By Bill Dobbins

Rembrandt made use of the technique of chiaroscuro – which according to Wikipedia “is an oil painting technique, developed during the Renaissance, that uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms, often to dramatic effect.”

Painters have traditionally developed their skills by studying and often copying the works of the old masters.  This helped them learn about aspects of their craft like composition, color, perspective and light.

Photographers can benefit from doing the same thing.  Sure, we are always looking at images by other photographers – and studying pictures shot by the great shooters of the past (if we know what’s good for us).  But photographs are limited by the technology that created them, even in the digital age.  Paintings are only restricted by the imagination and creativity of the artist.  With literally thousands of years of art to drawn on there is almost no limit to the inspiration that is available.

Let me give an example.  I was at the Prado in Madrid.  I entered a long, rectangular gallery and next to the door there hung a Rembrandt.  It was the kind of painting you expect from that artist – a warm, glowing image emerging from a dark background.  I walked through the gallery and at the other end turned and looked back.  There were paintings all along both walls but  that Rembrandt seemed to glow like a backlit transparency.

In his painting The Girl With The Pearl Earring Vermeer showed his subject lit by soft window light.
This photo from the The Girl With The Pearl Earring shows actress Scarlett Johansson lit very much as Vermeer intended.
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To promote and advertise the movie, this image of Scarlett Johansson was made a lot brighter and given more contrast. Good for high impact in a poster but not what Vermeer intended.

I was struck by this and started walking slowly back toward the painting, trying to figure out how Rembrandt has achieved that remarkable effect.  I studied the painting further and later on quite deliberately tried to recreate the same kind of lighting in my studio photos – a warm, saturated figure emerging from a contrasting dark background.

It occurred to me that this approach to learning better photography could benefit from studying all sorts of paintings.  For example, look at the way the window light falls on the figure in Vermeet’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. What a flattering lighting set up for shooting portraits!  Or the way the light falls upon the face in the world’s most famous painting The Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci.  A warm defused light on the face and a background sufficiently diffused so as not to distract.

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The Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci – the world’s most famous painting. I suspect it looked somewhat more colorful and contrasty when first painted in the very early 1500s.

Interested in shooting still lives?  That is a favorite motif of painters and there are thousands of  examples available to use for inspiration.  You’ll find a variety of objects, dishes and glasses, fruit and other food and even a skull painting by Georgia Okeefe – who also painting flowers for those photographers who are interested in that kind of subject matter.

Cole Evening in Arcadia
A landscape by Thomas Cole – a great art director sketch to inspire a photograph.
One type of subject Georgia OKeefe was known for was her paintings of flowers. Lots of photographers enjoy shooting flowers and should check out her art.
A still life by Georgia Okeefe, painted after she moved from New York City to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Part of how you can improve your photography is by educating your eye as much as possible.  That includes not only looking at all sorts of photos, of all types from all different eras, but going to museums, galleries or searching on line to see what kind of images painters have created over the centuries and seeing what you can learn about their use of color, of contrast, of perspective and composition.

American Gothic by Grant Wood. The environmental portrait was not invented by photographers.
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Whistler’s Mother by James Whistler, another environmental portrait.  Generations of painters as well as photographers have sought out models who would pose for free.


Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com
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This is a photograph that draws every heavily on effects often found in landscape paintings. Credit: Bill Dobbins
Inga Nerauskaite - Studio
Portraits illuminated with soft, diffuse light work well in photography as well as painting. Model: Inga Neverauskaite  Credit: Bill Dobbins
Painters can invent any props, settings or backgrounds they want to include in their work. Unless they are playing tricks with Photoshop, photographers need to actually obtain whatever they plan to include in a photograph.   Model: American Gladiator Tanji Johnson  Credit: Bill Dobbins
Painters can create any world they can imagine.  To shoot photos that include or feature a landscape, a photographer has to actually go to that landscape – although in the digital age some can make use of Photoshop and compositing. This is me and model Kerstin Schulze in Death Valley, CA.