You Be the Judge: Oil Painting or Plate of Food?

12 Nov 2013

Fantasy art guru and top-notch artist James Gurney is a font of knowledge when it comes to so many aspects of drawing and painting. Whether you are into fantasy images or tend toward more realist compositions, Gurney has techniques and methods dealing with color, light, and form that are invaluable. I love his blog as well and seek it out for inspiration on a regular basis. Here's one of my favorites posts involving the use of Google's "visually similar" search option. Enjoy!

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For the last couple of years, Google has had an image search option called "visually similar." This locates images that are related by their abstract qualities, rather than their associated keywords. For example, here's a painting from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara called "Irish Elk," showing an extinct giant deer in a high mountain landscape. The colors are yellow ochres and browns, along with pale blues. There are no greens and hardly any reds.

Irish Elk by James Gurney, fantasy painting
Irish Elk by James Gurney

Google sifts through millions of images on the web searching for other pictures with related image attributes, and presents those that it finds "visually similar." In this case, the images all have the same basic color gamut, a cluster of warm colors combined with grays and blues. Presumably it selects other attributes, such as gradation, complexity, texture, and shape. 

Results of the Visually Similar search on Google for Irish Elk.
Results of the Visually Similar search on Google for Irish Elk.

What I found surprising was that, except for the helicopter and the dog, the results are all images of food. Why food ads? I'm guessing that the curving vignette shape surrounding the busy warm texture associated my picture with the curving shapes of plated food. 

Here's a sketch that I did with marker pens, a high contrast rendering of a man at a podium. Google's search program yielded results with dark silhouettes (not surprising) but the subjects are mostly clothes that are symmetrical and laid out flat. I find this puzzling. Why clothes? Why symmetrical?

Pen sketch by James Gurney. Results of the Visually Similar search on Google for my pen sketch.
Pen sketch by James Gurney. Results of the Visually Similar search on Google for my pen sketch.

Here's another of my Dinotopia fantasy paintings, a stone monument at dusk painted in brown tones with a golden sky behind and a few cool or gray notes for contrast. What did Google's algorithm sort out as similar? It pulled a lot of interior scenes and very few outdoor scenes or paintings for that matter. Perhaps the particular color ranges I chose for my gamut happen to match those of indoor photos with white balance problems. 

Ebulon by James Gurney, fantasy painting.
Ebulon by James Gurney.

Results of the Visually Similar search on Google for Ebulon.
Results of the Visually Similar search on Google for Ebulon.

I find it fascinating that the results of these "visually similar" searches cluster around specific families of subject matter that are so different from the source image. And searching for visually similar images is a great way to see our own color schemes from a fresh perspective.

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Another way to reach a fresh perspective on color, form, composition, and narrative is with The Artist's Magazine 2013 Annual CD, which is full of an entire year's worth of issues of the magazine that has been a favorite of practitioners of art since it hit the shelves. It's a must for any artist wanting to bridge the gap between artistic inspiration and practical painting knowledge!


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