Paintings Are Better Than Photos

Broad statement. A painting is not reality. At best it’s the artist’s impression of reality. A photo, on the other hand, is a direct consequence or recording of reality. That doesn’t mean we can’t manipulate a photo. We can change the lighting, add or subtract light, change the background and improve the film or digital imaging, or just resort to Photoshop and change everything. With a painting or other art work I start from scratch. I don’t actually change anything; I add everything. I choose what I add and sometimes I just make it up. I don’t necessarily add everything I see, so a painting is fundamentally different from a photo.

Thousands of years ago it must have been a great epiphany to climb deep into the earth via a cave, to see animals and hunters jumping off the walls animated with torchlight. Some of the artists drawing on cave walls were very good, and to them the drawings had a much greater connection to the animals and people drawn. I have read some opinions that this may be why the hunters are almost always depicted as stick-men where the animals often have a very realistic quality.

I don’t intend to argue that a painting has a better connection to the real world that a photo, but the fact that I am drawing it and have the opportunity to instill a sense of my perception of the scene does make a difference. As an artist if I can project some part of my experience of the scene then that is more than a photo can do.

As a professional photographer I played with light, apertures and depth of field. I used various lenses to show the scene in the way that I wanted and I enjoyed it but the equipment is expensive. As an artist I can do the same thing but the equipment is much less costly and I observe the scene for a longer time and make changes that I wouldn’t or couldn’t with a camera. It’s these changes that add something more to a scene than a photo. I’m in awe of good photographers. It’s unlikely that I would paint a scene that I knew a photographer waited hours or days to get. But I might use that image plus half a dozen others to put together a scene that I imagine but could not possibly get in real life. I hope and believe the painting says more to an observer than a photo.

Warm Colours

I’ve had trouble for years with ‘warm’ colours because I know that blue is a hotter colour than red. People generally equate red with warm because fire is red and if a stove element is red we have been trained from an early age not to touch it. On the other hand snow is cold and looks blue so blue must be cold right? I remember finding out about the colour spectrum and being very confused about colour temperature. I’m still confused because if I want to warm up colours I make them redder. If I want colours cooler I add blue.

I’ve stopped worrying about these distinctions and just paint. I still think of warm as red and cool as blue. I bet this colour temperature concept is universal but I would be interested to know if other societies and languages have a similar problem.


I don’t like advertising. I don’t like marketing or anything that comes close to it. I like writing this blog (surprise, surprise) and I like building Websites which is more of a technical and creative process. I’ve been looking for ways to promote my Website by reading various sites that advertise FREE Website promotion. I promised myself and my wife that I would not be paying for advertising. So I’ve gone through various SEO recommendations and listed the site with the search engines. I got an idea from one of them (I can’t remember which one) recommending supplying greeting cards, which sounds great if it works. So I’ve made up a Christmas card and put it on my site. I don’t know if it will work but if it does I can certainly make more. It’s simply a JPEG image so no live links. I know it’s not particularly sophisticated but I wanted it to be as unintrusive as possible.

Focus of Interest

I believe and have been taught that a picture needs a foreground, middle ground and background. The main focal point is usually in the foreground. I’ve often strayed from this and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. An example of it not working is the painting I did called Garden Stairs.

The stairs themselves should be the focal point and they are in the photograph this is based on. I didn’t like the foreground flowers so I changed them. This resulted in a muddling of the focal point. I was going to toss or paint over this canvas but there are some who like it so I left it as is.

Favourite Museum

At the moment it would have to be the Metropolitan in New York. We have a lovely art gallery in Vancouver but I have rarely ever liked the shows. A video of a dying fly does nothing for me. OK so that was just one show many years ago but it is one that I remember and not fondly. The gallery has an extensive collection of Emily Car but rarely show them. There is room where some are shown all the time. I don’t actually like Emily Car but some of her works are very interesting.

I believe our gallery also has a fair collection of the Group of Seven. I like some of them but when I’ve been to the gallery I don’t think they have had any displayed. A local artist that I love is Robert Bateman. I don’t believe our Vancouver Gallery has anything by him.

I love getting lost in the Met; as I did often even though I’ve only been there a couple of times. The turn into the next room is astonishing, particularly when I might never see it again. My wife and I walked around the museum three times before I finally asked where the Arms and Armour exhibit was. The attendant pointed to a door not 20 feet away. I’ve been asked how I know that we walked around three times. I don’t, although I know we’d been in some rooms before, even though I was looking at different things.

Museums can be useful. If I am creatively stuck, walking into a museum is an easy way to clear the cobwebs. I can spend days in a museum and not just because I am lost.


This is why I was looking for the Arms and Armour exhibit in the Met.


Shadow Density

With the painting I’m doing right now, it occurs to me that much of the reality illusion is due to shadows. The shadows definitely impart a 3D illusion to the image. I’ve been trying to make the shadows less dense and I think this is more like the mental image of reality that we have. In a photograph I can expose for the highlights or the shadows but not both. The dynamic range of film can be compressed using over and underexposure, so the shadows appear less dense.

Digital cameras and monitors have a higher dynamic range than film. I bet the dynamic range is actually greater than our eyes can see but our eyes are highly variable. Our irises expand and contract depending on what we want to see. I often use multiple photos when I paint. If I’m taking the photo I expose for the highlights, then expose for the shadows and take another. I could put these together in Photoshop but generally I can’t be bothered. It’s easy for me to paint from one image then switch to the other and paint details into the shadows. Photoshop supports high definition photos. That is a photo with a higher dynamic range. Actually I think Photoshop just compresses the dynamic range so that the shadows and highlights are exposed correctly. This is exactly what is happening with film if it’s over or under exposed. If I don’t have shadow details in an image I often make them up.

