An artist’s slide bank


Dear Artist,

Several artists have inquired recently about the uses and abuses of an artist’s slide bank. As many of us keep some sort of visual archive, I thought we might take a look.

For me the slide bank is the heart of the studio. While I believe in approaching my work from three directions: work on location, work from the imagination, and work from self-collected reference, the bank is the place I go to again and again to prime the pump. In my archive I have about 165,000 slides, all of which I’ve taken myself. While on location looking for specific material, I’ve also allowed myself to gather stuff that I’m sure won’t be used until the afterlife. All these items are filed according to subject matter in loose-leaf slide-pages, 20 slides to a page. They are indexed in a handy little book.

The slides are viewed on a light-table with an Agfa-loup.

I project my slides in several ways. My projector is on a moveable pod and has a zoom lens. At the end of my studio I have a large (4 meter Da-lite Junior Electrol) screen that comes down out of the ceiling. This facility provides such a natural presence that you can almost hear the crickets. Direct projecting onto canvas or other support is useful for hands, faces and difficult subjects such as totem poles or autos. It’s important to turn off the projector early in the process. The idea is to find out “where things are.” It’s the next step, with the projector off or directed to a smaller screen beside the easel, that the artist finds out “how things are.” I always have to remind myself that reference and the imagination are partners — in my studio it’s important not to be a slave to either.

One of the values of slides is that subjects can be reversed — painting may require a seagull flying from right to left or from left to right. Another value is that slides can be pulled out of focus. This permits the artist to see the compositional weaknesses and faulty patterns that practically always exist in natural compositions. While there is also something to be said for print and digital reference, a slide is easily converted to either. I can see the day when my assistant will be putting the whole resource on CD.

Best regards,


PS: “Photography helps people to see.” (Berenice Abbott) “If you’re going to paint from photos, make sure you’ve painted for at least ten years.” (John F. Carlson)

Esoterica: Something I learned from our recent day of telephone conversations was that many artists were not aware of the valuable responses that we publish following every twice-weekly letter — the “clickbacks.” Others told me the responses were “the best part.” These carefully edited letters are amusing, informative, and motivating. They connect a growing community, a brotherhood and sisterhood of artists who struggle daily with the same problems and the same joys. Please take a look. You can cruise back through the previous responses as well.


Slide archiving system


A slide bank can be the heart of a studio. As well as being a place to refresh and remember, it is a practical and efficient artist’s tool. 









The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Digital archiving
by Catherine Jo Morgan, Georgia, USA

I’ve switched to a digital camera that I can keep in my pocket all the time (a Canon S-110 — one of the “digital elves.”) I take photos of anything that catches my eye, without any idea of how it might later figure into a sculpture. Then I download the photo files to my PC and use software called Thumbs Plus (from to add comments and keywords. The nifty thing about the Thumbs Plus software is that I can organize the photos into galleries by theme, track them by keywords, and keep track of photos archived on zip disks or CDRs. So it’s easy to find just the photos I want. The program also prints catalogs of thumbnails — by keyword, gallery, folder, however I want. Using Thumbs Plus, I can also view slide shows (PC style) of past walks. It’s amazing how vivid this can be, really restoring me to the earlier time and place. So far, I haven’t explored methods of projecting images from the PC, but I know it can be done.


Borrowing photographic material
by Raymond Olivere, NY, NY, USA


painting by Raymond Olivere

I also take many slides but as an “old” illustrator I have a huge scrap file filled with hundreds of my own photos in print form, both in color and black and white. I caution other artists to be careful about using photographs, particularly reproductions, taken from printed material, magazines etc. Years ago it was common for illustrators to “borrow” a figure from here, a prop or building from there, to supplement the photos you’ve taken for a job. If you weren’t an expert at drawing then you were in big trouble and shouldn’t be in the business at all because all these elements now had to be cleverly put together with an inventive design, changed where necessary to make an attractive pattern, and so on. Since 1979 new stringent copyright laws have changed all that so as to protect the original work of photographers and painters from plagiarism. I think it is a good thing.


