Death Valley, Painted Landscapes

Death Valley, Artist’s Drive. Blue Sky (1), 2016.

The mediums of painting and photography have intersected at many times. With the invention of photography painters began to work from photographs. Eugene Delacroix created nude studies based on daguerreotype photographs by Eugene Durieu. Praising the effects of photography, Delacroiz wrote in 1850 “A daguerreotype is the mirror of the object, certain details almost always overlooked in drawing from nature take on in it great characteristic importance, and thus introduce the artist to complete knowledge of construction; light and shadow are found in their true character.” [1] The painter Edgar Degas took photographs and his experiments with photography would come to influence his paintings. Others followed Degas’s example including Picasso, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close.  Photography would come to exert a large influence on painting and each medium made lasting contributions to the other.

Death Valley, Titus Canyon (1), 2016

Despite the many compositional comparisons between photography and painting, each mediums are different activities with similar aims. [2] Photographs and paintings differ in that they come into being in different ways. [3] As the art historian Helmut Gernsheim explains, “the camera intercepts images; the paint brush reconstructs them.” [4] Others would restate these inherent differences, including Susan Sontag’s dialectic: “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”[5] Behind every photograph, even in photographs with no apparent focus or discernible subject matter resides the notion that something at one time was in front of the lens. This may seem obvious, but photography interacts with the physical world unlike other mediums and is reliant upon this physicality, or to allow Sontag to extend her point, “the formal qualities of style—the central issue in painting—are, at most, of secondary importance in photography, while what a photograph is of is always of primary importance.” [6]

Death Valley, Artist’s Drive. Blue Sky (2), 2016.

The differences between painting and photography have generated an intellectual tension which has stimulated experimentation and discourse in both mediums. Modernist critics claimed that the mission of painters and photographers was to discover the distinctive visual syntax of each medium in their work. [7] Photographs, before the advent of digital tools, were primarily preoccupied with physical realities, yet now with digital tools photographers may participate like the painter in the expressive freedoms and private vision of the painter. Still, the differences between painting and photography are becoming less apparent within the broad movements in contemporary art practice, which suggests perhaps that the exclusive separation of mediums was never as important as some critics lead us to believe. [8]

Death Valley, Race Track Island [1], 2016.

 Death Valley, Painted Landscapes challenges the distinctions between landscape painting and landscape photography by merging ink-jet printing pigments with watercolor painting pigments. First begun in 2010, Death Valley / Painted Landscapes pays special attention in revealing the contours of the landscape and filling the empty negative spaces of sky. The process begins with a panoramic photograph created within Death Valley National Park. Using Photoshop’s photomerge action, 3-6 individual exposures are composited into the final panoramic photograph. After the assembly of the panorama, a watercolor paintings is created on watercolor paper which translates the compositional forces of the photograph into color and movement, and broadly outlining the lines and shapes of the photographic landscape panorama. Next, the watercolor painting is feed into the ink-jet printer, with reference photograph over printed onto the watercolor painting.


  • Death Valley, Artist's Drive #10, 2010, inkjet print over watercolor.

Death Valley, Painted Landscapes reveals new meanings and chance connections by highlighting and suppressing photographic details of Death Valley’s unique landscape. The centuries of wind and water have washed Death Valley’s spectacular landscape done to bare rock and dirt.  By providing gestural markings which outline the geologic contours of the landscape over the photographic print, Death Valley, Painted Landscapes places the apparent differences of each medium at the center of expression. The imperfect alignment between painting and photograph highlights the tensions of wind, water and geology which shape the landscape of Death Valley and offers a vision of the landscape undergoing an active and continuous transformation.


David Arnold



[1] Eugene Delacroix: Oeuvres litteraires, Paris: G. Cres, 1923, pp. 16-17, quoted in Two Delacroix Drawings Made from Photographs, Van Deren Coke, Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1962), pp. 172-174.
[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography, p. 94.
[3] See Joel Synder, Photography, Vision and Representation. Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1975.
[4] Helmut Gernsheim, Creative Photography, p. 16.
[5] Susan Sontag, On Photography, p. 92.
[6] Susan Sontag, On Photography, p. 92.
[7] See Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting.”
[8] Jonathan Weinber, “Making It Real,” Shared Intelligence, p. 4-5.





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