded to shoot ten photos without ever moving his tripod but only rotating and tilting the camera head itself, and he never shoot one iconic postcard shots. Amazing. He then handed each of us our own box of polaroid film and asked us each to do the same. It didn’t take long before I was able to grasp the concept. Truly looking and allowing myself to become absorbed by my surroundings gave ample subject matter to shoot. Wow… it was my first art epiphany and the experience still continues to be present in my mind most painting days today.
Now to the part where this translates into my painting process. First, I can always find things to paint at just about any location. This I can directly attribute to that day in the meadow. At the beginning of every painting I ask myself these questions before I lift a brush. What am I attracted to? Is it the light or contrast, the subject itself, the color, etc? How can I best communicate clearly what I see as a meaningful composition? When I have answered these questions, I often sketch a thumbnail (I’m not the best sketcher) but even if I don’t, I always try to pre-visualize the end result before I begin. Whenever I can see the finished painting before I start, it usually works best and the completed painting often clearly communicates my intention. When I complete the painting, I ask more questions… did I do a good job communicating my original intention? If yes, then I ask why. If no, then I also ask why. The answers help me with my growth as an artist.
My early years in photography taught me so many things that I apply to plein air painting. I’m sure you also have stories and events too that have and continue to help you develop as an artist. Please share them.
To learn more about Richard, please visit his website.