True art
by Gertjan Zwiggelar


painting by Gertjan Zwiggelar

I believe the proof is in the pudding, that is, the end product is the proof of the creativity. It is not important that one uses, ‘artificial means,’ the importance lies in what is the end result. Is the, ‘work of Art,’ truly that, or just a mere copy of something, even nature. The particular joy we painters derive from our profession, is that we can move things around. We can improve nature and have her be totally beautiful, according to our inner visions. Artists are people who can harmonize their inner vision with their expressions/impressions, of the external world and concretize them in Art. Whether that Art comes mostly from the imagination, or from looking at palm trees waving in the wind on a magnificent tropical isle, is equally valid.

Art can be so many things because we humans are so multifarious. How one achieves one’s vision is the business of each individual artist. True Art is the expression of a single Artist, it is rarely something achieved by a committee. True Art is something which can only be seen through that Artist’s eyes. True Art is unique and one of a kind. And it is so beautiful! Whether the Artist projected the image on a canvas and painted it, whatever, the image is the thing!


Advantages of going digital

With the use of a digital camera I can now store thousands of images and index them effortlessly (including the slides I now scan into the computer), cutting and pasting countless possibilities together and fiddling with values and hues that set the wheels of excitement and imagination spinning. The finished paintings never look anything like the image I begin with on the computer screen (which is then printed out in rough form and projected on a Prism), but it does open the door for new sources of inspiration and possibilities that weren’t available to me before. With a digital image I can also zoom in on the smallest detail of something — such as the velvet of a butterfly’s wing or the sweep of a woman’s eyelash — that helps me see and understand something I never before knew existed. The camera freezes a fleeting second in time. I decide what to do with that second, and only my skill, vision and sense memory will help me realize my decisions and uncover the imagination hidden within my camera’s lens.

A digital camera also helps with works in progress. I can snap off a shot of a painting, feed it into the computer and look at it from a perspective even a mirror won’t give me. Compositional errors mercilessly declare themselves, value errors scream at my laziness, and if a painting lacks heart on the canvas it will be drained of heart and soul on the monitor — she is a cruel mistress and she doesn’t fall for any tricks of the trade that disguise basic flaws. In many ways the computer is like an artist. It takes in visual information, processes it through the electrical firing of the machinery, and feeds it back in a new form. Camera + computer + human artist is a trilogy that is just beginning to be explored, and there is no way of knowing where this exploration will lead… so long as we accept this combination as a challenge to rise to new visual experiences and not as a short cut around the essential foundations.


Feel the day
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, B.C. Canada

Artists have used aids from day one. What “works” is the only thing that matters. People who slavishly use photos and have never painted “en plein air”…it shows in their painting. The subject is “lifeless.” Some of us (who have ‘been there, done that’) now prefer the comfort of our home studio to do the final creation. I always carry paper and water-soluble black felt pen, to scribble something down, then a photograph to capture the details and a general idea of colour. It works for me, the minute I view my “scribble” I can “feel the day,” again and remember what it was I wanted to paint and why. Let purists think and do what they want, the rest of us must experiment and use our reference guides and materials in whatever way they work for us.


Use of moving images as creative tool
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA


painting by Warren Criswell

My equivalent to your slide bank is a bookshelf full of camcorder tapes. About 20 years ago, I switched from abstract expressionist inspired work to photo-realism. Except for a few half-hearted attempts I never projected slides, but I did transfer my photos to the painting surface by using tight grids. After about five years of this, however, I burnt out on photos. Once I started painting from a photo, I was what you warned against — a slave to it. I was doing photo-realistic watercolors, so the technical challenge sustained me for a while, but I began to feel more and more restricted. The photo seemed to override my imagination. I began to wonder if I could make it without the camera and finally, I quit cold turkey. I put the camera away and started going out armed only with a sketch book to find out if I could draw. Skill was important to me and I began to feel guilty about using photos.

But after several years of proving to myself that I could draw and paint without photographic aids, I discovered a useful tool that expanded rather than restricted my possibilities — the video camera. I began using it for paintings that involved moving figures (running, jumping, dancing, whatever), but later found it useful for all kinds of subjects. The camcorder gives me the photographic assistance without the strangle hold. Also, video images don’t provide as much information as a good photograph, so more is left to memory and imagination. I shoot a modeling session usually with specific paintings in mind, but there’s always a lot of random and accidental stuff that I often find useful for other images years later in totally different contexts.

