What Does Art History Have To Do With Shooting Fine Art Photography?

This article may be about learning from art history, but it also deals with the intangibles creating art. I think it’s important to recognize that first and foremost art should evoke emotion in the viewer. As artists, we can create the perfectly composed image, but without emotion, the work is nothing more than pretty. You will never evoke emotion in 100% of viewers, but when your work strikes a chord with a large number of viewers…In the fine art photography world, we call that success!!

With this thought in mind let’s dive into the work of art history. Let’s analyze the work of some masters. We can take our new found learning and apply it to our own fine art photography efforts.

art history and fine art photography
The Persistence of Memory by Salvadore Dali

Use Art History As A Starting Point For Fine Art Photography

A few years ago I attended a workshop by famous photographer Art Wolfe. He spoke about how his training in classical art influenced his photography. Once I started to compare his work to some of the famous works he included in his seminar I could see how his vision was influenced by his knowledge of art. It was a huge “AHA!!!” moment for me. I suddenly began to look at the creation of photographs in a much deeper way. That one small revelation helped to improve my photographic vision. And you know what? It can improve your vision too!

I walked away from Art Wolfe’s seminar with one key understanding. Understanding how and why the classical painters crafted their work opens up new understandings for us photographers. We can start to compose our own images with thoughts towards evoking emotion and use techniques like color or contrast to communicate that message. We will grow as fine art photographers if we come to appreciate and understand all the elements that go into making a beautiful painting.

Putting Art History Into Practice

Armed with my new knowledge I started to experiment more. I read more about art history and art theory. This curiosity evolved into my first experiment. I chose the work of Renaissance still life artists to help inspire my next photographic endeavor. Here are some examples of Renaissance still life paintings.

Still Life with Quince, Cabbage and Melo by: Juan Sanchez Cotan
Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, and Melon by Juan Sanchez Cotan

Here’s my own attempt at creating a still life using their composition techniques.

fine art photography by Erin FitzGibbon
Photo by Erin FitzGibbon

What do you think? Is the piece reflective of these paintings? Is my work a cheap mimicry? I feel the piece goes beyond copying to creating something new. For me, it was certainly a moment when I learned to create a new type of photograph. My most valuable piece of learning came from my new found understanding of how to use reflectors to control and create light and dark contrasts in my images. I still use these techniques today.

Seminars aren’t the only place you can learn more about using art history. I suggest taking a look at this Prezi. It goes through four simple steps for critiquing art. Another fantastic resource is a book by Patrick Smith. He covers a lot of information on using art theory to improve your landscape photography.


You might laugh, but I’ve also taught myself a great deal about history and critiquing art from websites designed for kids. Ducksters is one of my favorites. The information is easy to access and I can study and era in just a few minutes. Then when I have more time I can come back to an artist and study their work in more depth.

If you’re brand new to art history, youth sites such as Duckster are a great stepping off point.

Let’s Practice: Time To Focus On Paintings

Let’s delve into the world of art history and analyze some paintings. As we go along, think about how to use these techniques. We want to push our own art to new limits.

Jack Pine – Tom Thomson

This painting is an iconic representation of my country. Being Canadian, it represents our heritage and the environment in which our character was formed. I chose this painting because of the emotional tie to my own background.

Jack Pine By: Tom Thomson
Jack Pine by Tom Thomson

So let’s begin. Why did Thomson compose his painting in this manner? What was the artist trying to accomplish? Thomson stylised the Jack Pine. He created these very graphic branches and contrasted their dark shapes against the orange tones of sunset and distant hills. This piece is about shape and design.

Can we achieve this same type of effect in our work? Of course, we can. Set goals when you compose photographs. Look for items you might be able to photograph. Can you angle your camera to create a similar feel and effect as the artist used to create the painting?

It will take you some time and practice to figure out how to create images in which you highlight the graphic nature of your subject

Let’s close this evaluation of Thomson’s technique with some words from Thomson himself:

“The Jack Pine, is, after all, like all successful works of art a living thing that grows or declines, unfolds or closes up, according to the nature and the quality of the attention it receives. In that sense, there are as many meanings as there are viewers.”

I may see the graphic nature of the branches and the different elements Thomson has abstracted as a jumping off point for creation. You may see other elements in the painting that you draw upon. Perhaps you study the piece for its use of perspective. Whatever you see within the painting, think about why the artist created this piece and why it is successful. This key question will help you to learn from the masters.

Let’s take a look at another painting and the careful composition of this piece.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte – by George Seurat

Painting by: Georges Seurat
Painting by Georges Seurat

I chose to include this painting mostly because of its association with one of my favourite movies “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. This painting held meaning for the director, but it can also be used to inspire photographers.

For a little deeper insight, take a look at this clip of John Hughes as he explains how he found inspiration in paintings and how he was able to pay tribute to his favorite in his own artistic way.

Now back to the painting, Seurat uses a technique called pointillism. The paintings are composed of millions of tiny dots. It must have taken years to complete such an intricate piece. This point alone makes the piece impressive, but there’s more to it than a unique technique.

The piece uses simple lines, bright colors, and an accurate depiction of light and shadow. Sometimes artists will utilize shadows in a way that is not realistic. Seurat ensures his shadows are realistic. There’s also a sense of harmony throughout the piece. He includes multiple age levels and people of different socioeconomic status within the scene. Everyone is enjoying their afternoon and the overall feel of the painting is one of peace and harmony.

Taking these same concepts and employing them in our own photography can open up new worlds of creation. Searching out scenes that might hold these same elements could become a new challenge. While I didn’t purposely shoot this image with the work of Seurat in my mind, I can see some of the same elements within the shot. Certainly, the feeling of harmony is similar.

Photo by Erin FitzGibbon

Keep Exploring!

Studying the work of others is always beneficial to your own practice as an artist and a fine art photographer. After all, that is what you are. You–just like painters or sculptors–are an artist too! Photography can interpret life and create meaningful representations. It can harness elements of design and create graphic images that focus on abstract representations, just like Thomson.

The skill required to capture images can mystify audiences in the same way Seurat’s 6 x 10 work of pointillism boggles the mind. We have the skill to evoke emotions in our viewers too. If you consciously work to include different elements of design in your work, you too will craft photography that entraps others in the scene.

Take the time to study the work of others. You don’t always have to study the greats either. You can take a look at the work of local artists. If you get the chance, talk to them about their work. Ask about their compositions and the choices they made. You can learn from them too. Most artists love it when you ask about their process. You won’t regret the experience.

Don’t forget to visit museums and art exhibits. Each time you visit, be sure to analyze at least one painting. Use the critique process outlined in the link we provided earlier. Look for elements of design, consider the emotions each piece evokes and make notes about your observations. These careful considerations will open your eyes to new possibilities. Then carefully compose your photographs using your new found knowledge.

Claude Monet: Water Lilies
Water Lilies by Claude Money

“History has remembered the kings and warriors because they destroyed. Art has remembered the people because they created” – William Morris

Make sure you show us your efforts! Tag your work with art history and include links in the comments. We want to see how art history has influenced your work.


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About the author

Erin Fitzgibbon

Erin FitzGibbon is a Portrait, Sport, Fine Art Photographer and Writer from Ontario, Canada. When she's not taking photographs or writing articles she loves to escape to the backcountry for week long adventures with her family.

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