Learn to Think and Compose Like a Painter

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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.

A Hindu pilgrim bathes in the Gandak river in the early morning: Sonepur, India

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.

On the flood plain of the river Ganges: Allahabad, India


 

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.’ 

Nihangs, Sikh spiritual warriors, prepare breakfast: Punjab, India


 

Naga Sadhu stokes the fire: Haridwar, India

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
 

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  • Scottc

    Great photos. I don’t think painting and photography can be compared quite so closely, but this article makes a better match bteween the two than any I’ve seen in quite some time.

    Tried something a bit similar to what the author is referring to once, in Venice, and perhaps came close:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5856754162/

  • This indeed a thought provoking article. Most of the photographers are keen only on pressing the shutter releasing first and then analysing the same.

  • What an interesting article! Composition is indeed one of the most important aspects of photography and there it also comes close to painting, although the photographer is not as free and the painter. Maybe that’s the main reason why I mostly don’t shoot people, because they’re much harder to keep track of when composing.

    This shot for example would have been boring if I had omitted the corridor on the left:
    http://experimentsinexperience.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/temptation/

  • I’m not usually moved to comment on this kind of article, and the written part of it seems sort of obvious to me, but I must say those photographs are absolutely magnificent. The one called “Nihangs, Sikh spiritual warriors, prepare breakfast” is mindblowing.

  • Photography is painting with light..

    I think ‘Thinking and Composing Like a Painter’ came out right when i tried this,

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/chamdeal/6083263327/in/photostream

  • I remember the day so well that Nick, my husband, and I first met the artist in question. He was one of those timeless grey-haired gentlemen who took life at the gentle pace it requires. We were staying in the most beautiful converted palace when we saw that John was sitting on his own and asked if he would care to join the two us for meals. A wonderful friendship struck up as result, fuelled not least by our mutual love and respect for India, the outrageously delicious food we were served (spinach desert doesn’t sound much but it was out of this world) and light, memories and artistry. John and I spent a happy evening on the terrace entranced by the graceful swish of the villagers’ saris as the women were walking back with their water pots on their heads. “How do you convey the sound of that elegance in a painting?”

  • Great photos and text

  • Marco

    While the medium and techniques are very different, the goal is very similar. To create an interesting scene that is pleasing to the eye. I find that my prior studies of landscape painting and it’s theories are very helpful when shooting landscape photography. So learning the skills and methods of the Grand Master’s of landscape painting is worthwhile for photographers. It has been also interesting to look through the bird sketches of some of the early artists who documented new species of birds long before cameras. The way that they placed their subjects into a natural setting while still making the birds the “stars” of the image can also apply to wildlife photography. I don’t know first hand, but I suspect that the skills of the Masters of Portrait painting could be helpful to portrait photographers as well. The study of the principals of related artists certainly can only help broaden the mind of photographers and may very well suggest ideas that can be translated to our craft. Certainly the centuries of “color theory” can only help when composing a scene. Maybe some time in the library could be useful on the days that the weather won’t cooperate for shooting.

  • this explains a lot about how I work with my stuff. I have always added additional elements to complete things. my full before and after works are here as well as tutorials on lighting and post production for those interested: -www.lightshootedit.com

  • Marisela

    Very enlightening, thank you!

  • I would also say that it helps to be shooting the vivid colors and subject matter that is India!

    Thanks for sharing your great photos and the insight to your “methodology”.

  • Ryan

    “The painter’s way is to see shapes first and details second” – an excellent point! It is so easy to get lost in everything that lies before you and your viewfinder. Here in the states, fall is approaching which makes me think of the colorful pallete that we will soon have to work with, along with the decision to make it the focal point or the accent point:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rjweyer/5074087758/in/photostream

  • Hi

    I liked this article – very enlightening. With these shots I tried to get a painterly approach by not feeding of fine details but the reflections in the details of these vintage cars!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/reflections/

  • This is a great article. I really need to buck up the courage to ask people if they don’t mind me taking a photo. Photos of people always feel so natural and authentic. I have also been doing HDR for a little while now and I agree with the “overdone” comment. I used to initially make mine super abstract and out there but now I only use it to enhance the photo but try to limit the overall HDR “painting” look.

