Oil Painting: 3 Views of the Same Scene

Buechner Boat by the Shore oilThree painting friends exchanged photographs and then produced paintings of the same 15 subjects in an experiment designed to teach them about different approaches, challenge them to push beyond their comfort zone, and allow them to work on a common painting project.

by Bob Bahr

Line up three painters in front of a landscape vista and the result will almost assuredly be three very different paintings, with each zooming in on a different aspect of the view. If Thomas S. Buechner, Thomas Gardner, and Martin Poole are any indication, similarly disparate paintings will result even from reference material that is tightly controlled. Last spring, the three upstate New York painters supplied one another with five carefully selected photographs they shot. By doing so the vantage point was fixed, the weather conditions were set, and the subject matter was chosen. Despite this structure, the three artists together created 45 paintings from the 15 photographs that display enormous variety.

Amelia reference photo Buechner Amelia oil Poole Amelia oil Gardner Thaïs oil
The reference photo. Amelia
by Thomas S. Buechner, 2008, oil and alkyd, 24 x 12.
by Martin Poole, 2008, oil, 36 x 24.
by Thomas Gardner, 2008, oil, 24 x 36. Courtesy West End Gallery, Corning, New York.

“I really struggled with this one,” says Gardner. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this girl?’ So I combined her with a picture from Italy, a cathedral in Tuscany.”

Every artist has a distinct way of interfacing with the world and expressing what he or she sees, but something else was going on with this trio. Buechner, Gardner, and Poole are friends who paint together, and there’s a tinge of competitiveness in their relationship. “Yes, there was a little bit of a spirit of competition to it,” says Poole. “There was also a playful bit of ‘Hey, look what I’m doing to your photo.’ It was kind of like playing poker with your friends and cheating a little bit.”

Boat reference photo Buechner Boat by the Shore oil Poole Boat oil Gardner Boat by the Shore oil
The reference photo. Boat by the Shore
by Thomas S. Buechner, 2008, oil and alkyd,
16 x 20.

by Martin Poole, 2008, oil, 24 x 24.
Boat by the Shore
by Thomas Gardner, 2008, oil, 18 x 24.

“I was really impressed with this painting,” says Buechner. “Gardner has a very crisp way of handling paint. An artist could have focused on the city in the background, but the boat was so ‘present’ in the foreground. We all handled this scene quite differently.”

Of course, it’s hard to cheat when there aren’t many rules. The artists had to produce a painting for every photo based on something in the picture, “We each put our five photos down, and it was ‘like it or lump it,’” says Gardner—but they could choose any part they wished. The photos were ostensibly subjects the artist/photographer wanted to paint, but even the owners of the specific photographs often took great liberty when making a painting from the reference photo.

sky reference photo boy and horse reference photo Gardner Boy With Horse oil Buechner The Kid and the Horse oil
The reference photo. The other reference photo. Boy With Horse
by Thomas Gardner, 2008, oil, 18 x 24. Courtesy West End Gallery, Corning, New York.
The Kid and the Horse
by Thomas S. Buechner, 2008, oil and alkyd, 24 x 30.
Poole Boy With Horse oil Poole Big Sky oil
Boy With Horse
by Martin Poole, 2008, oil, 24 x 30.

“This project was good for our friendship—it gave me a little better look at these two,” says Poole. “You have a tendency to think you know someone because of your experience and history with them, but there’s always more. This project made Gardner and Buechner a little more clear to me.”

Big Sky
by Martin Poole, 2008, oil, 36 x 48.

Gardner’s photo of a boy patting a horse amid a group of four horses provoked comments from all three artists—and their treatments of it varied widely. “There was definitely the sense of, ‘Oh, I’ll never be able to turn that into a painting—and that was the fun of it,” says Buechner. “We chose things that would challenge the others. Gardner put in that one with the boy and the horses, all seen from the rear, and I thought it was the last thing in the world I’d want to paint.” Buechner’s solution was to have the boy leaning against a tree instead of patting a horse, and to contrast the “ordinary-looking” boy with an imagined troll-like creature that the artist says is “sort of a self-portrait.” Gardner re-imagined his own photograph to place the boy and the horse in a field. Poole read a lot into Gardner’s photo, saying, “Gardner gets the weight and power of the relationship between the small boy and the powerful horse, so the problem became, how do you make a visual version of this idea?” Evidently, Poole was fascinated by the challenge—he executed two paintings of the scene.

snow reference photo Buechner Snowy River oil Gardner Snow Scene oil Poole Winter River oil
The reference photo. Snowy River
by Thomas S. Buechner, 2008, oil and alkyd with acrylic underpainting, 18 x 24.
Snow Scene
by Thomas Gardner, 2008, oil, 18 x 24. Courtesy West End
Gallery, Corning, New York.
Winter River
by Martin Poole,
2008, oil, 24 x 24.

