The other day I was reading about Vincent Van Gogh and how after moving to Paris he shifted from the muted color tones of the typical Dutch master painters to a more colorful and vibrant palette. He was influenced by other European painters and by Japanese artists that were becoming wildly popular at that time. This inspired me to go back and look at some of my old color photos and oddly enough to create the digital art images you see in this post.
I turned away from color photography several years ago. Now I use it only when the subject demands it. I found that color was holding me back artistically. It’s too easy to use bright colors to cover up a lackluster vision and mediocre technique. A simple snapshot of a beautiful sunset always gets lots of positive responses even if it’s been done a million times before and the image is over exposed. People just have a hard time separating the pretty colors from actual substance.
But creating good black and white photos is hard and I was not good at it. A successful monochrome image needs have a powerful vision, precise framing, and excellent technical craftsmanship. There’s nowhere to hide imperfections. No candy colored explosions to distract the viewer.
I decided to force myself to work only in black and white from then on. I would either learn it or give up photography all together – monochrome or bust. I took me a while, maybe a year and a half or two years, to get to a point where I thought my work was good enough to enter in juried shows. By then I couldn’t stop.
I love the look of monochrome. I love the minimalism. I love the work that goes into it. I see the world much better now that I can look past all the noise and seek the essence of my subjects. I understand so much more about light and the photographic process. As much as possible I do my creation in the camera on the scene rather than in front of my computer. A tiny bit of contrast and brightness adjustment, tweak the black point, clean up dust and water spots, a little sharpening, and bingo, we’re done. If an image takes more processing than that, I abandon it.
Given a background like that it’s no wonder that I never have any need to use those ‘filters’ that come with photo editing software. I’m looking for authentic images not faked ones. I don’t want to make them look like something they’re not. No charcoal sketching or making them look like oil paintings or giving them glowing neon edges. I really hate those kinds of things.
But because of van Gogh and his darned colorful paintings there I was in GIMP flipping through my old color photos. Some of them are so old I had taken them with Ektachrome film and scanned the slides to make them digital. Some of them aren’t half bad. I might allow myself to do some color work again…you know, maybe. Well, I saw all those colors and I starting thinking about some abstract paintings I’ve seen at the museum lately and I got the crazy idea to fiddle with the filters just because I could. They were as terrible as I remembered them – stained glass and fractals and watercolors, ugh.
Then I found the ‘cubism’ filter. This is not cubism like the genre of painting that Picasso practiced. This filter, roughly speaking, takes the colors of your photo and converts them into squares of the same color and piles them on top of each other. If used incorrectly it just pixelates your image which is horrible, but if done the right way it can transform a photo into a digital art piece.
By adjusting the size and saturation of the squares I can obliterate the original image and come up with a new image based on the same color values and distribution. I actually liked some of the results.
Then I thought, “But this is nothing, I can take any old color photo of my aunt Matilda, blast it into squares, and think I’ve created something artistic.” To test this I started trying a bunch of different photos and a bunch of different filter settings and to my surprise I found out that some photos work as squares and some don’t. No matter how I fiddled with the filter settings, some photos just didn’t produce a satisfying result. Hmmm. I haven’t figured out exactly what the keys factors are yet.
Not only do some images work and some not, there is also a specific square size and saturation that works best for each image. As I said, squares that are too small just make an image look pixelated – not good. On the other hand if the squares are too big then all the features of the image are lost. For example I used one photo of autumn leaves shot in a mix of bright sunshine and deep shadow. When I made the squares too big, it removed the natural color variation in the individual leaves and the play of the light and dark areas across the image. It became just random blocks of color and lost all interest for me.
Of course you may be thinking that just using squares as art is a waste anyway. That a monkey could toss random colored squares on a page and make ‘art’. It doesn’t require a human mind and it doesn’t require my photos as a starting point. This is not strictly true.
While works done by monkeys or children or machines can sometimes fool people into thinking they are done by professional artists, the majority of the time people can tell the difference. According to a study done in 2011 and reported in Psychological Science and summarized in Psychology Today, people can “see the mind behind the art” more often than we might think. They are able to detect the thought process and the intentions of the artist even in very abstract art works.
This would seem to lend weight to my personal observation that not any old image with any old settings will produce a satisfying result. Some combination of colors, patterns, and intensities please my senses and some do not. Finding the correct combination puts the ‘art’ into what would otherwise be totally random squares.
In 1948 Henri Matisse could not paint due to ill health. He began creating art works from torn or cut pieces of colored paper pasted onto the canvas. They were called gouaches découpées. He certainly felt that specific color combinations produced art and others not so much.
“Matisse said of the technique that it ‘allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour’ (quoted in Amis de l’art, October 1951).”
I think there may be something to this cubism filter. I don’t know if I’ll suddenly start working on nothing but cube images, but I think I’ll investigate it some more. Maybe try to figure out what photos make the best starting points.
Hey, at least they have lots of pretty colors, right?