    Thanks again great article 😀

  • Stephanie

    I really enjoyed this, Thank you for sharing.

  • Hmmm… Very useful information! I will try this out. Hopefully it will help me improve even further! I’ll try squinting to see my subject better and omit unwanted detail. Let’s see how this progresses into my photography.

    By the way I do Automotive Photography and you’ll see my work at http://CustomPinoyRides.com.

  • Yan

    Hi~Nick
    I read the article on the chinese photograph website. I love it! As you said, Like a painter to think and compose anything photographs. When i pic a photo, i will draw a picture in my mind at first!

  • Steven

    I spent several years studying drawing and painting at a classical realism atelier, and the experience completely changed my photography practice, primarily in looking more critically at composition and value design. When I look through a viewfinder now, I generally do so with the thought that, if what I see isn’t something I’d want to see as a painting, I probably won’t take the shot, at least not without rethinking something about it.

  • As both a photographer and painter, I fully agree with this article. I’m reminded that each form of art can complement and benefit the other…thank you!

  • I like the way Nick has summarized big concepts of composition in few phrases and how they are clearly applied in his work. I am also in my own process of ‘slow down’ and working first on ideas and purposes rather of instant results. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Rusty

    Those first two shots are thought provoking in themselves.

    I’m almost a novice but have taken enough pictures that I usually know a scene won’t work. It looks great but there is just nothing that stands out. Usually landscapes where I have this happen. When I see something really nice but there is not central point of focus, no subject. 🙂 These usually come out looking like a cluttered mess. Still I usually try the shot. I can always just delete it. haha I try to shoot first then think. I find thinking too much often leaves me without a shot and I go, why didn’t I just take it. lol 🙂

  • Carl Coutu

    I’ve just begun my trekking around with a DSLR and I’ve read a lot and taken a couple of ‘beginners’ courses. Nothing I’ve been told has awoken in me the ‘how to’ as much as this one single, simple article on composition. I’m thinking now that this might be as, if not more, important to the beginner as the functions of the camera.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • Photography is painting with light. lovely colourful shots!

  • Hamza Ali

    Wow! What a thought provoking and enlightening article. Very interesting angle to photography. Keep it up Mr. Fleming.

  • Thanks for the post Nick Fleming! Wonderful photographs and an interesting write up useful for learners like me. 🙂 Have my own compositions uploaded here http://www.flickr.com/photos/64953463@N08/

  • Hi. Loved the article and noted that the Rule of Thirds applied in nearly every case. See some ideas that would certainly apply in my video filmmaking. Thanks for this interesting piece. Phil Walker, Perth UK

  • @Phil Walker. Thanks for your comments. Rule of Thirds is of course a cornerstone of composition but I have met many photographers who obsess about this to such an extent that it holds them back and cramps their photographic development.
    Spontaneity is a great skill to develop when taking photos. The trick is to develop a natural intuition of just knowing what your picture needs to make it work at the time without endlessly referring to a mental photographic rule book. Here’s an example of one that breaks the rule of thirds.

    @carl: Thanks for taking the time to comment. You have summed up my thoughts on the importance of photographic composition brilliantly.

  • I see black. And. White and after wards wish it were a painting

  • I am starting as a photographer.. Thanks for the valuable article.

    https://www.facebook.com/shwetank.singh.photography

Some Older Comments

  • kathy rankin September 30, 2011 08:32 am

    I see black. And. White and after wards wish it were a painting

  • Nick Fleming September 22, 2011 12:47 am

    @Phil Walker. Thanks for your comments. Rule of Thirds is of course a cornerstone of composition but I have met many photographers who obsess about this to such an extent that it holds them back and cramps their photographic development.
    Spontaneity is a great skill to develop when taking photos. The trick is to develop a natural intuition of just knowing what your picture needs to make it work at the time without endlessly referring to a mental photographic rule book. Here's an example of one that breaks the rule of thirds.

