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There are lots of wonderful landscape photographers that have inspired me throughout my career. Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, David Muench, Galen Rowel – all iconic names that each and every aspiring nature photographer should become intimately familiar with. Their images continue to influence me to see and think about nature and the world around us. Whether through imitation or inspiration, studying their work is always time well spent.

But the study of other art forms, specifically painting, can also provide a much-needed change of perspective for many photographers. Painting provides a tremendous wealth of insight if you’re willing to take some time to look carefully.

Why Study Painting?

We can learn a great deal from painters and their incredible ability to create what we as landscape photographers strive to capture in nature. Although the subject matter may be similar, the way they create their work is fundamentally different. Painters start with a blank canvas and work towards complexity, whereas photographers work in reverse, eliminating and simplifying a scene to its essence.

These are two very different ways of arriving at a compelling picture, but both seek the same outcome; conveying an emotion to the viewer. They are also similar in that both require an understanding of the visual language to be effective. I can tell you that my photography has improved tremendously ever since I started to invest significant time in the study of my favorite landscape painters. Their use of light, shadow, contrast, and storytelling is a lifelong study that will always yield new ideas and insights.

I’ve chosen five paintings that I think are great examples of true masterpieces, and hopefully they inspire you to look at and appreciate this visual art form that is so similar to our pursuits as photographers. It’s no coincidence that most are from the Hudson River School of Painters, some of the finest landscape painters that have ever lived. What can I say, I’m biased since they worked in many of the locations I regularly visit to photograph.

Five Paintings To Study

A Gorge in the Mountains Sanford Robinson Gifford 1862
<strong>A Gorge in the Mountains<strong> <em>Sanford Robinson Gifford 1862<em><br > This breaks all the rules of composition yet looks and feels beautifully balanced and lyrical Space is used to emphasize the edges and also allow the warmth of the sun to convey meaning
In The Blue Mountains Jamaica Frederic Edwin Church 1865
<strong>In The Blue Mountains Jamaica<strong> <em>Frederic Edwin Church 1865<em><br > Shapes and lines dominate this composition creating a wonderful rhythm that adds lots of depth and space to the landscape Notice the use of diagonals even the foreground tree bends to create a graceful gesture
Forest In Morning Light Asher B Durand 1855
<strong>Forest In Morning Light<strong> <em>Asher B Durand 1855<em><br > Durand was masterful with forest scenes that often as so difficult to photograph successfully But rather than remove chaos he demonstrates how to carefully use lines and repetition together with light and shadow
El Capitan Yosemite Albert Bierstadt 1875
<strong>El Capitan Yosemite<strong> <em>Albert Bierstadt 1875<em><br > Wonderful lines repetition rhythm texture this painting has it all and yet its the light that creates the depth and divides the image diagonally Notice that all the corners are used to make the composition as strong as possible
Loch Coruisk Isle of Skye Sidney Richard Percy 1874
<strong>Loch Coruisk Isle of Skye<strong> <em>Sidney Richard Percy 1874<em><br > Another great example of repeating strong lines and repeating shapes to lead the viewer through the image

Going Further

Of course, this is not an absolute list, but merely my suggestions to get you started. Most importantly, visit museums, read art books in your local library, and take advantage of the internet to discover and learn about painters that inspire you. If you have an iPad, “Art Authority” is a must buy app, a true gold mine for learning about paintings throughout history. Also check out The Athenaeum, a free website that is cataloging the worlds paintings.

The best part is that regardless of whether you shoot landscapes, wildlife, portraits, or weddings, there is a wealth to learn from painters. Take advantage of it, and take time off from Flickr and other photo sharing sites – I promise it will be worth it.

I also lead a unique workshop in the Hudson Valley where we study the painters of the Hudson River School and use their approach to photograph and interpret the landscape in a contemporary way.

Explore your vision Visit this  page to find out more about the upcoming  workshop in September, 2015. 

Any ideas or suggestions for paintings? Do you have any comments, questions, or feedback? Need more suggestions? Let me know…I’m always happy to help.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. It’s interesting that four of the five paintings have the sun ahead – 3 directly and the other 1 off to the side. For me the sun in these paintings grabs my attention first and is the destination, but the path to get there is never direct – that’s what draws you into them. Painting 4 demonstrates this the most – destination over to the far right, but you have to veer over in the opposite direction and around the trees in the centre and through the deer to get there. I feel that I could follow that stream all the way home.

    It’s interesting analysing your reactions and then realising how the composition has done it’s job – wow!

    Next time I shoot a forest, I’m going to look for a break where the light penetrates somewhere through the trees into a clearing. It’s that and the angle of the light that does it for me with that painting.

    Another interesting thing I’m noticing is the amount of contrast – no HDR here :-). It’s a reality check because I think personally I’ve probably developed the habit of being a little heavy-handed with the shadow slider in ACR and worrying too much about shadow detail.

    Great topic. Thanks.

    1. Hi Cameron, thanks for your feedback and thoughts. What’s important to realize about the sun is that it’s used compositionally as you mentioned, and also the light is very diffused. Clear skies with the sun is almost always a distraction, so you need atmospheric diffusion to create these kinds of effects. And yes you are also very correct about the use of shadows compositionally, to lead the eye into the scene. If everything in an image is the same “volume” (HDR), then nothing can move forward or backward, depth becomes harder to convey, and the viewer is not engaged with as many “questions.”

      Art that provides all the answers is generally forgotten quickly. Great art invites repeated viewings because there’s always something else to see or discover.
      Thanks for your support!


  2. Great article, these paintings worth to look and study they are all nice well composed and give a dreamy feel, four of them show beautiful nice spreading golden sun light this will give me a good idea on how to best use of the sun light. The first painting you talked about you mentioned “This breaks all the “rules” of composition.” but for me there is only one break that is the horizon in the middle or seem to be the large negative space but it is not considered a negative space it shows middle and background. thank you.

  3. There are consistently good posts coming from this website and this one is no exception. Enjoyed the lesson, the inspiration, and the change of pace.

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