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Developing A Painter’s Eye

Daniel Stainer (spiritualized67)

Keywords: composition, craft, art, painting, photography

Growing up outside of Washington D.C., I would often spend hours studying the beautiful paintings at the National Gallery of Art. I even purchased dozens of reproduction prints so that I could immerse myself in the art from the comfort of my bedroom.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was viewing at the time. But I knew what I liked. It wasn’t until I engrossed myself in photography that it all finally clicked.

As I dove headfirst into compositional technique, I started to draw parallels between what I was learning and what I had absorbed earlier in my life. The more I learned, the more I started to gain an intuitive sense about what worked and what didn’t —and why.  It’s one thing to proclaim that you like a particular photograph or painting.  But we must constantly challenge ourselves to dig deeper, delving into the reasons that drive both our and our viewer’s appreciation.

So what does it mean to have a painter’s eye?  Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean applying a filter to your photographs during post-processing to make them look like a Monet painting. Rather, it’s a consolidated way of looking at all the compositional elements and decisions that we employ when framing up our photographs.  It’s a way of taking everything we’ve learned about composition and simplifying it down to one core philosophical idea, which is to:  FIND THE PAINTING IN THINGS.


Long Pond near Acadia.
Click for a larger image.


I could literally spend hours discussing all the compositional elements that one might consider. While there will always be intangibles that can’t be quantified, many of the compelling photographs or paintings we admire often come down to having great light, dynamic composition and design – and maybe a moment that evokes an emotional response.

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Rick Herald (geartrain) on October 21, 2017

Great article! It's given me a lot to think about. Thanks so much. Rick (geartrain)

Kurt Pedersen (KurtP) on December 14, 2015

Thank you for this article - this article has given me some things to think about in my eforts to improve what I refer to as artistic seeing. Kurt

Daniel Stainer (spiritualized67) on September 25, 2015

Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, most notably in Street & Landscape Photography

Hi Marco (Rusty Patina), I enjoyed reading your feedback. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I'd also like to thank all the other fine Nikonians members who have taken the time to both read and comment! :) There are so many different ways to look at this topic - and I would agree with you that it’s not necessarily about trying to create an exact representation of the scene as presented. When I see a tree for example, I don’t necessarily see just a tree - but maybe something more metaphoric and symbolic. I aspire to interpret through the lens of my own emotional filter and experience – in the hopes of translating how I’m feeling onto the photograph. So if I feel solitude when I’m at a secluded pond in the deep woods of Maine, that’s exactly what I would hope to communicate. And I do this by making the right artistic and technical decisions to support my vision (and emotional understanding of the subject). Just as a painter has to combine certain basic elements of line, shape, tone (value mass), color, etc. onto a blank canvas, a photographer does the same thing - but is working with what’s in front of them (or waiting for an opportune moment). In my estimation, even something as simple as waiting for the right moment might be considered painterly thinking, such as placing yourself at this very pond on a foggy morning to add mood. There is a certain element of intent in doing so, and you’re making a decision that adds yet another layer of drama to your scene (just as a painter might add fog). They key idea though, is that you have to understand why you made these decisions in the first place, what they mean, and how they will ultimately impact the final photo. When writing this article, I was suggesting that photographers treat what they see through their viewfinder with a bit more care - as if they were looking at a framed print on the wall. But I was not suggesting what this framed print might look like. That is up to the artist. The beauty of art is that it IS subjective. For some, art is a bit more of a literal representation. For others, it is more abstract. In my opinion, thinking like a painter has less to do with the final output and more to do with the thought process that goes into it. My mom is a painter and I’ve spent countless hours studying painting technique. The lessons I’ve learned have very much influenced my photography, just as a study of music and piano deeply influenced Ansel Adams - especially as it related to ideas like structure, rhythm, harmony, etc. I suppose there are a million different ways to think like a painter. The best way I can describe the thought process as I see it is to provide another example. If I come across an abandoned house and it has a creepy vibe, I might make the decision to get in low and close, giving the house a more ominous foreboding “larger than life” presence. While the scene has not changed, I’ve made a decision that adjusts perspective and angle (and ultimately the lines found within the scene) in a favorable way to more closely convey how I’m feeling. My knowledge of what a painter might do (one who understands the emotional meaning and context behind compositional elements, and how any arrangement and/or combination of elements might impact the final photo) has helped me convey more meaning. I can further think like a painter by maybe converting to black and white (which can be likened to a painter selecting the appropriate color palate). I am merely suggesting a few ways one could think like a painter, although there are inevitably many different ways to look at the same subject. Again, thank you for your thought-provoking perspective. ~Dan

