I love vintage photos and the questions they spark. Who are these people, and what are these things in the picture? Where was the photo taken? What was happening in the minutes leading up to or following the shutter click? I also love painting imaginary landscapes that border on abstraction, and I recently began to wonder how I might marry the two. The immediate answer was collage, yet cutting and pasting didn’t excite me. I wanted a flat plane, like a piece of paper, in which the photo and the painting existed together, with no seams or glue. It made me wonder: What would happen if I scanned a photo and then laser printed it onto watercolor paper? Would it work from a technical standpoint, and if so, could I paint new backgrounds to change the narrative of the photos? Those questions led me to these techniques, which I’m happy to share with you.
Note: I have been experimenting with Adobe Photoshop® quite a bit, and wanted to use this exercise as an opportunity to merge both digital and traditional techniques. However, you can also explore these techniques by copying a photo and cutting and pasting it onto a sheet of paper.
- Images scanned into a computer
- Photo-editing software that allows you to separate the images from their backgrounds (I used Adobe Photoshop®.)
- Epson watercolor paper, 8 ½” x 11″
- Laser printer
- Assorted watercolor and gouache paints (I used Turner Acryl Gouache.)
- Round paintbrushes, various sizes
- Optional: Eraser
Prepare the Images
Using the Quick Selection tool in Photoshop, I extracted the images from the original vintage photos. I then created a new file for each image and sized the images to fit the finished paintings (one painting is 5 ½” x 8 ½”, and the other is 8 ½” x 11”). I placed the images on the digital page in an interesting composition. Unless your composition is symmetrical, I find it’s best to place an image off center to create a more engaging composition. I wanted to experiment with both gouache and watercolor, so I shrunk two of the images to allow for plenty of white space around them. I sized another image to fit the sheet so I could tint the image with watercolor. I saved the images as 300dpi jpgs and printed them onto Epson watercolor paper, using my office laser printer.
Note: The first print had excess toner on it, but I was able to remove most of it with an eraser.
Create New Backgrounds
The more artwork I create, the more I delight in the juxtaposition of contrasting elements. In the two smaller paintings I explored using abstract shapes and symbols in combination with the photographic images to tell a story.
The photo of my late grandmother is the perfect image of her. I wanted to paint a big heart behind her that expressed my love—she was always a lovely lady and happy to serve. I also miss her very much, and often feel a bit of sadness, so I painted a cloud with rows of dots symbolizing rain.
After painting the first two shapes with gouache, I brightened the work up by painting a yellow circle fragment representing sunshine. I always work from large to small, finishing the bigger shapes first, then adding smaller patterns.
The second image of my grandparents outside a house (I think it’s in Bisbee, Arizona) was created in a similar manner. I wanted to maintain the narrative of them standing outside of a structure in a warm climate, so I painted shapes with gouache that were evocative of a house and foliage, and added a sun.
Note: Using gouache on both of these pieces allowed me to achieve a flat field with a matte finish.
Tint Images with Gouache
As I worked on these pieces I became curious about adding water to the gouache to tint some flowers on my grandmother’s dress. I could have used watercolor to achieve the transparency I wanted, but watering down the gouache worked well.
Looking at the photo above, I was reminded that at one time my grandmother had the entire upstairs of her home wallpapered and decided she didn’t care for the color of one of the blooms in the pattern, so she repainted all of them!
After painting the backgrounds on the first two pieces I wanted to see how watercolor would work for tinting an image. I discovered that the paint worked well. The toner-based images are waterproof, allowing me to create wet washes over the desert painting without affecting the crispness of the printed images.
I allowed each colored wash to dry completely before working in the area next to it.
Note: Although the laser-printed images are waterproof, the toner can rub off if you use too many brushstrokes or brush too vigorously.
Creating New Narratives
I find myself incredibly excited by this process, and believe you will be too. The technique allows you to engage with vintage photos on a different level than just a viewer. You can explore symbolism and your relationship with the people in the pictures, as I did with the painting of my grandmother as a Red Cross volunteer. You can tell more vivid and colorful versions of existing stories, as with the painting of my grandparents standing outside a house, or you can simply juice up photos you love by tinting them with transparent watercolor. Regardless of the approach, playing with vintage photos this way allows artists to create new, exciting narratives.
Cassia Cogger is an artist, teacher, and author who is inspired to create artworks, creative courses, and experiences that allow individuals to enter into greater relationships with their surroundings, becoming present to that which is essential. As much as she is excited by color, shape, pattern, and beauty, she is more excited by what the creative process reveals. Her work has been featured at the National Academy Museum in New York City, she has appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine as a rising star, and has had her work featured in a host of galleries and private collections. Check out her new book from North Light Books, Creating Personal Mandalas: Story Circle Techniques in Watercolor and Mixed Media, and discover more about Cassia at cassiacogger.com.