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Oil Paintings From Photographs, or Adventures in Art Class

Updated on November 20, 2011

The ladies at the oil painting class I attend don't call it art class; it's art therapy. For three hours every Thursday morning, we sit down with our coffee and our music and take part in a relaxing painting session. Our instructor Debbie makes her circles around the room, offering tips on what colors to put out on our palettes and whether to use the bristle or sable brush to paint those trees.

Sometimes we follow other artists' paintings; a few of the more daring students go by the imagination. But most of us have, at least on occasion, used a photograph to create an oil painting. Going by photos can be tricky, because you as the artist are responsible for giving the painting that “painterly” feel. Sometimes we have to use multiple photographs as a reference, using bits from one or another to get the composition just right and make the painting our own.

As every artist comes to realize, each painting takes on a life of its own. I've taken Debbie's art class for six years and completed dozens of paintings. I can look at any of them and call up the story behind them, how I felt when I painted them, and the challenges and joys I experienced. What I'd like to share are some of these paintings and the photographs they came from, placed side by side, and the stories behind them.


Ninja Turtle Angels

This was my first attempt at painting the human face, and I went with green tinted cherub statues. It drew a lot of questions and comments--”What are those?” “Ooh, they're green”--and I'd show them the photograph I shot in the Versailles garden. It was really one of my more unusual paintings. Debbie and I decided to leave out the basin resting on their shoulders because it would be difficult to know what it was without the photo as a reference. And really we wanted the main focus to be on the angels' faces and bodies, how they stretched out their arms and clung to each other.

Painting faces was just as challenging as I expected, if not more so. The eyes in particular were so hard to get right. “Debbie, come help me,” I'd wail. “His eyes are freaking me out!” They were bug-eyed, glaring at me. “If I put this in my bedroom, I wouldn't be able to fall asleep with them staring at me,” I joked. We even came up with a nickname for them: the Ninja Turtle Angels. Luckily, with a few deft, practiced strokes, Debbie brought their eyes to life. Now they had bright, wistful expressions, each staring off in different directions.

One day I'll attempt faces again, perhaps from actual people. For now, I'm happy with my Ninja Turtle Angels.


The French Castle

My first solo trip to France after graduating high school, my hosting aunt and uncle took me to a castle in the countryside, the Château de Chambord . It was easily the most stunning and intricately designed castles I've ever seen, with a staggering display of turrets, windows, and winding staircases. One staircase inside resembled a double helix, two stairways wrapped around each other in a dizzying curlicue. My younger cousins Stephane and Nicolas had a blast running around the courtyard under the refreshingly blue sky. I thought if I were just a few years younger, I'd have the best time of my life playing hide-and-seek (cache-cache) in the labyrinthine interior.

Visiting the castle and taking snapshots was one thing; painting it was another. For one, it took me three sessions just to sketch it in. Debbie advised against using the projector to trace the castle onto the canvas, saying that photographs can bend and warp the perspective. I know the truth: She likes torturing her art students. (Just kidding, Debbie!) I can say now that this was one of the more headache-inducing paintings I've done, although I'm satisfied with how it turned out. Some paintings are just that way.


Tybee Island

The summer of 2008, our family hosted a girl from France named Louise. Between her halting English and our rusty French, conversing was difficult at first. However, with patience and a lot of laughter, we made do and became tight as sisters. Her last week in America, we drove down to Tybee Island, right by Savannah, for a girls' weekend. Louise, Mom, Carly, and I stayed in a bungalow by the beach. Cutting through a field with a lighthouse, we'd pick our way over the rocky shore. I chose this particular photograph to paint because I liked the way we were backlit, almost silhouetted, by the sunset's final rays. Drawing the human form was challenging, but I was given permission to make a few forgiving alterations (“Bring my waist in a little more!”). The reflections in the surf turned out brighter and more colorful in the painting, but I think it still captured the mood of the photo, the peacefulness of the scene.


Snow Scene

January 2011 brought the most intense snow storm in recent years, big enough to paralyze Atlanta for a week. While the snow and ice were not conducive to driving, they did afford some stunning photography. I'd like to think that this lonely rural road, snow blown and empty, could be anywhere. The ramshackle cabin certainly looks the worse for wear. My sister Carly requested a painting for her birthday, and this is what she got. One of the biggest challenges was getting the road to fade away in the misty distance and not look like a triangle pointing to the sky.


Elephants and Seahorses

I've found I truly love painting animals. There's something special about capturing the spirit and magnificence of a wild creature on the canvas. Also, there is no shortage of breathtaking photographs of animals. These two paintings followed photographs, which I unfortunately could not find again.

My uncle, a big fan of elephants, requested a painting of pachyderms. Debbie looked at the grainy newspaper clipping I had to go by, and said, “Okay, but no whining allowed.” It was a rule I had to remember when I realized how many wrinkles there are on an elephant.

Seahorses have always been one of my favorite creatures. How marvelous: the miniature horses under the sea! This painted seahorse (or, as we jokingly called it, the "pony fish") came from a photo I found on Flickr and sadly couldn't find again. I'm grateful to that mystery photographer, though, for providing the up-close shot of the seahorse that would become my avatar.


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