Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

When I wrote about photographing paintings last time, I discussed hiring professionals and the equipment they use. In the years since that post, digital camera technology has developed a great deal and in a direction which works well for photographing paintings.

What an artist needs in a photograph of their work are the correct colors, values, and chroma of the piece, with a distortion-free lens, in a very high resolution which can show the detail in the brushwork, as well as the varying sharpness and softness of the edges. For years the best way to do this was with a medium format camera with a digital back. The price for this equipment could run easily into tens of thousands of dollars. The major recent change in consumer digital photography is that the camera companies have engaged in what technology writers derogatorily refer to as the ‘megapixel war’. This race for better sensors with higher pixel counts has pushed the capabilities of DSLR sensors into the range of the low-end digital backs, potentially saving the DIY painter a ton of money.

Obviously hiring a professional photographer will achieve better results. They will have better equipment and the experience to know how to use it. They are also incredibly expensive (in Italy I paid €100 per photo, or about €1000 for an hour’s work). You can buy a whole set up for the price, and since photographing paintings is really a one-trick pony, getting it good enough isn’t that difficult.

To photograph artwork well one needs the following equipment: A tripod, proper lighting covered by polarized film, a color calibration system and gray card, a decent DSLR body which can be tethered to a computer, a computer with tethering software, a good macro (micro) lens with a circular polarizing filter, and software to edit and archive the work.

First place the painting on an easel with two bright, full-spectrum, lighting sources at 45 degree angles to the artwork, put the camera on a tripod so the lens is parallel to the surface of the painting, as shown below. Lights, painting and camera should be at the same height. There should be no other light sources, and anything white that can cause a glare on the painting should be covered.  (Professional studio photographers recommend not using the camera’s auto white balance, so I first set my white balance in the camera to 5400K (which is similar to the color temperature of the light given off by my bulbs). I then made a preset in the camera, photographed a group of paintings over and over, and tweaked the color settings until my light balance looked correct when the image first comes out of the camera) .

Photograph artwork Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

My set-up for photographing paintings.

Put your calibration card in front of the painting, photograph it, then run it through the included software (if needed convert RAW to DNG with Adobe’s free DNG converter). The software finds the color squares, measures them and makes a preset for your camera. Save the preset. Remove the calibration card and put a gray card next to the painting.

X Rite Passport1 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software screen.

Photograph the painting by first putting the camera in mirror-up mode (or set the remote connection to use mirror-up mode). Set ISO to the lowest number, usually 100, and operational mode should be aperture priority or manual (program mode will work too if you can change the aperture setting). Set image type to RAW. Set the lens to manual focus mode. Turn the polarizer on the lens until the glare on the painting is gone.

Next turn on live-view monitoring in the tethering software on your computer, put the tethered image in full-screen mode, zoom in to the maximum and manually focus the shot by hand. If your tethering software can take the photo in mirror-up mode, shoot from the computer screen, otherwise use a shutter-release cable or remote. Do not use the shutter-release button on the camera as it can move slightly and blur the shot. Experiment with various f-stops to find the sharpest for your lens, normally with a macro lens the middle range from f/4 to f/11 will be best.

Import the photo into your editing software and apply the calibration preset (click the eyedropper on the grey card if the white balance is off). Make any other corrections, i.e. rotation, crop, lens profile adjustment, etc… I then tag the paintings with the year, location and subject, so I can find them easily later. I’ve also made export presets for all the possible uses I’ll have for the photos. It makes preparing images trivial.

dalessio 1 4 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

Some tips for larger paintings: If you don’t have polarizing sheets, the lights can be at angles greater than 45 degrees to reduce glare. If there are problems with getting an even light across a large painting, find an area with even lighting and take multiple photographs, moving the painting on a flat plane at the same distance from the camera until you have photographs of sections of the whole painting. Then use stitching software such as Adobe Photoshop,  PTGui or the free Microsoft ICE to put the individual images together. This method can also be used to get ultra-high resolution images of larger paintings while using a low-megapixel camera. With a bit of work you can capture an amount of detail which would give medium format cameras a run for their money. Subtle HDR is another idea if the value range is too great for the camera.

