The Hand-painted Look Has A Long History
Hand-painted photographs were tremendously popular in the early twentieth century, before the advent of color film. The most successful marketer in this area was the photographer Wallace Nutting. Nutting employed nearly 200 “colorists” (all women, by the way) who filled a large factory-like building in Massachusetts. He claimed to have sold over 10 million pictures. By 1925, nearly every middle class parlor and sitting room in America displayed placid, pastoral landscapes and florals produced by the small army of painters in Nutting’s employ. The secret of Nutting’s success is that he recognized that every homeowner longed to have a work of art gracing their walls, yet few could afford it. This is still true today, yet there are few photographers offering to fill this need.
Wallace Nutting was a brilliantly successful businessman, and he was very realistic about his abilities. “I am under no illusions as to my pictures,” he said. “I am not an artist, and it is most disagreeable to me to be called one. I am a clergyman with a love of the beautiful.” Once his painted photographs began to sell, Nutting hired colorists to help with the time-consuming work of hand-coloring. Today, we might say he “outsourced” the work. Ironically, though, today’s photographers, by and large, have not made a similar decision: they try to do the hand-painting (with Corel Painter, of course) themselves. Nutting’s success was due to his pragmatism. In today’s faltering economy, it makes sense more than ever for photographers to “hire a colorist” to create works of art which command high prices.
As the owner of a digital painting studio offering such services to photographers, I’m obviously a bit biased. But since I’m not a photographer, I think I have a bit of a unique perspective on the business of portrait photography. To me, an artist with over 35 years’ experience, it seems odd that suddenly photographers feel they need to do something (painting) that is not in their skill set. I know it took me many years to learn how to paint. And I know it has taken these photographers many years to learn the art of portrait photography. So it makes little sense to me that photographers think that Corel Painter is something they should be able to master easily. I think the culprit is Photoshop.
You see, before Photoshop, darkroom skills were just as important as taking the actual pictures. When digital came along, photographers needed to learn Photoshop, and spent many hours doing so. On the surface, I suppose, Corel Painter looks a lot like Photoshop, so maybe that’s why photographers think it’s in the same category. But it’s NOT. Photoshop is today’s equivalent of the darkroom. Painter is today’s equivalent of the hand-colorist, and of oil painters. Unfortunately, Corel and several workshop instructors would have you believe that ANYONE can use Painter. Sadly, this is not the case.
A few of the colorists who worked for Wallace Nutting, ca. 1912.But just as Wallace Nutting was able to hand-color photographs, he recognized that one person alone could not do all the work. So he hired help. His success was based on large volume. My clients, on the other hand, are low-volume, high-end portrait studios. As one of these clients, Michael Redford, said to me: “I make my money when I’m behind the camera, not sitting at a computer.” Redford had taken a Painter class, and quickly recognized that his time was too valuable to spend four to eight hours on a single painting. It made much more sense for him to pay me a few hundred dollars, and then sell the print for thousands more than an unpainted print.
In today’s market, photography studios need a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) more than ever. You can offer works that look like $10,000 oil paintings that your clients can afford, and will gladly pay a premium for. You can offer Painter and stand out from your competition, even if you “can’t draw a straight line.” (I use a ruler, myself, but that’s neither here nor there.) You can add thousands to your bottom line without increasing your workload. How? By hiring a digital artist to do the work for you.
You may be wondering why photo painters don’t just sell directly to the public. My own experience has been that the public is not aware of what can be done nowadays with a digital tablet. Photo painting is a totally alien concept to them. This lack of familiarity remains a barrier to sales. Photography studios, on the other hand, have a much easier time selling the idea. People are used to having studios do artful and creative things with their portraits. When they see how much their portrait can look like an oil painting or watercolor, for a fraction of the cost, the idea becomes compelling.
Next time, you’ll see an example of the photographer-painter relationship in action. Thanks for reading! See you in Part 2.