Fine Art and its Influences on Photographic Style

By John Cogan ARPS

No matter how hard I try, it makes no difference; the lure of fine art will have its way. A misspent youth wandering round art galleries and being taken on painting holidays with a watercolour set, an easel and copious amounts of loo paper to mop up the spilled water and clean the brushes will, inevitably, leave its mark. With this library of visual images little wonder then that certain subjects can, somehow, assume the look of a painting.

Now, please do not assume I am trying to claim my photographs are art! Far from it! What I am tentatively suggesting is that certain favourite artists can, on occasions, advise the final print of some of my photographs. The image becomes an experiment in painterly construction.

Every photograph is the end result of a series of choices. Some are as prosaic as which lens to fit or what ISO is suitable to the situation? Some can be more subtle; like where to stand or what to focus upon? The painter has a similar set of decisions to make; some of which are just as mundane: which bit of the scene to focus upon, or where to sit? Other choices can be very much a matter of personal taste and range from how to build up the texture or which colour glazes will best represent whatever s/he is painting? Every brush stroke is a choice, every colour chosen whether applied impasto or mixed are decisions that constantly challenge the artist. Painting is similar to photography in that the process is a series of problems to be solved. For some of us the camera is a way of shedding the cares of everyday life. Whether paint of a SD card, we inevitably enter “The Zone”.

Ultimately, it is the end result that matters. The image on the paper that best represents what we set out to achieve is the driving force behind our endeavours.

I have favourite artists. Many of us will have. The images offered below are examples of how artists have advised the finished work. Should you think I am merely copying the painting let me reassure you that the aim is to follow the processes employed by the artist to come to the scene with greater understanding. 

As a painter you can move elements of a scene for greater effect; add an extra tree here and a figure there; or expunge a whole forest as the artistic spirit moves you. The equivalent of that, photographically, would be to resort to Photoshop and manipulation. Not having the technical skill to manipulate I fall back on simple treatment; and this is where the artistic journey begins.

Staring at the image on the computer screen, the painter sits on my shoulder and tempts me into a wee bit of tonal variation here and a spot of dodging there; anything to create the image I want. Subtle changes mean that my computer memory is clogged with dozens of variations of the same image which vary only by degree. This is where the artist-heroes provide ideas: Sir Stanley Spence and the positioning of the head with specific light values; Edward Bawden and the structuring of an urban scene; Eric Ravillious and the effect of light upon a hill side.

In the first example, the photograph of St Mary’s Lighthouse, my role model was the American artist Edward Hopper. Standing on the beach the scene and the play of sunlight on the stark white of the lighthouse immediately reminded me of the many New England scenes painted by Hopper. This meant over-exposing somewhat. The same influence came to mind when I stood in King’s Cross Station looking at the cafes and the disparate groups of people. Not lighthouses his time but Hopper’s somber painting of isolated people; especially his famous “Nighthawks”.

Consider, then, the following and, should you feel so inclined, Google the artists to see how they might have influenced my photography.

I had wanted to provide you with copies of these reference images. However, I found that I was stretching the recent changes in the Copyright Laws a little too far. There is a new category in the legislation called Fair Dealings. This allows for the use of a limited number of copyright images, or sections of text, if they were for non-commercial purposes and/or educational use. After a lengthy discussion with the Tate Gallery over the use of their works by Sir Stanley Spence I discovered that they are just as confused by Fair Dealings as I am. Therefore, the safest answer is: I am unable to provide you with artists’ images as an integral part of this article. “Tell them to look the artist up on Wikipedia!” was the advice of the Tate copyright staff. So, I pass that on to you. To make sense of this article please consult the internet on the following artists:

The Images

 The first three images are my homage to Edward Hopper. The dark King’s Cross image is my contemporary version of his “Nighthawks”. St Mary’s Lighthouse is a reference to Hopper’s many lighthouse images. The third Hopperesque image is a photograph taken in Prague that has the characteristic lead-in lines and single dominant object. In this case it is a tram. Hopper frequently used railway carriages, especially red ones.

   Nighthawks  Lighthouse in the style of Hopper (1)  Hopper Prague

My Edward Bawdenesque images are very domestic. Whereas Hopper’s internal paintings feature dislocated people, isolated in harsh lighting and/or stark buildings, Bawden favours very British, domestic scenes. My offerings are the interior of a London pub, and two sylvan scenes.

   Pub in the style of Bawden (1)  North Tyne in the style of Bawden #1 (1) Bawden #2

The scene from the river bank has the tonal range of John Constable’s work. Hardly surprising as I lived for 12 years close to East Bergholt and Willie Lott’s cottage. Next to it are two images of a woman at work with a printing press. The colours and overall lighting are reminiscent of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his interior studies.

   Constable #1  In the style of Whistler (1)  Printing in the style of Whistler 2 (1)

The final three are heavily influenced by Sir Stanley Spence. The portrait of the recently deceased Lord Walton and the two images of the late Lord Barnard are redolent of that lightness of touch of Spence that belied his intense quest for form and shape.

  Stanley Spencer Lord Walton   Lord Barnard in the style of Spence #2 (1)  Lord Barnard in the style of Spence #2 (2)

John Cogan

May 2016



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