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Self Portraits over the Years

Every year on my birthday I paint a self portrait. Many I’ve abandoned and destroyed, some years I skipped it, and I lost a hard disk a few years back with the only images of some of them. These are the ones that survived. It’s interesting for me to look back over the years to see the change in my understanding of drawing and painting.

My early attempts were pretty bad. The first two are from my three years at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The art department there wasn’t very didactic, and students were left to their own devices for the most part. All my technical knowledge at this stage was from books. Notice the poor compositions, the poor handling, the poor understanding of form…etc.

ucsc Self Portraits over the Years

Self Portraits from my UCSC days. 1989-1992

The second two are from my first years at Charles H. Cecil studios. Notice in the painting the over-modelling of the hair as well as the poor design and annoying fuzziness in the clothes,

earlyselfportraits Self Portraits over the Years

Early Cecilian Self Portraits. 1993-4

The portrait on the left was from 2002 (I think), and it starts to show a more mature style. Better design overall, better handling of the paint, and a more successful rendering of atmosphere. On the right is a sketch of Saint Mark’s Church in Venice as I was there on a plein air trip for my birthday one year.

2002 Self Portraits over the Years

Self Portrait from 2002(?) and Saint Marc's Church .

The next three portraits are recent and are more ambitious in scope, being 3/4 and full length with backgrounds. One thing about self portraits is that they can be a great way to experiment with new materials and techniques. The first one was one of the more complicated portraits I had ever set up, and the objects in the background were selected to describe aspects of my life. The second painting was painted on a much heavier weave of canvas than I am used to, and the last one was my first attempt at an outdoor portrait.

self Self Portraits over the Years

Self Portrait, 2005.

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Self Portrait, 2007

outdoor Self Portraits over the Years

Outdoor Self Portrait, 2008.

Here is a quick video (2 minutes) showing a time-lapse of this year’s self portrait. My experiment this year was to do the reverse of a grisaille, so I did the underpainting with a high chroma and glazed and scumbled the grays, greens, and browns over it.

(Update: Here is the final image.)

2010 Self Portraits over the Years

Self Portrait, 2010.

Improvement in oil painting is not a linear progression in my opinion. The ability to see improves before technical skill, and we often have difficulty assessing honestly exactly how our work looks. Below is my attempt at graphing the progression.improvement2 Self Portraits over the Years

(Being my first attempt at visually interpreting quantitative information, it probably looks similar to the self portraits at the top of the post.)

Studio Lighting Part II – Artificial Light

artificiallight Studio Lighting Part II   Artificial Light

Our fake north-light window.

On the shortest day of the year, I thought it would be fitting to do a post about using an artificial (or electric, artificial sounds so pejorative) lighting setup for studio painting.

For many years I would only work under natural light, but I was losing so much painting time in the winters that I needed to do something. As I was used to painting with a north facing window, the solution for me was to create a fake north-lit window.

For our studio lighting setup, we built a light box with 3 florescent tubes of different temperatures  (4500K, 5500K, and 6000K) and covered the studio side of the box with tracing paper to diffuse the light. At the moment though the light is too yellow, so I would like to switch out the 4500 and 5500K bulbs with 6500K ones. When the light is too yellow, it makes it harder to see yellows while you’re painting (and any color mixed with yellow, i.e. greens and oranges) so for the time being I try to avoid working on areas that require those colors under our light box. For more information on specific bulb brands check out Steve Kim’s great blog post on the subject.

Eventually I will also swap out the tracing paper for a Barrisol membrane to diffuse the light.

The box rolls on a track in front of our real window so we can move it over our natural light source in the evenings to keep working without any change in the shadow pattern. At the moment it is installed a bit too low, next time I have access to scaffolding we need to raise it a few feet.

Another trick I use to paint in the evenings is just to use the clip-on desk light attached to my easel so that my canvas, palette and reference sketches are lit with a blue daylight bulb, and then use a projector in the darkened studio to project a photograph to work from.

