On Photographing Oil Paintings

I have, from time to time, complained about fog or glare appearing in my photographs of artwork.  I tried to eliminate glare by cutting down on lighting, but it didn’t always work.  The larger the painting, the harder it was to eliminate glare.  When I started, I didn’t have a lot to photograph so I would take the artwork outdoors to a spot where the lighting was indirect.  As I accumulated piles of panels to photograph, I wanted to be able to run through them relatively quickly–indoors and at night.  I would flood the studio with full-spectrum artificial light.  Instead of aiming lights at the artwork, I would bounce light off the ceiling, through a mirror, etc.  I thought the only solution was to avoid the light that rakes across the surface of a painting.  Yet my research on the internet kept producing advice to set up lamps aimed at 90 degrees from the artwork.

The result of my low lighting solution to glare was unsatisfactory color capture.  I started using my iPhone instead of my once expensive, leading edge digital SLR Nikon D70.  But all that is in the process of changing, since I attended a short workshop at the NH Institute of Art, conducted by the chairman of its Photograpy Department, Gary Samson.  I learned a new concept:  polarization.  I’m no scientist, as Republican climate-change skeptics are so fond of saying, so the explanation that follows may read like a Mother Goose tale to someone who actually understands the physics of light.

Rays of light have direction, and bounce off surfaces like oil paintings.  To polarize these bounces is to neutralize them, or counteract them, with filters that somehow deflect the bounces before they reach the camera.  You need a filter for the camera lens.   You also need filters between the light source and the art object.

I started by acquiring a filtering lens for the Nikon, and rephotographing some recent works that had troubled me.  Despite the fact that I could not figure out exactly what I was supposed to see through my new circular filter, the photographs did improve.  Compare the original hazy image with the new polarized image.

John Brown as gardener

John Brown, posing as gardener or farmer (FOG FROM REFLECTED LIGHT)



But then I tried to rephotograph a painting that I had varnished with a high gloss varnish.  I could not get rid of the glare.  So I rummaged around Amazon and then eBay until I found affordable gizmos to hang filters from the spotlights, and a large sheet of polarizing film from which to cut out sheets to hang from the gizmos.  I don’t think it mattered whether the film’s polarity was circular, as with the camera lens, or parallel.  Circularity was necessary for the camera so that the camera could still autofocus.  I take that on faith since I don’t understand it.

Alas, the filters for the spotlights did not solve the varnish issue.  I am so sad.

Two other advances in my photo technique have resulted from that workshop:  I set the Nikon to take the photos in RAW format.  That’s super-large format to accommodate enormous amounts of data for the purpose of manipulating the data in the finished version (jpeg) of the photo; and I bought a photo manipulating program better than “Photos”, which comes free with all my Apple devices.  Adobe Lightroom, about $145 from Amazon, compatible with Macs and IOS.  Headache!  Powerful software equals massive learning curve, and hey,  I hated learning how to operate the remote control on my DVR.

As a result of all this upheaval, my diligence with blogging faltered over the past couple of months.  I’m hoping that by the end of January, I’ll have all the bugs worked out.  Meanwhile, here is a decent photo of a 16×20 painting that I did over the summer–from a reference photo I took in my neighborhood.


Russell Street Roofs

Reminder for folks in the Chesapeake Bay area: see two of my animal portraits at the Annmarie Sculpture Gardern and Art Center in Solomons, Maryland.   The exhibit’s theme is “Fur, Feathers, and Fins–Our Faithful Pets”.   It will run  through January 29.

Other places where you might catch a few of my paintings are:

  • NH Antiques Coop in Milford NH
  • Ellis River Art Gallery in Jackson NH  (in January 2017)
  • Bartlett Inn in Bartlett NH
  • Red Jacket Resort in North Conway NH
  • Bernerhof Inn in Glen NH
  • Mesmer & Deleault Law Firm in Manchester NH

As usual, you may view paintings with prices and order prints, phone cases, pillows and the like at my Fine Art America page. If the painting you are interested in is not there, or if you prefer to bypass that experience, you may contact me by email to alotter@mac.com.

If you want to add a public comment to this blog, go to the bottom of this page where it says “Leave a Reply”, and enter your comment in that box. I love to get public comments, so don’t be shy!

Fresh Air painting

We hit two locations last week: Wednesday at St. Gaudens National Park in Cornish, NH; and Sunday  near Mt. Washington and Crawford Notch.  Both times I was with Sharon Allen and Betty Brown, and on Sunday, Mary Crump and Jim O’Donnell joined us.  Sunday was Day Three of the annual International Plein Air Painters (IPAP) paintout.  I had to skip Days One and Two because of schedule conflicts.  I think that was a good thing–I was fresh and rarin’ to go on Sunday.

Augustus St. Gaudens was a sculptor.  His two most famous sculptures are the Shaw Memorial, which sits outside the State House in Boston; and Diana, the largest of which lives at the top of Madison Square Garden.  A small Diane graces the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH, and another large one is on display in St. Gaudens’ studio.  This is the view of her that I could get from the doorway; I was not allowed inside because of my canine companion, Justice.

St. Gaudens' Diana

St. Gaudens’ Diana

Justice was with me as a treat for him.  When I leave him at home, I have to lock him in the bathroom because nothing else seems to contain him when he gets the urge to defecate in the living room.  To the list of outdoor painting problems, therefore, I have to add the possibility that your dog will scare off strangers who might want to see (maybe buy?) what I am painting.  He was pretty good on Wednesday; only chose to bark at two people.  Nobody was interested in what I was doing anyway–they were there to see St. Gaudens.

