Although I am a photographer, I think it’s important to study the work of other visual artists especially those in different mediums. Painters, illustrators, graphic designers, collage, and other 2d artists often approach their work with a different mindset and I feel there is much that photographers can learn from them.
In a painting, nothing is accidental and everything was the result of a conscious decision. Thus if you see a particular color treatment or composition you know that was because the painter deliberately decided to make it so. This may or may not be true for a photograph as we often have to compromise with the real world. For example, did the photographer chose that point of view because she thought it was the best? or did she pick it because that was the only angle cropping out an ugly garbage can on the side. Is the subject blurry because it was shot handheld and the light was fading? or was that a deliberate choice to impact emotional mood. Most times we can never know and only speculate. But with paintings we know that it was intentional.
This painters and artists I discuss here are not intended to be a comprehensive list. These are just those that I’ve come across on my own or had people direct me toward and from whom I was able to learn something meaningful.
You’ll find that the list is focused on western art. This is simply because that is what I’m most familiar with, and by virtue of where I live, the most accessible. There will also be important painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer that I did not include although they would be useful to study for those interested in portraiture.
Finally, I know very little about art history and never studied it formally. I never even studied photography formally, so it’s quite possible some of my opinions are naive, misplaced, or outright wrong. Or that other painters and artworks might be a better example of the point I am trying to make. This article isn’t necessarily about what the artists are known for but rather what I learned from them.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
I listed Albert Bierstadt first because when I see interviews with other landscape photographers, he is frequently named as an important influence, perhaps more so than any other painter. Looking at his work, one can clearly see the connections with much of today’s grand landscape photography.
Bierstadt was perhaps the most prominent and successful American landscape painter of the 19th century. During his life, he had joined several expeditions to explore and survey the American west. From his experiences he made enormous paintings and was known for his sweeping grand landscapes. He was not the first person to paint these locations but his work was extremely popular and brought him great financial success. One of his paintings, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak sold for $25,000 in 1865 which is the equivalent of nearly $450,000 in 2022.
Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1868
If you look at his paintings, he often has a number of common elements: first the foreground is well defined often with an active scene. For example, he might have deer grazing or caravan of pioneers traveling westward. This is followed by a middle ground such as an inviting lake with calm waters. Finally the entire scene is set against a majestic background, frequently with towering mountains bathed in an ethereal light from the sun glowing through the clouds. Overall he achieves an incredible sense of depth and scale. It’s no wonder that his work was so popular.
Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1869
Hudson River School of Painting
Bierstadt was in the second generation of landscape painters known as the Hudson River School. This was an American art movement that focused on the natural beauty of the new world represented in paintings as a grand and monumental scene with a romanticized aesthetic. Bierstad and other painters in the Hudson River school used a huge number of techniques to get a sense of depth and scale on a 2d canvas. These may include:
- having highly detailed foreground elements
- diminishing details and texture as distance increases to the object
- layering and overlapping elements
- changing size and placement of repeated elements
- linear perspective & vanishing points
- atmospheric perspective (also known as aerial perspective)
- changing color temperatures
- dramatic lighting & strategically placed shadows
- figures of animals, people, and other objects for scale
Note: these are general techniques that are widely used in 2d art. I’ve listed them here with the Hudson River painters because they are a good source to see these applied all at once to landscapes.
Most, if not all, of these techniques can be applied to photographs. Either in the field when the photographer is working on their composition or during post-processing when tones, colors, details, and other aspects of the photo are being adjusted.
For example, consider atmospheric perspective (also known as aerial perspective). This refers the impact the atmosphere has on the appearance of distant objects. Specifically, far away objects will take on the color of the atmosphere and appear less detailed. The effect is stronger the greater the distance the object is from the viewer. You might wonder why a photographer would need to know about this because atmospheric perspective occurs naturally and will be automatically present in our photos. But it helps to know the technique so that during editing the photographer doesn’t accidently eliminate it (e.g. by applying clarity or dehaze) and is aware of how to emphazise or de-emphasize it if that is necessary to achieve their visual goals.
I won’t go into describing the other techniques in the list, but you can find more information in painting or drawing tutorials. Other painters in the Hudson River school include Thomas Cole (regarded as the founder), Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Brown Durand, Thomas Moran (see below), John Frederick Kensett, and Jasper Francis Cropsey.
Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Thomas Moran was an American painter in the Hudson River School like Bierstadt. He was known for his western and rocky mountain landscapes, particularly of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. His sketches of the area were used to lobby congress to designate Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872
One thing I found incredible about Moran’s work was his use of focal points and control of eye movement which can be seen in his painting above:
- There are three well defined focal points at the waterfall, rock face and figures in the foreground. The figures also give a sense of scale to the scene.
- The focal points are accentuated by light on dark contrast and vice versa.
- The lines and shadows direct eye movement. My eye follows the ridge line from the waterfall to the bright cliff tops, then down the shadow line to small figures in the foreground and takes the river back to the waterfall
We can see how much Moran stylized the painting by comparing it to a photo of the same scene:
Photograph of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 2019. Provided by Erik Whalen under Creative Commons.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter who is best known for his painting, The Scream, one of the most iconic and recognizable western artworks.
The Scream, 1893
What I learned from Munch is that perhaps the most important question to ask as a photographer is what do you want the viewer to feel? Munch struggled with anxiety and mental health his whole life: “For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.” I think most would consider his work extremely successful on that front.
I am not trying to make people feel anxiety in my work, but how I want the viewer to feel is now the first question I ask myself when I am developing a concept for a new image. This has become perhaps more important to me than the main subject as the desired emotion sets the tone for everything ranging from composition to color palette.
