I’m laptopping you from the dome car on the Rocky Mountaineer. It’s a summertime rail service that runs between Vancouver, B.C. and Banff, Alberta. Every time Rami, our well-informed steward, points out something of interest — a mountain, a mountain goat, or a particularly good view, dozens of digital cameras fire off in unison. “Aim a bit forward on the right side and you’ll get a nice shot of a trestle built in 1922,” he announces. He even gives technical advice: “Lens hard against the window, manual focus.” Everyone obliges. From where I’m sitting there’s not one of the “old style” film cameras in sight.
Since the advent of digital the volume of clicks is way up. The digital system has dramatically changed the way people take and view photographs. The old pile of prints and the old photo album are old hat. When these folks get home, they’ll download the scenery and export it to their friends.
For those of us who take scenery seriously, the digital camera has evolved. The time-lag between pressing the shutter and getting the shot is shorter in the newer models. As always, “viewfinder-thinking” quickens compositional ability, finds patterns, and records reference detail for later refreshment. Film or not, it’s the joy of gathering. The simple act of accumulating reference is a tonic for the soul. It’s not the photo, it’s what you can do with it. Early or late light may be substituted for midday. Complexity may be simplified. One adds and subtracts. It’s the creative imagination that finds out how things are to be.
The train stops for no artist. This gently swaying, quiet tube threads the environment. Preparation and anticipation are key. Views present themselves and are gone. An osprey’s nest with young sweeps by on a rail-side pole. A bear with two cubs scramble to the safety of the forest. A turquoise and silver glacier flashes in a gap in the trees. Unconcerned lovers make love at the edge of a lake. With digital you can take in a lot of stuff. You may end up keeping a lot. Often the real value is not apparent until some time later. What emerges is an adaptation of reality, which, when given the added value of canvas, may just happen to be exported to these very folks who rush from side to side with their digitals.
PS: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” (William Cornelius Van Horne — President of Canadian Pacific Railway, 1888-1899)
Esoterica: For plein air folks on the move, there’s a system that I call “DIPAR” (Digital Instant Plein Air Reference). That ravioli-sized screen on the back of the camera gives a painter just enough information. A cellphone with a built-in camera will do the trick too. If you’ve got elbow room and a laptop, you can give yourself a better image or even a slide show of the stuff you’re passing through. I’ve asked Andrew to put up an example of DIPAR below.
Digital Instant Plein Air Reference – DIPAR
It’s not the camera
by Michael Warner, Rochester, NY, USA
It’s 30 years this fall that I’ve worked for Kodak and 30 years my father before me. We “Kodak Kids” like to say we were born with Brownies in our hands. The evolution to digital was rapid and painful and glorious all at once. There are those that hate the digital revolution. Yet remembering those basic photo classes at 9 years old in the Kodak Camera Club, it’s never the medium as much as the eye, mind and heart of the photographer. It’s the creativity that makes the photo. My SLR is on the shelf. Time marches on.
Treasure hunt begins at home
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
On a recent drive through the crowded cities of Kenya and Tanzania, with no opportunity to stop for photos, I used my digital camera like a net, gathering random images from the car whenever we slowed down a little. No time for focus, surrendered to the digital delay, but immersed in the dazzling beauty of a place I’d never been before, I knew I was bound to get some great pictures. When I got home, the treasure hunt began. Zoom and crop. Moments captured, found by sifting through a thousand accidental compositions, that I might have missed. Attachment is a photograph of a young couple in Arusha.
Take time to see
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, WI, USA
Before I started using photos as a base for my work I used the camera to take images of the places we would see during our vacations. Years ago we were at the Grand Canyon and I started watching people taking photos. Most would walk to the edge, point their camera and snap a picture or two… then turn around and not even look at the “original” they had just photographed. I found that I had been doing something similar… snapping the picture and leaving the real looking for later when the film was developed. Though I did look at the original scene much longer than the folks I mentioned, I was still not taking much time observing what I had just photographed. This is a problem with taking pictures for future reference… it makes the process of observing a passive act.
Once I realized this, I photographed less and less, and spent more time looking and observing. After a time, I would not take the camera out at all and just enjoyed taking long looks. As a consequence, my visual memory improved and I was able to “picture” the images better in my mind’s eye. In other words, I became a better observer of my surroundings.
Enthusiasm for the tool
by Veronica Stensby, Tarzana, CA, USA
Three years ago I went digital and it has completely changed my life. I’ve had cameras in hand for over 40 years as an amateur, but now the camera is my “third eye” like never before. You’ll no doubt be inundated with letters because this is a revolution for artists. Four aspects in particular stand out for me:
1. The Macro lens: close-up on patterns, flowers, insects. I feel like a scientist looking under a microscope and the choices for cropping and exploration are endless — a great composition exercise.