The statuary found in the gardens outside his home were not his pieces.  However, he chose the statues to decorate his garden, so they must have enough artistic merit to justify a painting of them.  For my first painting at St. Gaudens, I followed Betty’s lead and painted a statue of Pan standing over a fountain of sorts and surrounded by plants with huge arrow-shaped leaves, similar to a house plant that I used to cultivate but whose name has slid out of reach in my memory.  Here is my photo of the statue, followed by my painting.

Pan's Garden

Pan’s Garden

Statue of Pan

Statue of Pan

Mind you, the light had changed between the time I took the photo and when I got to the point of lighting my composition.

For my second painting (usually I paint two in a day when we are out for the whole day), I wanted to include St. Gaudens’ house.  I also fell in love with the light hitting an ornamental grass that graced flower pots that line up to lead down from the house into a semi-secluded outdoor room.  Here is my first taste:

Line of ornamentals

Line of sun-struck grasses 

Just as I got set up to paint, a rain cloud arrived and slowly passed over.  I checked my iPhone, and as far as it was concerned, the sun was still shining.  So I sat tight, using two sun umbrellas to shelter in place.  Justice was not pleased.  I suggested to him that he could get under the chair I was sitting on for pretty good protection, but no, he had to rely on my easel/palette tray.

Here is what my subject looked like for about 20 minutes.

St. Gaudens home in the rain

St. Gaudens home in the rain

As a result of the rain shower, and perhaps also the complexity of my subject, I could not finish the painting of the house and garden.  I may use photo references of the grasses later to complete the floral grouping in the foreground.

St. Gaudens house and garden (WIP)

St. Gaudens house and garden (WIP)

Justice did not accompany me on Sunday to Crawford Notch.  On Saturday, a friend took him away to Massachusetts for sleepovers, but that left the Great Dane, Honey, all alone.  I lined up a few people to let her out periodically.

On our way up to Franconia Notch, the weather was concerning–cloudy, drizzly.  Then it perked right up as we continued north of the Notch, on past the Mt. Washington Hotel, which coincidentally was hosting a major art fundraiser for the northern forest.  We had to get to the Willey House because Betty and perhaps others would be meeting us there  for IPAP.  The weather deteriorated.  Clouds were very low, and it felt as if it might drizzle at any moment.  But it didn’t!  We stuck it out.  My painting seems to have darkened as it dried, which is odd.  If I had had sun lighting my canvas, I would have painted too dark, but I certainly had no sun that time.

Webster Mountain under cover

Webster Mountain under cover

The ducks were bobbing around back and forth all day, and whenever a new person approached the duck food (actually fish food but apparently good for ducks too) feeding station (25 cents a pop), they would swarm toward that person.  I had to have a few ducks in the painting.  Those white blobs represent the white feathers.  The rest of them–grays, browns– kind of get lost in the water.  Here is a different photo of the painting, a little too red but without that bleached out spot and better for discerning ducks:

Webster Mountain under cover

Webster Mountain under cover

After having lunch at the Willey House, we headed up to the Mt. Washington Hotel.  The sun was still shining on the Hotel, but the mountains were still obscured with clouds.  In addition to sun, this spot had wind.  Most of the artists who were there painting not for IPAP but for the fundraiser were set up on the leeward side of the wide veranda that encircles the hotel.  Betty and Mary joined them, while Sharon, Jim and I went in search of an angle from which to paint the horse that we had spotted as we drove into the hotel.  It wasn’t easy because of the distance the horses were from the road, and the impossibility of getting any closer.  That last line of defense for the horses were cattails, ergo wetlands.  The closer vegetation was probably infested with ticks.  Wimps we were.  And when I sat to paint (which is how I have to now), my line of sight on the horses did not include any legs.  Perhaps just as well. I have not painted many horses, and all I had to worry about was the body, neck and head.  Legs and feet can come later.

Horses under gray sky

Horses under gray sky

I painted the horses on a panel toned with cadmium red.  You can see hints of that red here and there. The sky was the last piece I put in.  I liked it with the bright red sky.  I hated the whitish gray sky.  So before it dried completely, I tried wiping out the whitish gray.

Horses with Pink Sky

Horses with Pink Sky

Red appealed to me I think because it is dark, and I wanted a dark value in the sky so as to increase the attention paid to the field.  It is hard to determine the value of red as juxtaposed to other colors.  I supposed I could make a dark blue sky.

So that is what came from two days of painting outdoors in the fresh air, sunny and cloudy and sometimes wet.  Before I close, I know that Bad Cat acquired some fans, so here is another shot of him in my bed.  His real name, by the way, is Blue.  Bad Cat Blue.


Aline Lotter is currently exhibiting:

At the Bartlett Inn in Bartlett;  at the Bernerhof Inn in Glen; at the Red Jacket Inn in North Conway;  and at the law offices of Mesmer and Deleault at 41 Brook St in Manchester.

As usual, you may view paintings with prices and order prints, iPhone cases and the like at my Fine Art America page. If the painting you are interested in is not there, or if you prefer to bypass that experience, you may contact me by email to alotter@mac.com.

If you want to add a public comment to this blog, go to the bottom of this page where it says “Leave a Reply”, and enter your comment in that box. I love to get public comments, so don’t be shy!