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Keep It Simple

Keep It Simple

Painting from photos: my approach

Although I mostly work from photographs, which I take myself, I try to avoid copying the photo(s) too literally. I talked about this in an earlier blog post where I asked if it’s OK to paint from photos, but I want to say some more on the subject today. In particular, the need to keep it simple…

An example of my approach relates to a painting I finished recently. Its title is Three Boats At Staithes. You can see the photo I worked from above. The painting appears below and is also in my Portfolio. You’ll notice that I chose to focus on just one aspect of the scene.

Ken Young: Three Boats At Staithes

The location

The location is a picturesque, old North Yorkshire fishing village, named Staithes. (It’s not an easy name to pronounce, Staithes, with that odd combination of ‘s’ and ‘th’ sounds.) A river, which I believe is known as Roxby Beck, flows out of a ravine on one side of the harbour. Local fishermen keep a few small boats moored on the riverside.

What interested me

Over the years, I’ve developed a sort of instinct for looking at a photo and picking out the features that might make a decent painting. In this case, I realised straight off that the three boats lying side by side in the lower right quarter were what interested me. I liked the boats for their pointed shapes and shadows and their colour schemes. I also liked the way that the sunlight was flaring off the edge of the farthest boat. 

To keep it simple, I was aiming to accentuate the features I like and downplay everything else.

Simplifying the scene

So, I cropped the photo till the boats became the dominant element, cranked up the tonal contrast a bit and reduced the background – the river and the steep bank – to a single, shadowy mass.

When it came to applying paint to paper, I began with the foreground. The boats were resting on dried mud that was actually shiny, with strange, purplish markings. To simulate the mud, I laid down some pale green patches to indicate growths of algae (or whatever). Then I added random marks with a mauve mix of paint. Moving on, I added the dark background. The pigment is Neutral Tint. I took care to lighten the area above the light flares on the boat at the back.

I’d already simplified the scene in general by cropping the scene and merging the stuff in the background. I decided to continue the simplification process by omitting some details like the boats’ nameplates and several mooring ropes. The only ropes I included were the ones at the prows of the boats – just enough to suggest that the boats are securely tied up. I figured that if I put in every rope you can see in the photo, the result would be visually confusing for the viewer. Or, to put it another way, from a compositional viewpoint all those ropes seemed unnecessary.

Simplification can be an important tool for the artist!

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