All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Monday, December 26, 2022

Imaging Your Paintings: Why Worry?

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Littlejohn process camera, used until the early 1990s
for creating printing plates from large line drawings.


Do you agonize over color-correcting the photos you've taken of your paintings?  Of course you do; we all do.  After all, as visual artists, the image is what we live for.  I, too, have spent many hours in Photoshop adjusting white balance, saturation and more in an often-futile effort to get the image to look exactly like the painting.  It's frustrating.

Now, look at any carefully-printed museum catalog.  The images look pretty good, don't they?  But take the catalog to the museum and compare the reproductions with the actual paintings.  I guarantee that the two will differ, sometimes by a great deal.  One would expect that the museum staff or hired photographers would know more about imaging artwork than you or me, right?

These people are experts in their field.  But the problem rarely lies with them.  The problem, as I'm sure you already know, is manifold:
  • The eye seems things differently from the camera or scanner
  • Not all imaging devices are calibrated properly to screen and printer
  • Paint pigments are different from ink pigments
  • A painting has a textured, three-dimensional surface, whereas a reproduction is two-dimensional (unless you're using a 3D printer)
  • The printing process usually involves printing a number of images on a single sheet, and printer adjustments made for one image likely will affect the other images negatively
  • And, finally, there's a lot of personal judgment involved with adjusting images for the screen or for print
Personally, I'd like to give up photographing my paintings altogether.  The struggle seems counterproductive for someone who just wants to paint.  But, "just paint" isn't all we do.  We photograph our work to enter competitions, to apply to residencies and exhibitions, and to upload it to a website for sales.  For the working artist, photographing art is a necessary skill—so either you must learn or prepare to hire it out.  (I'll refrain from teaching this here; others have covered this topic better than I can.)

So here's some advice:  Stop comparing the image on your computer screen to the painting.  Just make the image on the screen look as good as you can, even if it means the contrast, saturation and temperature are off.  You aren't trying to duplicate the painting.  You are trying to get a good-looking representation that you can use for competitions, residencies and websites.  I always tell people:  "The painting looks better in person."

I read a lot of magazines, and recently I came across an article that has nothing to do with painting but everything to do with trying to get an accurate representation—and although it concerns sound, we can apply the following to paint.  I'm quoting from "Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon:  Audiophilia and its Discontents" by Sasha Frere-Jones (Harper's, December 2022):
I’ve been making records since I was a teenager, and at no point have I been involved in making a record that re-produced an event from everyday life, just as your favorite novel is (with rare exceptions) not a transcript of a conversation. You shape the material you have to make it do what you need it to. [Italics mine.] The idea of anything being “natural” or “accurate” in the field of recorded music made no sense to me. I do know that the word “accuracy” in the context of audio means reproducing the master recording faithfully, but this always seemed like an imaginary pursuit. Who, other than the artist, would know how a master recording was supposed to sound? More to the point, as that artist, I’ve never been entirely sure that I know what a final release does or should sound like. 
I leave it to you to work out the details of this analogy.  In the meantime, don't worry.

Image generated by DALL-E / Open AI


By the way!  Don't forget my May workshop at Bluebird Studios in Santa Fe.  Santa Fe is an awesome place to hold a plein air painting workshop -- great scenery, but also lots of extracurricular activities like galleries and museums! 10% off the price till Dec 31 if you use the coupon code "BLUEBIRD10"  Details here.

Last but not least, my 50% Studio Sale on Southwest paintings continues through December 31st.  Check out the artwork here.

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