User on September 25, 2015

Wonderful article Daniel! Although I could have never put it into words as you have here we share a very similar thought process in our photography. In short I too always try to find the painting through the view finder. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Marco Milazzo (Rusty Patina) on September 24, 2015

When I think of painting and photography, I think of the pictorialists of the late 19th and early 20th century -- early Steichen and Steiglitz, Clarence White et. al. They were accused to trying to make photographs look like paintings through the use of soft-focus lenses, and by manipulating negatives. (IMO, a bad rap). This is the school that the f/64 group of "straight" photographers challenged -- Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham, etc. The Pictorialists eventually disappeared, and straight photography prevailed. But pictorial photography still appeals to us, and exhibitions of that style always get lots of viewers. Ansel Adams said he appreciated the way they rendered light in their images.

David Fincher (ColColt) on September 20, 2015

Great insight and spot on. Every time I've looked at this shot from W. Eugene Smith it reminded me of how that could have very well have been a painting by Rembrandt.

Marco Milazzo (Rusty Patina) on September 20, 2015

Ansel Adams said "photography is analytic, and painting is synthetic (in the best sense of the word)." My over-simplification of this idea is "Photographers discover; painters invent." To think like a painter, you have to avoid thinking, "How can I capture this beauty?" and think "How should I INTERPRET this beauty?" If you're trying to create a literal version of the subject, that's not "thinking like a painter."

John D. Roach (jdroach) on September 16, 2015

Fellow Ribbon awarded. John exhibits true Nikonian spirit by frequently posting images and requesting comments and critique, which he graciously accepts. He is an inspiration to all of us through constant improvement in his own work, keen observations and excellent commentary on images posted by others. Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his most generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest

Wonderful article. I am so glad you got this published here at Nikonians.

Daniel Stainer (spiritualized67) on September 14, 2015

Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, most notably in Street & Landscape Photography

I appreciate all the feedback. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! :)

Kent Lewis (nkcllewis) on September 14, 2015

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

Dan, thanks for the article. I too grew up with fine art as a child and have long thought my photography reflects an admiration of the great master painters. Your article evoked in me a very nice journey into the thought process of making an image. Thanks again. Kent in VA

Bob Brockel (BobD3100) on September 14, 2015

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Great article, Daniel. Thank you for sharing your "eye" with us. "Anyone can apply a creative “painterly” filter during post-processing. The real joy and challenge comes from doing it through the viewfinder at the time of capture". I couldn't agree with you more. I really strive to minimize the amount of post processing I do. I want to learn to capture what I see. My camera is certainly up to the task, it's me that needs the training.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on September 14, 2015

Very nice article. While the product may be similar, the process is quite different. The painter experiments with composition with complete freedom, bound only by imagination. On the other hand, the world around the landscape photographer provides examples and opportunities to experiment and find various scenes as well as tools to alter perception of those scenes. At first glance the photographic art seems more challenging for composition and light, but sometimes nature makes brilliant suggestions that one would never have thought of as a painter. I think this is what makes landscape photography special, and attracts those with a passion for discovery.

Barry Higgins (bhiggins) on September 12, 2015

Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.

As a painter myself I can identify with content of this very well done article. The one sentence that I think sums it up is ... "..And we must work the scene to the best of our ability, constantly seeking compositional alternatives.." The challenge, I feel, for some, is to see beyond the foundation of pure rule of thirds. To do this one has to see and try the alternatives. Practice and even failure (through trying) are important teachers. Things like leading lines, diagonals, symmetry, curves, spirals, geometrics, negative and positive space and the use of tone and light all need to come into focus when one looks through the viewfinder. Combined with honed technical skills can then produce memorable results. One needs be aware that posting alternative compositions might erode ones confidence in their success if kudos verses expressing one art is the basis for posting. One needs to look past the pure technical and adherence to thirds compositions. I even find myself drifting from my intent (and most likely wrongly so) by doing two edits, one for me and one for posting in a form that others expect to see it. Truth is a strong image will hold its own. My recommendation would be for people to shoot as the feel comfortable now, get the insurance shot, and then stretch a bit and take the time to seek out the alternatives both in the viewfinder and post processing. Thank you for sharing this and with such a gentle delivery.

Dan Wiedbrauk (domer2760) on September 9, 2015

Fellow Ribbon awarded for his frequent assistance to other members by sharing his perspective, skills and expertise, especially with infrared and macro photography. Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Awarded for his expertise in IR & Macro photography Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Daniel, Well said, captured, and written!

Egbert M. Reinhold (Ineluki) on September 8, 2015

I grew up with the art of Manet and Monet. Long time after I had started with photography I realised that I had seen my pictures thecway I saw these paintings. Your article is a good way to help seeing pictures.