    @carl: Thanks for taking the time to comment. You have summed up my thoughts on the importance of photographic composition brilliantly.

  • Phil Walker September 20, 2011 02:01 am

    Hi. Loved the article and noted that the Rule of Thirds applied in nearly every case. See some ideas that would certainly apply in my video filmmaking. Thanks for this interesting piece. Phil Walker, Perth UK

  • Moon September 18, 2011 11:04 pm

    Thanks for the post Nick Fleming! Wonderful photographs and an interesting write up useful for learners like me. :) Have my own compositions uploaded here http://www.flickr.com/photos/64953463@N08/

  • Hamza Ali September 18, 2011 05:31 pm

    Wow! What a thought provoking and enlightening article. Very interesting angle to photography. Keep it up Mr. Fleming.

  • Paul September 18, 2011 07:36 am

    Photography is painting with light. lovely colourful shots!

  • Carl Coutu September 17, 2011 10:22 pm

    I've just begun my trekking around with a DSLR and I've read a lot and taken a couple of 'beginners' courses. Nothing I've been told has awoken in me the 'how to' as much as this one single, simple article on composition. I'm thinking now that this might be as, if not more, important to the beginner as the functions of the camera.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • Rusty September 16, 2011 07:50 pm

    Those first two shots are thought provoking in themselves.

    I'm almost a novice but have taken enough pictures that I usually know a scene won't work. It looks great but there is just nothing that stands out. Usually landscapes where I have this happen. When I see something really nice but there is not central point of focus, no subject. :) These usually come out looking like a cluttered mess. Still I usually try the shot. I can always just delete it. haha I try to shoot first then think. I find thinking too much often leaves me without a shot and I go, why didn't I just take it. lol :)

  • Dennise Cepeda September 16, 2011 06:15 pm

    I like the way Nick has summarized big concepts of composition in few phrases and how they are clearly applied in his work. I am also in my own process of 'slow down' and working first on ideas and purposes rather of instant results. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Jennifer Lycke September 16, 2011 05:40 am

    As both a photographer and painter, I fully agree with this article. I'm reminded that each form of art can complement and benefit the other...thank you!

  • Steven September 16, 2011 05:33 am

    I spent several years studying drawing and painting at a classical realism atelier, and the experience completely changed my photography practice, primarily in looking more critically at composition and value design. When I look through a viewfinder now, I generally do so with the thought that, if what I see isn't something I'd want to see as a painting, I probably won't take the shot, at least not without rethinking something about it.

  • Yan September 15, 2011 12:52 pm

    Hi~Nick
    I read the article on the chinese photograph website. I love it! As you said, Like a painter to think and compose anything photographs. When i pic a photo, i will draw a picture in my mind at first!

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com September 14, 2011 06:17 pm

    Hmmm... Very useful information! I will try this out. Hopefully it will help me improve even further! I'll try squinting to see my subject better and omit unwanted detail. Let's see how this progresses into my photography.

    By the way I do Automotive Photography and you'll see my work at http://CustomPinoyRides.com.

  • Stephanie September 14, 2011 02:10 pm

    I really enjoyed this, Thank you for sharing.

  • Mike September 12, 2011 02:37 pm

    This is a great article. I really need to buck up the courage to ask people if they don't mind me taking a photo. Photos of people always feel so natural and authentic. I have also been doing HDR for a little while now and I agree with the "overdone" comment. I used to initially make mine super abstract and out there but now I only use it to enhance the photo but try to limit the overall HDR "painting" look.