2. No fear: I can take thousands of pictures, good and bad and delete later, consequently finding great compositions that I saw in the blink of an eye on a fast-moving bus, etc. Last fall I took a memorable bus tour through New Zealand (October is springtime), visiting childhood friends. I covered much of the South Island, the bus-drivers kept the windows sparkling clean and I took 1500 pictures, most from the moving bus. Came home and started painting (in watercolor), using a media hook-up to my TV to zoom in (it has a bigger screen than my computer). The ability to use images almost immediately certainly helped to reinforce my gut responses to all the amazing imagery and helped with expressing those feelings in the painting.
3. Marketing your work: I’m just breaking in to the Art World, but already am selling greeting cards, making business cards, small prints of originals, the possibilities are endless. I find it easy to make a good digital image of my artwork. I hope more competitions will accept digital in the future as well as slides.
4. Ease of handling: With scene-modes I don’t have to fuss with a lot of technical jargon.
DIPAR on the road
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
Most digital cameras can be connected to the VCR or video camera outlet on the TV in your RV or rental RV or hotel/motel room. The colour controls may require some playing with to better saturate them but a 21″- 27″ screen really is a help for someone who always finds his photos benefit from cropping before painting. I crop by taping paper over the screen. You really can’t crop the ravioli-sized screen on the digital camera.
Pleasure of sharing
by Anne Hudec, Oak Bay, BC, Canada
On a recent trip to Paris I was able to capture some beautiful images, which I then emailed to an artist friend in Indiana. Since she is unable to travel at this time, these images excited her to such a degree that she is embarking on painting several of them this minute. Like-wise, I have just completed a painting from a photograph taken by a photographer in Hamburg (with his permission of course) — as at this point I cannot see Hamburg in my travel plans to capture this image myself. Isn’t it wonderful how our ideas captured on a tiny magnetic card can excite and motivate others to creativity? This is the pleasure of sharing with fellow artists.
Paintings reflect ‘art bridge’
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
Last fall I unexpectedly found myself on a bus route that took me up Mount Saint Victoire in Provence, France, a favorite subject of beloved Cezanne. My painting materials were back at the chateau, but fortunately I had my digital camera handy for reference photos. The French bus driver sensed my excitement as the bus began its climb up Cezanne’s famous limestone mountain and he immediately beckoned me to sit in the front seat of the bus. To my surprise, as he rounded each steep corner of the route he stopped the bus, opened the door and let me point and shoot while the other passengers smiled on. No doubt Cezanne had no such modern conveniences at his disposal!
Last month back again in France, I taught a painting workshop in Brittany. We took endless photos for future paintings. It was the kindness of the French people toward American artists that set the warm “tone” for our future paintings, also inviting us to exhibit our paintings in the mayor’s office. Hopefully our paintings will reflect the strong “art bridge” we continue to build between our countries… a peaceful place that politics can’t touch.
You never know
by Juan Jose Iuorno, Rio Negro, Argentina
Your photographing from the train reminded me of Antonioni’s movie Blow up in which a photographer taking shots on Hyde Park, London, later discovers a crime upon developing the film in the lab. The movie was an adaptation of Julio Cortazar’s short story La Baba del Diablo.
Can’t shake it
by Harvey Fix, Medicine Hat, AB, Canada
I have been an artist/potter for thirty years and while doing this I was also a techno dweeb telecommunications electronic technician helping in my small way to keep the super hi-way flowing for the oilmen as well as Sally and Bill who wanted to talk or send email to each other via the electronic web. This helped to pay the bills and gave me a greater than normal understanding of digital technology and how the pictures you talk of are stored and cropped and perhaps even saved by digital means. I retired 5 years ago to do what meant most and that was making art my main concern and although I try to erase digital technology from my brain it just keeps invading every picture I take. The film is gone but the memory carries on.
Short span for tiresome art
by Marcy Abhau, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I live in Philadelphia and saw the Richard Pettibone show you referred to in a previous letter. My favorite part of it was the little tiny canvases — from the back. They were very cute. As for the rest of it, I got bored pretty fast, because, once again, I was seeing an exhibit about art instead of an exhibit ofart. It’s just tiresome. I agree that his conceptual framework is at least straightforward, but who cares? I had to go through a lot of anguish and insecurity for years before I finally figured out, all by myself, that I’m a painter interested in painting. It was a real breakthrough for me to be able to let the rest of it go and not think something was wrong with me. I’m glad you talked about Sargent. He was such a whiz, not to be judged. I like him because he was actually a painter. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is right now showing a bunch of etchings by Edward Hopper, and they are shocking because of how completely the figures are integrated with their landscapes. Neither one could exist without the other. And that, I think, is something to look at — for a long time.
