Tag Archives: Art

An old song with a new twist

According to some art historians this is the finest painting ever. It was painted by Diego Valezquez in Spain in 1656. Why would they make such I claim? I’ll try to answer that in the following paragraphs, but first, I want to ask another question.

What would happen if you were to try to duplicate an old painting master work with your camera? What would it look like? Would you try to duplicate the original effect as closely as possible? Or would you try to give the old song a new twist? This is exactly the question asked by the Remake Project. The project, sponsored by Adobe, offered £10,000 to the winner. The assignment was to remake an old masterpiece using a camera and, ostensibly, Photoshop. The results are interesting for several reasons.

First, there is a great deal to be learned from the Old Masters. These images have stood the test of time for a number of reasons so examining, even mimicking them, could provide some important insights. As a matter of fact, painters do this all the time, copying each others work to develop new skills and perspectives. I applaud the effort and am intrigued by the results.

However, it also seems apparent from the results that the students who took these images were concentrating on duplicating the what they saw without closely examining why the image was so important. (See for yourself here.) Let’s take a look at one of the images to illustrate the point.

The painting “Las Meninas“(above) is a portrait of the Royal Family of Spain where Valezquez served as a court painter. In it you see the child, Infanta Margarita, displaying her new dress, her ladies-in-waiting (meninas), the family dog (in a dignified pose), a couple of court midgets, and the chamberlain in the doorway. King Philip IV loved this painting and had it hung in his personal quarters where he could see it every day. Clearly the artist has done his job well of depicting  a private moment in the life of the royal family. And while this may have been King Philip IV’s favorite painting, it’s not what makes it such I standout piece.

If you look a bit closer you will see that Valezquez has also painted himself into this image. As a matter of fact, it would be appropriate to call this a self portrait. Notice that to the far left, standing taller than anyone else in the room is the artist himself. Has he painted himself as being a bit above the king and queen reflected in the mirror beside him? It appears he has. What’s more, look at the easel and canvas he is painting on. Is it not the biggest thing in the room? Does it not appear that Valezquez is saying that he sees himself and his work as being more important than what is going on around him? I seems he has.

What’s more, you will notice that the painter wears the red cross of royalty on his chest.This has huge significance. In Valezquez time painting was a trade like blacksmith or baker. Valezquez got his job in the palace because he had a university degree, and he was really good with a brush.  His dream was to one day rise above the level of skilled laborer to be equal with the royals but the prospects weren’t good. Eventually King Philip decided Valezquez should get the promotion and the royal cross that went with it, but that was three years after this painting was completed. When he got the promotion, Valezquez asked to have the painting back so he could paint the cross on his chest.

If you understand all these things you begin to appreciate that there is a lot more going on in this image than most people see. There’s more, but we will get to that in a minute. Right now I want to talk about a photograph that tries to duplicate the feel of this image.

This is how Natalie Pereira’s saw this image.

In many ways she has faithfully reproduced the essentials of the painting. We see the courtiers, the dog, even the royal midget. And sure enough, there is the artist standing somewhat above them all. But I can’t help but wonder, if Ms. Pereira had understood the story behind the painting, the artists view of his own importance and subsequent promotion, would she have photographed this a different way?





One thing we do know is that Salvador Dali understood the true meaning of this painting. Of course, Dali was a fellow Spainard as well as painter, though his purposes were very different. Like many other artists, he paid homage to the great Valesquez in his own unique way. He titled his painting “Valezquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory.” Dali demonstrates that as a fellow painter, he knows exactly what Valezquez has done. He has painted a portrait that seems to feature a little girl of royal lineage, but has really painted a tribute to himself. The great irony is that he slipped it past his employers and eventually got what he desired most.

Now let’s not disparage Ms. Pereira. She was a student at the time and she did a superlative job with her image. The question here is whether or not a better understanding of why a painting has been so successful for hundreds of years might give us more clues that we can put to good use in our own work? I think you already know my answer to that question.



Valezquez’ painting holds one more surprise for us; one you may have already noticed. Everyone in the painting appears to be  somewhat surprised. They have stopped what they are doing in order to look in the direction of the viewer. Ostensibly, the king and queen, reflected in the mirror, have just entered the room and everyone has stopped to  acknowledge them. This quality of everyone looking in our direction gives the painting a bit of a cheeky quality. All of the people, from the chamberlain in the doorway to the painter at work and the child on display, all seem to be looking directly at you and me. From across the ages Valezquez has turned the tables on us. He and the courtiers of King Philip’s reign are looking at us, wondering who it is that is looking at them. All these years we have been staring at them and now Valezquez has turned the table. The characters are looking at us. Do they have a question for us? Do we have an answer? This is truly one of those images that has the power to be a little different every time you look at. If you want to be a great artist, whether with a brush or a camera, this is one of the things you need to aspire to.


Elements of Design

 The Elements of Design

If you look up the term “Elements of Design” you are likely to find several different descriptions, but the essentials come down to this: Line, Shape, Value, Texture, Size, Space and Color. Of those elements, color is the only one that is not necessary, which is why we have line drawings and black and white photography. All of the other elements are essential in every artistic work, though they are not always featured.

We will talk about these elements in more detail in future posts, but I need to answer a question you may be asking yourself first: Why should I care? I mean, will knowing the ‘elements of design’ make me a better photographer. And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Let me explain. As I have already stated, all of these elements except color are required for a good composition. However, they are not all equally on display in every composition. Very often we can improve our compositions by emphasizing one or more of the elements.

Alexander Calder understood the importance of shapes. As a matter of fact, he was so drawn to them that he spent his entire artistic career building mobiles where he could show them off. His work was original and powerful enough to garner his work a place in many of the world’s most prestigious museums. Here is an example:

With a few simple lines, and some unique shapes, Calder has created a powerful composition. Do the other elements, like texture and space still play a role? Certainly, but they take a back seat to shapes in his work. (I should add that the fact that this is a mobile means he has been able to add movement as another element we would not normally associate with our compositions unless we were shooting video.)

Let’s look at another example from a different artist. In this case the artist is Jasper Johns and this is an iconic image he created back in 1955.

OK, you say, I’ve seen things like this before. So why is this hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s just a flag. That’s true, but I would ask you to look a bit closer to see something you may have missed, the thing that excited the curator when he first saw it.

Johns used tissue paper and paste to building up layers of texture that contribute very subtly to the effect of this piece. It is hard to see from just a photograph (though the detail shot certainly helps) but standing in front of the image, the layers of texture are very apparent and the effect is powerful. With a very simple design that everyone knows, the American flag, Johns has communicated that the flag is more than a two dimensional decoration; it is a symbol with layer upon layer of meaning, much as his composition is layered with texture. In other words, a surprisingly simple design turns out to possess a for more powerful meaning through the masterful use of just one design element: texture.

Very often we are wise to ask ourselves if our compositions will improve if we emphasize one element or another. There will be times when it is not wise to feature one element over others, but then there are times, as in Philip Halsman’s portrait of Salvador Dali, that emphasizing an element, like line, can add tremendously to the power of the composition.

And isn’t that what we are looking for? Honestly, all of our photographs are compositions, some more successful than others. What we are looking for are compositions with meaning and power and the elements of design are among the best tools in our toolbox to make that happen.


Spend some time with each of the design elements. Choose just one element, like texture, and spend some time making sure you emphasize that one element in all your images. Spending time with each of these elements will add to your photographic arsenal without costing you a dime. In time you will be able to take several images of the same subject, each emphasizing a different element of the design. That is the beginning of mastery.

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