    Thanks again great article :D

  • Erik Kerstenbeck September 11, 2011 12:09 am

    Hi

    I liked this article - very enlightening. With these shots I tried to get a painterly approach by not feeding of fine details but the reflections in the details of these vintage cars!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/reflections/

  • Ryan September 10, 2011 01:55 pm

    "The painter’s way is to see shapes first and details second" - an excellent point! It is so easy to get lost in everything that lies before you and your viewfinder. Here in the states, fall is approaching which makes me think of the colorful pallete that we will soon have to work with, along with the decision to make it the focal point or the accent point:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/rjweyer/5074087758/in/photostream

  • Phoenix Photographer September 10, 2011 11:22 am

    I would also say that it helps to be shooting the vivid colors and subject matter that is India!

    Thanks for sharing your great photos and the insight to your "methodology".

  • Marisela September 10, 2011 10:05 am

    Very enlightening, thank you!

  • scott detweiler September 10, 2011 08:39 am

    this explains a lot about how I work with my stuff. I have always added additional elements to complete things. my full before and after works are here as well as tutorials on lighting and post production for those interested: -www.lightshootedit.com

  • Marco September 9, 2011 11:45 pm

    While the medium and techniques are very different, the goal is very similar. To create an interesting scene that is pleasing to the eye. I find that my prior studies of landscape painting and it's theories are very helpful when shooting landscape photography. So learning the skills and methods of the Grand Master's of landscape painting is worthwhile for photographers. It has been also interesting to look through the bird sketches of some of the early artists who documented new species of birds long before cameras. The way that they placed their subjects into a natural setting while still making the birds the "stars" of the image can also apply to wildlife photography. I don't know first hand, but I suspect that the skills of the Masters of Portrait painting could be helpful to portrait photographers as well. The study of the principals of related artists certainly can only help broaden the mind of photographers and may very well suggest ideas that can be translated to our craft. Certainly the centuries of "color theory" can only help when composing a scene. Maybe some time in the library could be useful on the days that the weather won't cooperate for shooting.

  • Patricia September 9, 2011 10:51 pm

    Great photos and text

  • Chamitha de Alwis September 9, 2011 07:34 pm

    oh. and this too... hug me...

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/chamdeal/6074449311/in/photostream

  • Guru Kaur September 9, 2011 07:24 pm

    I remember the day so well that Nick, my husband, and I first met the artist in question. He was one of those timeless grey-haired gentlemen who took life at the gentle pace it requires. We were staying in the most beautiful converted palace when we saw that John was sitting on his own and asked if he would care to join the two us for meals. A wonderful friendship struck up as result, fuelled not least by our mutual love and respect for India, the outrageously delicious food we were served (spinach desert doesn't sound much but it was out of this world) and light, memories and artistry. John and I spent a happy evening on the terrace entranced by the graceful swish of the villagers' saris as the women were walking back with their water pots on their heads. "How do you convey the sound of that elegance in a painting?"

  • Chamitha de Alwis September 9, 2011 07:15 pm

    Photography is painting with light..

    I think 'Thinking and Composing Like a Painter' came out right when i tried this,

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/chamdeal/6083263327/in/photostream

  • Rowan September 9, 2011 06:50 pm

    I'm not usually moved to comment on this kind of article, and the written part of it seems sort of obvious to me, but I must say those photographs are absolutely magnificent. The one called "Nihangs, Sikh spiritual warriors, prepare breakfast" is mindblowing.

  • Verena September 9, 2011 06:11 pm

    What an interesting article! Composition is indeed one of the most important aspects of photography and there it also comes close to painting, although the photographer is not as free and the painter. Maybe that's the main reason why I mostly don't shoot people, because they're much harder to keep track of when composing.

    This shot for example would have been boring if I had omitted the corridor on the left:
    http://experimentsinexperience.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/temptation/

  • Pashminu Mansukhani September 9, 2011 11:40 am

    This indeed a thought provoking article. Most of the photographers are keen only on pressing the shutter releasing first and then analysing the same.

  • Scottc September 9, 2011 11:28 am

    Great photos. I don't think painting and photography can be compared quite so closely, but this article makes a better match bteween the two than any I've seen in quite some time.

    Tried something a bit similar to what the author is referring to once, in Venice, and perhaps came close:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5856754162/

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