As I said I don’t make high definition images in Photoshop, but doing what I do while painting is likely exactly the same thing. I like to think that by using my own senses to do this something more is being added. I may be deluding myself because the more I think about it the more it sounds like the same process.

I think that shadow detail is a requirement for the reality illusion. Since we are capable of seeing shadow detail then we expect it when we are looking at a photo or painting. I’ve seen high definition photos that look wonderful and very real. Maybe that is because of the shadow detail. When we look at a scene on a nice sunny day, our eyes move from one area to another to take in the scene. Our irises open or close depending on the area our attention is focussed on. With a painting our irises don’t need to change. Paint has a much lower dynamic range than reality. Maybe the reality illusion is the shock of being able to see both shadows and highlights in the painting without having to change our irises.

This is getting too technical. I’m going to continue painting details in the shadows.

Artist Statements

Does anyone else have difficulty with artist statements? I hate artist statements. At least I hate writing them. If the statement actually pertains to the work; like the location, medium, how long it took, or the subject then OK. Otherwise there are a number of Web sites that generate wonderful sounding statements. They are gobbledegook but they sound great.

I find artists statements difficult to understand. Not what the artist wrote but why write anything at all. An observer looks at the painting and either likes it or doesn’t. Knowing how it’s painted, with what medium and on what surface isn’t going to change how someone likes the work. If I were buying a painting I’d like to know if the artist thought about its archival attributes but that’s one artist to another. I can’t look at a painting as if I’m not an artist. If the work is painted using coloured mashed potatoes I would question its longevity. Don’t laugh.

There may be some underlying message that the artist is trying to convey. If you don’t get it right away you can argue that the work isn’t very good but it might take a month or more of living with a painting before you stumble upon its underlying meaning. My paintings have no underlying meaning that I am aware of. I liked the subject so I painted it. Sometimes there is some other stuff that comes up. Like the die-off of sea stars or the salmon run problems. But that is not why I painted the scene. It’s an add-on that came later while I was painting the image. That tells you something about me but I don’t know why a particular scene attracted me so I can’t enlighten anyone.

I can understand a buyer wanting more. Why should they have to puzzle over the meaning of a painting if it doesn’t speak to them right away? For me buying a painting when it means nothing to you would be the height of folly. Particularly if it were costly. I question whether it has to mean anything. If you like it, you like it and that should be the end of it. If I owned a gallery I probably wouldn’t sell much.

Many people buy art because it appreciates in value, and it often does. Unfortunately like stocks, I haven’t heard of anyone being able to predict this accurately. If I sell a painting it’s gone and I don’t think of it again. It’s an interesting feeling when I come upon a painting that I did years ago; although I remember the painting I sometimes have the opportunity, for a short time, to see it as someone else sees it.

I am rebuilding my Website and I’m planning to add some description for each painting. I hesitate to call them statements. I’m going to do it because the search engines need it for indexing. The search engines don’t read metadata; they are just looking for text on the pages. I still don’t believe the paintings need any description. A potential buyer either likes the painting or not.

New Website

I just re-built my Website.

I’m using Adobe Muse. I originally used Dreamweaver but Muse is faster and has a lot more options. Dreamweaver is probably better for collaborations and it lets you get into the code easier but if you are not seriously into coding then Muse is easier. In fact you hardly have to code at all and Muse has a lot of proprietary functions. I’ve noticed more sites using it lately.

For other artists out there, building a Website can be a challenge and it’s expensive if you have someone else do it. Muse is a good alternative. You need to learn the application but it’s no more difficult than Photoshop or InDesign and it’s a lot more intuitive. There are likely other cheaper alternatives out there. Considering Muse is gaining traction there will likely be other competitive options available soon if they aren’t already.


I’ve hung a small mirror at the back of my studio. Calling it a studio is a small fabrication. The mirror allows me to step back and look at a reversed image of the painting I’m working on. Problems tend to stand out when looking at the reversed image. It’s like turning the painting upside down. I think the mirror actually works better. I got this idea from pictures of Robert Batemans’ studio. Now he has a studio.

Random Walk

There has been a great deal of work done on searching data. Look up data searching on Google and prepare to be geeked out. One of these methods is a random walk. The data is sampled in a random way to see if it is correct or to find a particular record. In unordered data this can be shown to be faster than a sequential search. Analysis of how we look at a picture or reality looks to me like a random walk.


We land on a location, observe it until it resolves into something then move on to another location. We keep doing this until we form a mental image. When I’m working on a painting I do this until I find an area that needs work. It’s not actually random. I look for places that don’t make visual sense and those are the areas that I work on. I’ve trained myself to accept a level of uncertainty that, to me, makes the painting look like a painting, rather than an attempt at photo-realism.


I believe this is how most of us view reality; so how can an artist use this? I’ve been trying adding detail to various parts of a painting. The idea is to enhance the random walk that we do naturally. I don’t know that it’s actually working. As a result I do need to pay more attention to the main point of interest in the painting; it can change as I’m adding detail to various areas. As someone is looking at the painting their eye will land on an area and pause until it resolves into something, then move on. The trick is to add just enough detail so that resolution is quick but not so quick that it’s the same as reality. I’m not trying for a photo-realistic effect. I want the painting to give an illusion of reality. I really have no idea just how much detail this requires. I can only base it on my own experience and I bet it’s different that everyone else’s.