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Throughout this title I'm going to be referring to visual vocabularies. What do I mean by a visual vocabulary? Each visual medium--sculpture, painting, photography and so on--has a set of unique features that defines it. For example, the medium of painting has expressive brushstrokes, canvas, and paint texture, a simplified representation of reality, and so on. These visual elements are the nouns and verbs that make up the visual vocabulary of paint.
Likewise, photography has a unique visual vocabulary that defines it: sharp focus, lens distortion, depth of field, and so on. I'm going to use the notion of these mediums' visual vocabularies to show you how to translate one medium into another. In effect, using Photoshop, you'll be interpreting a photograph into a painting using your own expressive voice. Let's use these two examples for comparison to show you what I mean. Both are of the same subject: a holiday shopping scene on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, known as the Magnificent Mile.
Let's start with the photograph and take a look at some of its key vocabulary elements. Depth of field encapsulates both sharp and soft focus. Some parts of an image will be in sharp focus, revealing many fine details. Other areas may be shot in soft focus, or even blurred, masking detail. Our eye naturally goes to the areas of detail; that's where the center of interest lies. In this photo, the intersection in the foreground is in sharp focus.
Look at how the lights in the trees catch our attention. We can even read the signs on the corner. Now, look at what happens as the traffic recedes into the distance; the focus softens, blurring the detail. Compared to the buildings in the foreground, the structures a block or two away from us show little detail, yet, still, we read them as skyscrapers. The lights on the trees dissolve into orange glows. Because these areas don't contain details, there is little for the eye to focus on, so we don't spend much time there.
Together, sharp and soft focus rely on one another to guide the viewer's eye within a composition. Looking closely at the photograph, we can see that the camera records detail in a continuous fashion, making no judgment with regard as to what is important in the scene. Only the lens setting, which the photographer controls, affects the sharpness of detail in the foreground. The photographer is using depth of field to control what area of the scene is in sharp focus, and therefore more important.
Now, let's compare to how the painting handles detail and subject focus. Like the photograph, the painting uses detail to draw the attention of the viewer's eye. However, unlike the photo, the detail is not continuous; rather, it is indicated through a simplified rendering of the scene via brushstrokes. The artist has subjectively weighted specific elements of the scene with greater importance through the use of more detailed brushstrokes. Compared to the fine detail of the photograph, the painting is not nearly as complex.
The artist has simplified the scene by indicating with brushstrokes which areas have greater importance. Both of these mediums portray the same subject matter, yet how each renders detail to draw the attention of the viewer's eye is very different. The photographer has utilized the camera lens's capacity to vary focus from soft to sharp in order to lead the viewer's eye to the foreground where the traffic is waiting at the light. The softly focused distant areas of the scene provide a backdrop without demanding our attention.
The hundreds of small lights in the trees provide an additional area of focus. The artist's painting has interpreted the unflinching continuous focus of the camera and rendered it through a simplification of form and brushwork that indicates a greater level of detail. Unlike the photograph's perfect recording of detail, the painting supplies enough detail, like dots, for the viewer's mind to connect. It is this additional creative playfulness that imbues the painting with the expressive interpretation of the artist.
By understanding how each medium uses its vocabulary elements to create a scene to be viewed, we can translate one medium's vocabulary element into another medium-- in this case, photography and painting. As we go through this title, I'll describe the various key vocabulary elements of each and show you how we can translate a photograph into a painting.
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