My cataloging techniques leave something to be desired, but I can usually find what I want, or something better. There are subjects I still can’t use any kind of photographic aids for, like landscapes and still lifes, which for me demand eyeball information only, but for figures the camcorder is great, if only as a practical convenience.

As for slides, the only ones I shoot are of finished paintings.


Website an on-going seminar
by Bob Scott, Washington, DC, USA

I found your site about 18 months or so ago, a few months into my mid-life rediscovery of art. I’d read some great books by working artists on technique and mental approaches, and wanted more guidance for my self-directed fine art education. Your web site is a gold mine. I immediately found your letters and the clickbacks to be useful, stimulating, amusing at times, and overall key to the sense that you moderate a rambling, on-going seminar. It has been invaluable to me to read what practicing artists think about the many topics that come up in the letters. Unlike a real-world seminar or workshop, where the views will be limited by the number of people in the room, the selected letters give a giant, well-rounded perspective on the infinite questions that come up in the creation and marketing of art. This has limitless value to someone like me who seeks to grow in skill and perspective, and who might one day try to join the ranks of those who pay the rent through art. I have encouraged a number of creative friends and acquaintances in various fields (music, home decorating crafts, writing, teaching, film, photography and visual art) to tune in to the letter for a stimulating, well-edited, dialogue on the creative process. Now back to my day job, which I happen to love.


Jealousy among artists
by Jan Yeb Ypma, Dodge Cove, BC, Canada

While technical advice is often needed and quite welcome, it’s really many other pitfalls that keep us from ‘producing.’ The inner struggle, from a lack of self-confidence to inspirational deficit and other things unrelated to skill levels. It’s there that I have found your emails a decided pleasure and encouragement and I thank you! When I returned to Europe a few years ago, I became involved with artists (painters and sculptors) and while it was a wonderful two-year experience, I also became acquainted with a less pleasant side of the world of artists: jealousy. This nasty trait found expression in a variety of ways, from running each other down (ever so subtly) to clients and others, to being downright silly about where they would be positioned at shows. Theoretically it’s easy to rise above it. However, this catty demeanor may actually have some merit, because if your aim is to sell your art, the stall next to you may and does have some impact on yours. Nevertheless, it sure is refreshing and pitifully rare to hear an accomplished artist actually speaking in praise of another.


Education of an artist
by Veronika Funk, Airdrie, Alberta, Canada


painting by Veronika Funk

I wish in art school they would teach how to present yourself as an artist: how to prepare a portfolio, slides, statement, c.v., etc., in a professional manner; how to research galleries and submit an artist’s package; and how to follow your heart. I know the technical skills taught are important (necessary), but I wish they would teach “emerging” artists the many ways to go about being a full time artist (i.e. the gallery route, art trade shows, designing, teaching, the list goes on). The best learning experience I have had came about from reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Basically, if you follow your heart and do what you love, others will love it, too. No more creating what will supposedly sell, but to create for the sake of creation (like Emily Carr, regardless of how others reacted to her work). But, maybe I wasn’t meant to discover many of these things until recently — until I had experienced life a little bit. I do appreciate the art education I received, the books I’ve read, and the artists I have been fortunate to meet. They are all positive and inspiring influences in my life.


Why not exhibit your art?
Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany

I was really struck by the poignancy of Felicia van Bork’s letter in The way and her anxiety over sharing her art. What’s the old saying: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.” I would say that being impressionable alone does not make her, or anyone else, an artist. Neither does fear of criticism or judgment. ‘Artist’ is not a label you give yourself for reasons of temperament. You are not a philosopher simply because you think, or a musician because you recognize Beethoven’s music. You can’t wait for the ‘creative muse’ before you get down to work; and if it does turn up, you can’t just stifle it under that proverbial ‘bushel’, for whatever reason. I would recommend Felicia make pro and con lists of what she considers are her good and bad characteristics, abilities, aspirations and achievements. That done, I would advise her to take stock of her ‘artistic’ production to date and destroy any stuff she is ashamed of or profoundly dissatisfied with, and I mean destroy. What’s left is already beyond her jurisdiction; she must then decide what she would give away and what she could actually sell. During these activities, I think Felicity should remove her ‘impressionable artist’ hat and don the ‘self-confident conqueror’ one.


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