I was Artist in Residence at Everglades National Park this January, and although I spent a lot of time doing plein aire paintings, I also shot nearly 3500 photographs. Many or most of these will become references for future paintings, but some are art in their own right. I apply the same composition techniques, the same color balance rules, etc. The big difference is that I have no control over nature. Much of photography is a combination of skill and luck– being in the right place and time with the right intentions. Of course, as painter I have total control, and can change things that I don’t like, but much of my painting is first visualized in the camera. I might find a landscape that lends itself to a well composed photo, sometimes a stage for some creature. I use the scene in a painting only after I have reconfigured it to suit my needs. In this way, photography is a passive art discipline, recording what we find, as opposed to painting, where we create everything from “scratch.”
Sometimes my photos are of something unusual or striking that I find in nature… often these same subjects would look too perfect, too contrived to become a painting. As a photo, we might look at it and say, “How unusual,” but as a painting, we would probably say, “That doesn’t look correct.” We accept photos as a record of reality (not so true anymore), while a painting must portray our expectations of reality.
So, I suppose that my photography and painting are blended in a way. I use the camera as a visualizing tool. I parse the images I see in nature through the viewfinder. I’m also a photo-realist. I don’t copy photos directly, but I need all of that visual information to make the scene accurate. In other words, I’m not making anything up, just rearranging things to suit my imagination and artistic sense. It is all accurate, even if the overall scene came from my imagination. This need for accuracy has its foundations in my career in natural history museums as an exhibit designer, illustrator, modeler and muralist.