While working from artificial light is never ideal, this is the best studio lighting setup I’ve come across.

(Part one was a post on using natural light).

Studio lighting part I – Natural light

This is the first of a two-part post on studio lighting. When I worked at Charles Cecil studios, a few of us were present at the opening of new studios and had to set up the lighting. It was a lot of work, but I came away with a good understanding of how to control light in a painting studio. (Apologies in advance for my photographic skills, but I hope to pick up a better low-light camera soon).

cecil1 700x589 Studio lighting part I   Natural light

Charles Cecil's studio on Borgo San Frediano.

Most painters know that you need north light to avoid having direct sunlight moving around the room while you work (in the northern hemisphere only! I’ve heard of painters setting up north-lit studios in the southern hemisphere, only to have the studio blasted with sunlight). What they often don’t realize is how important it is to control the bounced light from outside as well.

One of the main errors I see in studio set-ups is not keeping reflected light off the ceiling. In a north-facing studio, anything you see from the window is facing south, and reflecting a lot of light. If you are blocking off the lower part of the window as most painters do, the light is still bouncing up onto the ceiling from the ground outside, and then coming down around the room. The best way to keep light off the ceiling is to put a hood over the top of the window. You can check the walls opposite the window to make sure the hood is keeping the reflected light out of the room. In my studio we just have a black tarp attached above the window with a wooden rod at the other end which is attached to a hook in the center of the ceiling.

graves 700x536 Studio lighting part I   Natural light

Daniel Graves's studio in Piazza Donatello.

The lower half of the windows in most studios are covered to get a higher light source and also keep out colored light reflecting off buildings and trees. Generally speaking, the smaller and higher your light source is, the more half-tones you see. In the photo of Daniel Graves’s studio above, you can see how he has run a curtain perpendicular from the middle of the window in order to have different amounts of light on the model and his working space. The right side of the window has a high, small light source for the model. The left side is flooded with light so he can see what he is doing.

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Ben Fenske in his studio in Piazza Donatello.

Ben Fenske paints some wonderful interiors with unusual lighting and in his studio he has light bouncing off the light walls, but still keeps light off the ceiling. In my Piazza Donatello studio (photo to be added soon) we have the walls covered with dark cloth to keep the subjects lit only from the window. In theory, if we ever needed reflected light, we could set up a light cloth on the other side of the subject. In practice, however, most traditional, naturally lit, paintings have only one light source. For portraiture especially, where working fast is of the essence, having a relatively simple pattern of light and shade makes everything much easier. Aesthetically, I also prefer the warm purple shadows you get with vermilion and black when painting a model lit with the cool light from a blue sky.

I was always taught about Rembrandt’s glazing and scumbling from warm to cool over the course of a portrait and how the different layers gave his sitters this wonderful pearlescent effect. Anyone who has ever painted a portrait under natural light will have noticed that over the course of the painting under changing light effects from the warm reflected light off clouds, to the cool light of the blue skies, chasing the effect naturally results in this layering of warm and cool layers in the paint. Just like so many old masters did before.

Photographing paintings

p1060904 Photographing paintings

The set-up.

This week I had a professional photographic studio (Industrial Foto) come to photograph my latest paintings for a catalog. It was interesting to see their set up, and the results are so much better than what I can do with my Panasonic Lumix LX2. It was very expensive though, for a little more money I could have bought a new entry level DSLR Photographing paintings. The photographers used a Hasselblad 555 ELD with an Imacon ixpress digital back. They explained that the cameras need to be upgraded less often than the digital processors, so this way they can upgrade each separately. The whole thing was hooked up to a Macbook Pro and everything was done from the computer (checking the light and releasing the shutter) with the proprietary Imacon software.

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Industrialfoto running the shoot from a Macbook

They used artificial light and some of the photos came out with a yellow tint. I can color correct them myself but I would have preferred to work from the RAW camera files rather than the TIFFs they sent me.

