26 Sep

Without a Brain

A wise woman, pastel instructor and good friend insists, rather vehemently, “ignore the photo.” She doesn’t mean photographs aren’t good for reference material; I use them all the time, and that’s how my travel paintings happen. What she means is don’t let the photo dictate what’s in the painting.

Many artists try to reproduce a scene exactly. My feeling is that we all have cameras in our phones these days, and nobody would need my art if all I was doing was copying what the camera already did. As another wise friend – my husband – recently said, “a camera is an eye without a brain.” The human eye discerns far more than a camera can, especially when it comes to color, which is my passion.

Therefore, I often work from multiple photos, blurry photos, or small photos to ensure that I don’t inadvertently get caught up in reproducing what the camera saw. My goal is to show how it felt, not to accurately represent every cloud, streetlight, or blade of grass. My paintings are about the energy of a scene and what drew me to it.

A good example is a painting I’ve been developing of this scene from southern France. We’d been sitting for a long time on a hot canal boat with plastic benches, so I was particularly enjoying stretching my legs as we strolled along ancient cobblestone streets. For my painting, I’m de-emphasizing the dark hole of a window, and details of the plants. Instead, I will show how inviting the old umbrella and a couple of comfy chairs felt at that moment.


  1. What I really wanted most was to sit down, order a cold drink, and relax, San. Glad it looks sweet, as I wasn’t feeling that way! LOL Instead, the painting fulfilled the fantasy.

  2. What a wonderful memory, Jonathan! There have been many times collectors and friends have looked at multiple photos taped to my easel and tried to figure out what I was doing. LOL. I will check her out!

  3. My wife’s grandmother (who passed away at 109!) was a painter (Doris O’Brien). Needless to say, after a lifetime of painting there’s quite a bit of her art on our walls. At 105ish, I watched her paint in her studio in Denver one day, noting several small pieces of photos taped to the easel, which she occasionally glanced at, then applied paint to her canvas. I couldn’t discern any of the photos in the final piece… simply reproducing a splash of color? refining the contours of a line or shape? or simply jogging memory? who knows!

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