I’ll note for landscape photographers who seek incredible sunsets that Munch made the sky a blood red and that wasn’t an accidental choice. As he wrote in his diary “I was walking along the road with two friends – then the Sun set – all at once the sky became blood red – and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired – clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature”.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter especially known for her emotionally charged portraits and self-portraits that dealt with themes of the human experience including pain and passion. Her biography is fascinating and I suggest you read that. In brief, she had a life troubled with many health problems beginning from childhood when she contracted polio and then a severe bus accident as young adult that left her with a fractured pelvis, broken spine, and broken leg among other issues. She would deal with pain and illness the rest of her life. Her last words in her diary were “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return” (“Espero Alegre la Salida – y Espero no Volver jamás”).
What struck me most about her art is her last painting of watermelons where she inscribed the words “Viva La Vida” which translates to “long live life”. It was made a few days before her death. She may have wrote that with a straightforward meaning but given her history and that she had previously attempted suicide, it may have also been made in irony.
Viva la Vida, Watermelons, 1954
For me, her life story and how it lead to the painting is why the work resonates with me. This often goes against what is told to photographers – that the story of what you went through to get the picture is irrelevant and that viewers will never know or care why you made the image. I think that’s true when the photo is viewed as a work of craft where technical skill and traditional composition rules apply. But as an art piece, the back story matters and that is what is most important about the painting (or our photographs).
Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)
I first learned of Maxfield Parrish when a friend mentioned that my photograph reminded her of his work and I’ve since gotten that comment from a few different people. After finding out about Parrish, I started researching his paintings and it got me started on the path of thinking about my own work in terms of style and perhaps more importantly themes.
Parrish has a number of books written about his life but briefly he was a commercially successful painter and illustrator known for making idealized fantasy landscapes, often featuring young women or androgenous nudes. His paintings had a dreamlike atmosphere and he often used highly saturated colors. He was known for his blue so much so that the color Parrish blue was named after him.
Dinky Bird, 1904
You can see the similarities the above two works. If you do an image search on google you can view his works as a collection (note there are some duplicates in the search results).
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
I was reviewing photos for a competition and I saw one with an aerial view into a valley. I believe it was from a hill top looking downwards at an angle. It felt oddly uncomfortable but I couldn’t quite articulate why until I saw the following painting by Sargent.
Bridge of Sighs, (ca 1903-04)
It immediately dawned on me as to why he painted the front of the boat. To give the viewer a sense of place in the image. Without the front, the viewer is left wondering where they are in the scene. Are they swimming in the water? or floating in the air? This is what the photo I saw was lacking, there was no place for the viewer to stand.
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Most of the time in photography, the advice is to simplify compositions and make the image about one clear subject. However Hieronymus Bosch, took the opposite approach in his paintings and made immensely complicated artworks. But at the same time, the work does not feel cluttered and has a pleasing visual flow.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, between 1490 and 1510
I’ve viewed a few of his works and to be clear, I’m still struggling to understand all of the principles behind his compositions. But his work is proof by example that complex scenes can be rendered in an aesthetic manner.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 - 1610)
Carvaggio’s paintings are great examples of the use of light and shadow to create dramatic effect. His work often involved very dark artworks both in visual style and theme. He was a notorious criminal, commited many violent crimes, and was even wanted for murder. So perhaps that aspect of his life influenced his subject matter.
In terms of his paintings, he is known for using the tecniques of chiaroscuro and tenebrism. In chiaroscuro, there is a high contrast between brightly lit subjects and a darker background. The shadow and dark areas are used to increase the 3d effect on a subject. Generally dark areas in will hold some degree of light with objects and figures still visible.
The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600.
Tenebrism can be thought of as an extreme type of chiaroscuro introduced by Carvaggio. It is used to create a dramatic effect in painting by making background areas fully black with no attempt to include forms in the darkness. This more extreme technique is often called a spotlight effect.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599 or 1602
The other thing to note is how he uses light in conjuction with composition to create focal points. Consider that in Judith Beheading Holofernes:
- There are three clear focal points which are the faces of Judith, her maid Abra, and Holofernes.
- Each face has a specular highlight or a very brightly lit area that is close to specular.
- The backgrounds are black to make the figures stand out (tenebrism).
- Holofernes is looking back at Judith completing a triangle between them and as a viewer my eyes move between them.
- The arms of Judith (but also Abra) form leading lines between the focal points.
- The two primary focal points for Judith and Holofernes have a stronger facial expression than Abra.
In Supper at Emmaus, there is a clear central focal point, the face of the Jesus (man in the red clothes sitting at the table). Our visual system is naturally attracted to faces so we look there first. But he also employs other techniques including lighted subjects against a dark background (chiaroscuro), an even darker shadow placed behind the focal point, and the eyes of the other men are all looking at him (we tend to look where others are looking). However, one thing I wonder about is why Carvaggio placed a bright patch on the green jacket. Was this intended to be a lessor focal point? or is it a detail added for realism.
Supper at Emmaus, 1601
Interestingly, Carvaggio is sometimes called the first photographer as he used photographic techniques in his work even though it would be centuries before the camera was invented. He would work in a very dark room and illuminate models through a hole in the ceiling. This provided enough light to use his studio as a camera obscura and project the image of the scene on canvas with a lens and mirror. He is thought to have fixed the image using light sensitive chemicals (mercury salt) to paint a first sketch of the image
Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, ca 1603
I’m always seeking to learn from other artists and I’ve found studying painters to be fascinating. They work under a different set of constraints and I’ve learned from both their choices in technique (how they render a 3D scene on a 2D canvas) and also how they conceptually approach their art.
As I learn more about the works of painters and illustrators, I will continue to add to this article.