Important artists get copied
by S. K. Sahni, Delhi, India
The idea of copying the works for commercial use is being done here in India also. However we don’t have any proper laws to deal with this problem. In your letter you have mentioned that works are used to decorate the place, which another way makes the original work more important. Mondrian basic forms are used quite often by many designers in one way or another. If your works are copied it means that they are important. However, it is not possible for anybody to copy my works because of their inherent nature.
Give out the brownie recipes!
by Sheila Norgate, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
On the issue of copying, I gave up a long time ago worrying about what some other artist might be doing with my imagery. I’d rather put my energies into expanding. Besides, I figure it’s like a brownie recipe. I could give ten friends the exact recipe and the same pile of ingredients and we’d all come out with something that tasted and/or looked different. No matter how hard someone might try, they will never be me and likewise, I will never be them. I am in the habit of giving away all my “secrets” when people ask me how I do something, or how I achieve a particular ‘effect.’ It affirms that there is plenty to go around. I hope to be remembered as a generous artist, not one who had to cling to her precarious art world perch out of fear and insecurity.
Worth the ride
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
Many attendees to outdoor art fairs these days are “prospectors.” Those folks who are looking to copy an artist who they think have a successful-looking booth and product. One couple came in my booth on Sunday, the 24th of July and the gentleman said, “All you need is a tent from Sam’s Club, and you can surely do better than this guy!” Another guy came and took pictures of my booth, so he’d know how to “do it,” he said.
My process is so difficult to do that I think that’s why I haven’t been copied — you know, it might take some ‘toil.’ My temper is very similar to Roger Clemens, the MLB pitcher, though I’m not quite his size. I am 6′ and 270 lbs. and I can throw a baseball 75 miles an hour. Maybe I can brush him back off the plate when our town teams meet — maybe not!
I don’t know the boundaries for copy painters, but they live in a dungeon that has a rankness and stench that I can only imagine. What reward is there? What joy? If I never make it, if I never see from the window that all the biggest artists of our time look through, my little window will still have the morning sun shining in brightly, and that, my great, inspirational friend, is all I can ask for. “To thine own self be true” is a great line to live by, though it’s like trying to ride a horse for the first time — not easy to do, not easy to stay on, but worth the ride.
Life is alive
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I enjoyed the letter by Debby Kline about the two types of artists. Only two? What she said was thought provoking, and sometimes as I paint from life out of doors I wonder, am I doing the same thing that artists have done for centuries with no originality? But painting from life is a grand and exciting event. Every artist sees life differently, and in their eyes lies the originality. Believe me, I’m not making art “for the masses” as I veer toward abstraction and push color. It’s been a long time since I believed that representational imagery is dead, and anyone who ventures out into nature with an easel, paints and canvas will tell you that life is very much alive.
Obituary of a prolific creator
by Jeanne Rhea, Raleigh, NC, USA
I know that mass production and Chinese and other imports affect what we can get for our creations. I make one-of-a-kind mixed media sculptural pieces and often spend 40-80 hours on a piece. I cannot compete with imports so I don’t even try. But I can guarantee buyers that they will never see another exactly like it as I don’t have what it takes to even copy myself! Time is too short. Ideas are too many. The urge to try new techniques and media is too great. I have a feeling I am going to be buried in my own artwork. I can just imagine my own obituary. “She thought her art was so valuable or she was so attached to it after days and sometimes months of work that she stored it in unsafe conditions rather than to sell to a shop for a few dollars. Opening a door, her whole inventory buried her. So sad that we will not be able to enjoy more of her art and she is gone. If you have an artist friend, in memory of Jeanne Rhea, please buy some of her art while she is alive in order to spare your friend a similar fate.”
oil on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Mona Youssef, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada who wrote, “A well rounded artist takes in all with full senses and adds lifetime experiences. Importing or exporting such treasures is what keeps the world meaningful and adds value to it.”
And also Eleanor Pauling, Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada who wrote, “On many occasions I took the train from Banff to the West Coast. Since I have retired I’ve found another great joy in trying to capture memories of my teen years. I love to paint the mountains.”
And also Claudette Lee-Roseland, Wisconsin, USA who wrote, “For a good read about building the Canadian Pacific railroad try The Impossible Railway by Pierre Berton. Thanks for the short vacation through your eyes.”
And also Christine Farley, Wilmington, NC, USA who wrote, “I took many digital photos of this same Rocky Mountain trip and will remember always. It took me a year to work on six large paintings from the trip which now hang in a show in Wilmington NC.”
And also Pauline Pike who wrote, “I can’t imagine why I waited so long to get your artistic letters twice a week. I really appreciate your sharing of talent for writing as well as painting. It is a joy and the most positive and refreshing e-mail I receive.”