A Nostalgic, Painterly Touch | by Claudia Crispi
My photography journey started almost 15 years ago with a love for travel and landscape photography, but it wasn’t until my first child was born, 5 years ago, that I realized that the pictures I treasure most are of the people I love most. Maybe this is something totally obvious for many photographers, but it wasn’t at all for me. For the longest time, I’d always thought of photography as a visual representation of what was in front of my lens. That is still true, but doesn’t really take into account the dynamic between photographer, subject and viewer. I soon realized that when photographing my son there was a strong emotional investment from my side and the resulting images weren’t purely images of record but rather a visual representation of my relationship with him, my feelings and how I saw him as he grew.
I am a very sentimental soul and get very often overwhelmed with the feeling of nostalgia for the time that is gone. This translates in an inner restlessness and urgency to take pictures of my children. “I’m going to regret it if I don’t! The days are long but the years are short.” Sometimes this compulsion feels like a burden. Every time I press the shutter, it's an acknowledgement that the moment I've just photographed has passed. For this reason, photography can be for me so intimate and also so melancholy and nostalgic.
Over time I found myself drawn to shooting with low light and came across the work of various artists from different genres and times, whose style spoke to my soul. Marie Cosindas, Erwin Olaf, Alessio
Albi, Meg Loeks, Bill Gekas are a few of them. What I think all these artists have in common is their ability to convey a nostalgic, timeless feel with their photographs and, interestingly enough, their images seem to have, although in different manners, a strong relationship with paintings.
I increasingly started to explore the idea of a painterly approach because I felt it very well served the mood and emotions I wanted to convey with my photographs.
But what exactly makes a photograph ‘painterly’?
I’ve been studying and experimenting different ways to achieve this look and I’m still working on building my style and skills. But I can say that this journey has made me understand a lot more about the soft boundary between photography and paintings and I want to share with you in this article a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
There’s a lot you can do in post-processing to make your photo look painterly, but the editing process really starts before you take the picture.
One of the first things that will make a photo look like a painting is a well thought composition. There is a high level of consciousness over the elements that will go into a painting. Every single detail in the
finished product is necessary to tell the intended story and is the result of a process of conscious inclusion. Also the intentional use of a distinct focal point helps the painter lead the viewer’s eye to the
center of interest. So, very crowded scenes, full of unnecessary elements, accidental compositions are not going to help a photo look like a painting, if this is what you want to achieve. The use of symmetry, sub-framing techniques, leading lines, negative space will contribute a lot to the visual impact of a photo and can be planned before taking the shot.
Composition is strongly linked to perspective. Paintings can have forced perspectives and compressed backgrounds to get everything in the frame. However, they appear natural to us because lines are
usually straight and there is no geometrical distortion, which is instead an effect of the shape of the lens. Making sure that all horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines are well straighten will help a photograph have a more illustrative perspective similar to a painting.
The quality of light can play a huge role in creating a painterly effect. Especially dramatic light, where deep shadows contrast with softly illuminated areas, is reminiscent of the work of certain painters of the Baroque period of the history of art. Without relying too much on post-processing, this can be achieved by placing the subject near a source of soft, directional light and against a dark background.
Another most important thing to consider is color. There’s usually a unifying color scheme in paintings that links all the elements together. Every painter usually has a favorite color palette and uses it
consistently to convey a certain feeling. Color psychology has been used for ages in art to try to evoke emotional reactions in the viewer. Restricting your color palette and making deliberate choices about which colors to use and in which combination will lend your photographs a certain level of cohesiveness and will strongly impact the mood of your images. Also, certain shades of color, especially if muted or a little desaturated, tend to convey a nostalgic feel and the idea of a different era.
Dynamic range: You are not going to find any crushed shadows or blown highlights in a painting, that is something typical of the photographic medium. There’s rather a smooth transition between lighter and darker tones because painters try to replicate what they see in reality. Trying to avoid blown highlight and clipped shadows, as well as keeping very subtle tonal changes in the colors will contribute a lot to the painterly look.
Ultimately, one of the most important elements of paintings is conveying the idea of their creator. In order for a photograph to be painterly it needs to evoke a feeling, an emotion, whether that be through color, texture, form, light, etc. This is something that cannot be achieved through some editing tools. My ultimate goal now is not to create a photograph that looks like a painting. Rather, the opportunity
is to merge elements of both photography and painting to create images that come closer to the visions I have carried in my head and which best represent my feelings and what moves me: images of careless childhood, of the time gone by, of my two boys growing. For as much as they are portraits of them, they are also portraits of me, as their mother, and as a photographer.