Learn to Think and Compose Like a Painter
Nick Fleming shares thoughts on how photographers could learn from painters to improve their work
A Guest Post by Nick Fleming
Many years ago I met a well known English artist while I was travelling through Northern India. We happened to be staying at the same hotel, one of those rather agreeable converted palaces. Each day he went out with his watercolours, easel, portable chair and sizable sketch books, as he used to say, ‘to seek inspiration and watch the world go by.’
One late afternoon I saw him, brush in hand, stooped over his easel and decided to see how he was getting on. He was well on his way to finishing his scene but as I looked from his picture to the view, and back again, I instantly noticed how different they were. What he had done was to omit a lot of detail and add some of his own. He explained to me that he rarely painted exactly what was in front of him. ‘I go for simplicity, he said. ‘ I paint what I think my picture needs, what makes it work, not necessarily what I see.’ ‘It is of course a representation, I am distilling the scene but I like to fill it with interest.’
This, coming as it did when I was just starting out in my photographic career, was a revelation to me. I suddenly realised after that brief conversation that I, as a photographer, could work in exactly the same way. I began to view my own scenes with the critical eye of a painter. Of course it takes a combination of persistence, patience, timing and luck but in the process I taught myself to slow down. I took time to observe things, to wait for subjects to move in and out of the frame and I started to compose my pictures deliberately and consciously. I took on projects that required me to learn about the lifestyle of my subjects, to get close to them, understand them and wider angle lenses became my photographic mainstay.
The painter’s way is to see shapes first and details second; that is why they tend to squint a lot at their subjects. This has the effect of highlighting essential tones and shapes filtering out extraneous or unwanted detail. It is their method of simplifying a naturally complicated or over busy scene. I too am looking to simplify my images as much as possible by isolating the subjects against uncluttered clear backdrops while at the same time retaining a sense of the environment in which I found them.
The people I photograph are usually totally at ease in their own environment and I try to reflect this in my images by working in elements that convey harmony and balance such as light ,tone and a certain symmetry of composition. A painting though just like a photo needs to be compelling and pleasing to look at. The eye likes to be led into a picture; the trick is to keep it from wandering off. To echo what my English painter friend said, strive to ‘fill the frame with interest.’
Nick Fleming photographs throughout Northern India and the UK. He runs photographic workshops for all levels in London teaching the artistry behind inspiring and impactful photography. Check out more from Nick at www.nickfleming.com