For the internet the high-resolution photos really don’t make much of a difference, here is a side by side comparison between my little Panasonic and their system:

candy1 Photographing paintings

The Hasselblad is on the left, my Panasonic is on the right.

Open studio

openstudio Open studio

Leo and Josh with the model.

On Friday April 17th, Greg, Josh, Leo and I will be having an open studio in our beautiful 19th-century painting studio in Piazza Donatello. Everyone is welcome. You can pop by during the day to beat the crowds if you like, but let someone know you’re coming. Otherwise we’ll have fine wine and even better art from 18:00 onwards.

Ironing things out

Traveling around, I occasionally get dents or scratches in my canvases. On a small ding, usually just wetting the back slightly on the deformed spot is enough to stretch the linen back into place*. Recently however I had a long line appear on a commissioned painting which was almost finished (something probably leaned on it in my car). As the painting was done for the most part in the fall, I would have had to wait half a year to paint it again.

Instead I had a professional restorer, Daniella Murphy Corella, come by the studio and take the painting to be ironed. I ended up doing all the work myself under her guidance and I’ll share what I learned.

First off I used a regular household iron. The iron must be able to operate at lower temperatures, i.e. you can place your hand on it without burning yourself (do this carefully). If your iron doesn’t go to just ‘warm’ you can put newspaper between it and the canvas.

Second, you take out all the water from the iron and make sure it doesn’t steam the canvas.

Third,  you unstretch the canvas and place it with the painting side down on silicon paper or something that the paint wont stick to.

Then you iron the canvas on the back where the problem area is for a very long time. I probably ironed for over an hour total, applying pressure the whole time. At the end the line was gone and the canvas wasn’t deformed in any way by the low heat. Apparently, if you use high heat (or water), the canvas will get waves in it which makes things much worse.

*One note about wetting the back of the canvas to get rid of dings. In my experience, if it doesn’t come out the first time you wet the canvas, don’t try it a second time or the ground can crack.

My Palette

 

cigar box palette My Palette

My ultra-portable cigar box palette.

I’ve been asked a few times lately what my palette is, so I thought I’d put a post about it.

(Updated in May of 2014:)

Outside:

  • Titanium white, from either Williamsburg, Old Holland, or Michael Harding.
  • Cadmium Yellow from Williamsburg or Michael Harding.
  • Zecchi’s Roman Ochre.
  • Cadmium Red Light (Vermilion substitute), from Zecchi or Williamsburg.
  • Cadmium Red Medium from Williamsburg.
  • Cadmium Orange, from Williamsburg.
  • Cerulean Blue, Williamsburg, Zecchi, or Old Holland if I’m felling flush.
  • Ultramarine Deep from Old Holland.
  • Cobalt Blue, either Old Holland or Harding.

Inside I use hand-ground Lead White, and hand-ground Ivory Black for portraits and still life.

Sometimes I glaze my landscapes or portraits with Alizarin, from either Zecchi, Old Holland or Robert Doak.

The palette I started with included Naples Yellow, an earth red (Pozzuoli, English…etc), and Veridian. I have also used high chroma purples for specific projects with irises and such.

The year in paintings

yearinpics sml1 The year in paintings

The current state of my studio wall.

I had intended on focusing more on my teaching this year. All things considered however, I still managed to get a lot done.

I’m quite pleased with my Florentine paintings this year. For years I haven’t painted seriously in the city as I felt somewhat bored of the views I see everyday. Then I got a commission to paint Piazza Tasso, which is not considered the most beautiful piazza in Florence, but it has a special meaning to me so I was very happy to be asked to capture it on canvas. Here is an image: 

tasso2 The year in paintings

Piazza Tasso in Feburary. Oil on linen, 2008

The painting was quite successful (I felt, and the clients were happy). An antiquarian saw this in a small show I had and asked me to do a series of ‘unusual’ Florentine scenes for a show this October. The work is at the photographers at the moment, but I’ll try to post more when the images come back. The gallery website would not appear to be up and running at the moment…