For the most part, the three artists didn’t see their colleagues’ paintings until the end. In some cases, the paintings in progress were shared—Gardner recalls seeing the paintings by the others of the pond photo and feeling stuck. “I was stymied,” he says. “How did they come up with their ideas from this photograph? They have such great imaginations. So I just laid in what I saw, and while I was looking at my canvas, I noticed a reproduction of Sargent’s piece of Paul Helleu painting by a pond that I had hanging beyond my easel, and I decided on a lark to try to learn a little by copying a Sargent (see The Pond Painting below). So I incorporated his painter into the pond scene from the photograph. I looked at it like a learning tool, as an exercise.” In contrast, Gardner didn’t see the others’ paintings of the snowy creek, but he found a novel way of getting a different feel into his version anyway. “The difference from theirs to mine is subtle—I spattered it with snow flurries that had to be treated carefully,” says the artist. “I wanted to have a little bit of action in it.”

Gardner The Pond Painting oil
The Pond Painting
by Thomas Gardner, oil.

Poole says he wasn’t stumped by any of the photos, but some did push him as a painter. “Some were far enough afield from my predilections that I had to work on them more, and sometimes the photos were hard because they were just so beautiful,” says Poole. “I had to find a way to deny their picturesque quality. It’s interesting to have a photo so beautiful that it actually could make a less interesting painting.”

The painters had a tight deadline for the project. Poole had a show booked with Rodger LaPelle Galleries, in Philadelphia, in April, and the photographs were distributed in January, with Gardner receiving them more than a month later due to travel. The trio had to finish 15 paintings each in less than three months. “I wasn’t nuts over the idea, to be kind of frank,” said Gardner, who shoe-horned the project in between two shows of his own. “None of the pictures really knocked me off my feet. But as I got into the project, it started opening up. Plus, by getting the photographs so late, I got to see some of what they had done before I got started, which I thought was a real advantage. I got a big cheat on it! There was definitely a competitive aspect to this project.” The gallery owner was intrigued by the concept. The artists were glad to be able to work on a project together. And the last step in the process offered them all food for thought.

forest reference photo Gardner Tom's Trees oil Poole Sunlit Trees oil Buechner oil and alkyd
The reference photo. Tom's Trees
by Thomas Gardner, oil.
Sunlit Trees
by Martin Poole, oil.
by Thomas S. Buechner, oil and alkyd.

Shortly before the opening of the show, which was dubbed “Three Views,” the artists gathered in Buechner’s studio, grouped the 45 paintings by subject matter, poured martinis, and critiqued every piece in a marathon session that stretched from late afternoon until 11 p.m. “We weren’t overly kind to one another,” recalls Gardner. “It’s hard to take out a hatchet and hit your friends’ paintings, but it was a tough-love situation. We would pointedly ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ I’m always amazed how I can walk through a classroom of students and instantly see the problems and say, ‘Oh, you need to do that,’ or ‘Here’s what I would do,’ boom, boom, boom. But then I walk back to my own painting and am absolutely stupid. It’s hard to divorce yourself from the picture and the subject and really see your painting.” Comments Poole, “We talked about whether a painting was successful, and took notes. In some cases, the advice proved very useful, and adjustments were later made, and on others, we insisted on our idea and stuck with our approach for a painting.”

white house reference photo Buechner White House oil Gardner Morning Mist oil Poole White House oil
The reference photo. White House
by Thomas S. Buechner, 2008, oil on board, 16 x 20.
Morning Mist
by Thomas Gardner, 2008, oil, 24 x 30. Courtesy West End Gallery, Corning, New York.
White House
by Martin Poole, oil.

The three artists have known one another for more than 20 years, with Buechner serving at first as a sort of mentor for Gardner and Poole, then later as a colleague and plein air-painting companion. The project allowed them to have a show together and to enjoy one another’s company—Buechner says quite a bit of humor infused the process. And equally important, the venture allowed them to grow as painters. Says Buechner, “It stimulated us, and we may have done some work that was better than we would have done otherwise.”    

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.

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16 thoughts on “Oil Painting: 3 Views of the Same Scene

  1. I like very much all of the ” 3 Views of the Same Scene “. It’s
    a demonstration of what I have always thinking; The brain is an emotional filter of what we see.
    Many thanks for this article.C.E.

  2. Dear Mr. Bahr;

    I am a subscriber to the print magazine. This is about Martin Poole. I would like to learn something of his technique in the Emelia work. Contrary to the brag line on the magazine front, there is NOTHING in your article that shows HOW Mr. Poole paints. Please,let me know where I can discover this, as I am struggling to adapt some method, and although I have not seen Mr. Poole’s work in person, the photos of it present a look that I wish to emulate. Thanks, Linda

  3. What a GREAT idea for a truly useful article. Thank you for doing this. I am referring my students to it so that they can see more of what it means to work from photos to create paintings.

  4. One of the most inspirational articles yet! Such originality shows that you don’t have to copy your reference photos to the letter, but let your imagination flow, not only to content, but to size.

  5. Dear Mr. Bahr:
    What a wonderful article. A real art lesson. I love the atmospheric quality of Martin Poole’s work, particularly the landscapes. Thank you very much for this.

  6. I was in a workshop in May that did this. It was plein air but was raining. The fifteen ladies painted from one photo and each painting was different. You have just built my confidence even more. Thank You

  7. AA’s survey asks what we would change about the mag., but this article is what AA is doing exactly right! Very interesting, clear, useful to the reader artist, and at a professional level! Please keep it up.