Details: Finding the painting in the photo


This informative article is from our instructor, Ré St. Peter. Ré is a thinking artist’s artist and we love having her share her passion and strengths with Cloud 9!

Details: Finding the painting in the photo by Ré St. Peter

When you hear the word “detail,” do you think of fine lines, wisps of hair and other finishing touches on a painting? While those can be important to a painting, details include anything that supports the story you want to tell: shapes, colors, lighting, mood, value, contrast and more.  The joy of being an artist is that we don’t have to tell the literal story of our photo; we get to tell the story it represents to us. What happens when you decide to work from a photo that is filled with all of the building blocks of a successful painting, and also a lot of visual clutter that adds nothing to your vision?


This quick cellphone snap was taken in a gas station parking lot. Looking across the valley, late afternoon sunlight touched trees tinged with early fall color and washed across the farm fields. The beauty of the moment is almost lost in all of the distracting shapes, lines and abundance of outbuildings. The first step in finding the painting in the photo is to identify everything that doesn’t support the play of light across the scene.


Taking the image into Photoshop, I circled all of the visual clutter. This included the foreground plantings and road, fenceposts, vehicles and power lines. While the farm animals and windmill may be included in the final painting, they are not important to the story of the sunlight, so are marked as distractions.

The elements that stand out as desirable are the bands of light and shadow across the fields; the layered colors and shapes of trees receding into the background, and the simple shapes of the barns to add scale.


Once the clutter was removed, the shapes and relationships of the buildings at left seemed a bit small and tight. Notice how the silver barn in front has been turned red and shifted to the left, helping to widen the feel of the scene. The very near foreground has been completely simplified, and the shape of the dark tree at far left has been extended down to anchor the left side. With the sky cleared of power lines and the hill darkened a bit, the deciduous trees and fields can now take center stage.

With a bit of evaluation and some strategic planning, a quick snapshot becomes a reference photo that highlights the best part of the scene. Photoshop made it easy, but this can also be done with our sketchbook, or with a printout and a pen.

This is one of the exercises we’ll do in my Seeing the Details: What Stays & What Goes workshop on Saturday, November 17th at Cloud 9 Art School. Visit my Classes page for more details and to register.

Charlene Freeman