I recently discovered a fantastic new app called ‘Waterlogue’ that can turn photos into really good watercolour paintings. It’s a bargain for only a couple of dollars!*
(Here’s a picture using Waterlogue that I prepared earlier of my neighbour’s dog and her favourite toy.)
I raved about this app to a friend who runs botanical illustration classes – but she was not at all impressed. Her view is that it’s not art if doesn’t include the artist’s individual interpretation.
“What’s the point if every picture turns out the same no matter who presses ‘go’?” she exclaimed.
I could have argued that you still have to take the photo and that some people have a better eye for a subject and composition than others.
For example, photographers have to recognise the potential of the shot in the first place and pick the angle and what to include etc. Some people even spend ages waiting for just the right light and placement of the subjects etc.
And not everyone has the time (or skill) to sketch or paint – nor the inclination to learn.
However, I can appreciate my friend’s point of view.
But at least the app is better than painting the Mona Lisa by numbers! Or is it?
What is it about an original sketch or painting that makes them so special? What unique qualities do they possess that a Waterlogue watercolour does not?
And how can we record what we smell and hear and how we feel – not just what we see?
To explore this question further, I decided to try an experiment with the view from my hotel room in Florence many years ago. Looking at the sketch I did in my notebook at the time (on the right), I obviously left out the drainpipe and cropped the view so that you couldn’t see the handbasin and wardrobe that are visible in the photo on the left.
The Waterlogue version has partially obscured these unwanted objects in the standard view (second from the left) but less so in the technical view (to its right).
Admittedly, unwanted elements can easily be deleted nowadays by simply editing or cropping the digital image on a computer. However, it is harder to still hard to emphasise key elements or to draw attention to significant details unless you have more sophisticated software or are more proficient in its use.
For example, the app couldn’t pick out details such as the window handle and the scrolls in the church’s window moulding that obviously appealed to me. These are not even visible in the photo.
The photo and Waterlogue versions therefore give a more truthful sense of the room and its view, but my amateur sketch reminds me of specific details – as well as how I felt when I entered the room and witnessed the view for the first time. I had been very excited about booking a hotel so close to the Basilica of San Lorenzo as it contains, among other features, an early Renaissance cloister by Brunelleschi and a library designed by Michelangelo. It also houses the Medici Chapels beneath its domes.
I had spent my first few days in a ground floor room that looked out onto a hot water tank and a blank wall.
When I finally moved up in the world (literally), the dome of the Chapel of the Princes felt like it was bursting into my new room, rather than just being a random object in the middle ground.
During that trip, I didn’t have the time or inclination to sketch the front of the church as the facade by Michelangelo was never completed. A simple photo (or modern Waterlogue overlay) seems to be more than adequate in that case.
I did, however, try to draw some of the magnificent sculptures by Michelangelo in the New Sacristy (under the smaller dome) where I was not allowed to take photos. I particularly liked the way that ‘Dusk’ and ‘Dawn’ appeared to be talking to each other when you looked at them from the side.
(Were the two figures discussing the visitors, or possibly Lorenzo or one of his relatives who lay below? Perhaps they were reminiscing nostalgically about the weather and the outside world after being locked in this crypt for nearly five centuries?)
In defence of the slightly odd looking anatomy, my travel diary included the followng comment: “the men are superb… but the women look like men with female faces and a pair of breasts stuck awkwardly on the torso.”
The only other alternative to sketching and a travel diary back then was to buy a postcard, poster or guidebook and hope they roughly captured the mood or details that you wanted to remember and/or communicate to others.
Although modern cameras now allow us to take good photos inside without a flash, most of us are still limited in the extent to which we can modify the images and incorporate our own perspective and insights.
As such, we still need a way to make annotations and notes about our own experience of a place, the people we meet and how we felt.
Other people might be able to draw and paint better than we can, but no other person or camera is better qualified to add our own interpretation at a specific point in time.
This helps to keep our experience of the world fresh and less predictable.
Sketching also encourages us to be more conscious of our surroundings and to notice small things and subtle changes that we might otherwise miss.
These are extra hard-to-quantify benefits of making the effort to draw or paint – or even taking the time to observe and make notes about the world around us. And they are just as relevant while on holiday or at home.
My friend was quite right about the value of each person’s unique representation of a scene or object and their connection with the subject – regardless of their level of artistic skill.
If you asked ten people to draw the same scene, you would get ten different works – each with a slightly different view and different stroke marks, focal points and omissions, texture, colour and tone.
After learning about perspective, the colour wheel, composition and some basic techniques, it’s simply a matter of practice and trial and error.
The artist is in control and gets to select the medium and what to include and exclude. They can distort or exaggerate elements as they wish.
They can also choose to start over whenever they want.
Sketching slows down the pace of this hectic world and gives us time to think and just ‘be’. Perhaps it should be (or already is) a cornerstone of what is now being called ‘Slow Travel’?
(If you are looking for inspiration and guidance, try blogs such as Sketchaway. I love the way Suhita adds a new dimension to urban landscapes, including neon signs and power lines, and her use of details in a cup of coffee such as long shadows and colour to indicate the time of day and season.)
(If you really don’t feel able to sketch, then taking mindful photos can be a good substitute. See this Ardysez post about doing a year long photo challenge and experimenting with apps.)
* Thanks to Lynn at Sentio for letting me know about the Waterlogue app. I still love it – regardless of what my friend says!
- Photo of the Lorenzo de Medici monument – Illustration from The Life of Michael Angelo by Romain Rolland, translated by Frederic Lees: Monument of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1912) uploaded by Inductiveload on 5 June 2011 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
- ‘Long winter shadows‘ watercolour – Suhita Shirodkar (Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved)
- All other photos and drawings – Pip Marks (some modified with Waterlogue app)