Four Things Studying Painting Is Teaching Me About Photography

How learning painting and color theory is informing my work as a photographer.

Lawrence Lazare
Live View
8 min readApr 1, 2024


For those of you who are new to my journey through art school and how it influences my photography practice, this is the third article in the series. Links to the first two articles can be found below.

For a little backstory on my journey, three years ago, I lost my central vision from a genetic eye disease, leaving me legally blind and forcing me into an early retirement at age 60. A year ago, I returned to school to get a degree in Studio Art at The University of West Florida with a concentration in Photography.

This semester, I am taking two painting classes: Painting I and Color Theory. Having never painted before, I came to both classes only to fulfill the requirements for my degree. Little did I realize not only how much I would enjoy painting but also how much I would learn about photography. Here’s what I have learned…

1. Make Your Mark / Show the Hand of the Maker

Look at any Van Gogh painting, and the hand of the maker jumps out at you. His visceral brushwork is the heart of what makes a Van Gogh a Van Gogh. As a beginner painter who is legally blind, painting is very challenging for me. There are some things I‘m unable to do well, and detail and accuracy are two key aspects of painting beyond my reach due to my disability (my vision is currently 20/400). Understanding my limitations from the get-go, I decided that while I can’t paint with great detail or accuracy, I CAN express my vision, blurry though it might be, via bold mark-making. As a legally blind person, the world I see is an impressionistic blur, so I translate how I see to how I paint.

Mark making with a still life painting

Although most of the paintings I have created thus far are not very good, my fellow students tell me that my paintings have a look that’s different from the rest of the class, and at this point in my painting journey, that’s all I can ask. I may not feel confident in my ability to capture accuracy or detail because of my vision, but I can paint boldly and make sure that my mark-making is strong and confident.

It's interesting that a mere three months into my painting journey, I am beginning to develop a style. It may not be original, but that is fine for a starting point. A funny thing, though — I have been a photographer for over 40 years, yet most of my photo work lacks a cohesive style that allows others to identify a photo as mine alone. Part of this comes from the fact that I shoot many styles, landscape, street photos, infrared, gritty b&w, and most recently, medium and large format film.

As a photographer, my goal moving forward is to have a visual style all my own. So, no matter what camera or type of photo I take, others can identify an image as mine alone. I want to make sure that the mark of the maker can be found in every photograph I print.

2. Slow It Down

Creating a painting is a serious commitment of time. At a minimum, it’s a commitment of a few hours, potentially days or even months. A digital image, on the other hand, takes a few seconds or a few minutes if you are working methodically. Sure, you can put in hours post-processing an image, but my personal photographic style is to put in a minimum of time in post-processing. For me, it’s usually a couple of minutes for most images I create. Comparing painting to digital photography is like comparing reading a book to listening to a song on the radio. One requires a big time commitment, while the other can be done casually and takes no commitment.

The only photographic comparison I can make to creating a painting is using a 4x5 camera, processing the film, and making the print yourself. Like making a painting, shooting with a large-format film camera is a slow and painstaking process.

My 4x5 Graphex Crown Graphic Camera

My painting classes last two and a half hours each, and while working on a painting, I have lots of time to reflect on my artistic practice and what I want to do with it. While I love the laborious practice of painting with oil, only time will tell if it’s something I will stick with after completing this class. Whether or not I continue with my painting practice, one of the clear takeaways from my class is how much I enjoy working slowly and methodically to create a canvas. I intend to work towards using a time-consuming, quality-over-quantity approach to my photographic work.

Where I currently can come away from a digital photo shoot with a dozen or more good images, the reality is that most of the digital photo work I do never makes it as far as the printer. What I have learned from the languid pace of making a painting is that I’d rather spend the time and energy to make one or two GREAT images each month that are print-worthy rather than taking hundreds of images that only live on my hard drive or on social media.

3. Tell Your Story

When judging the recent annual student art show at my school, my professor John Markowitz said, “I look for an arresting image, one that stops me in my tracks and makes me ask questions.”

As the old adage goes, every picture tells a story. Well, I’ve got a confession to make; sadly, most of my photographs do not tell a story, nor do they leave the viewer asking questions. I think that’s because almost all my images are driven by location or the camera used to take the image. When I come upon an interesting location, tree, sky, etc., I press the shutter. It’s the same case with my street photography. It’s the situation or location that leads me to press the shutter. It’s only later, when looking at my images, that I look for the story.

My photo on the left has a great story to tell / My photo on the right doesn’t tell much of a story.

When creating a painting, you start with a blank canvas, and it’s up to you to determine what you want to paint and, most importantly, why you want to take the time to create that work. Whether the painting is figurative, still life, landscape, or abstract, the very act of starting the painting forces you to confront your reason for doing the work in the first place.

Moving forward, I want my photography practice to confront the question of why I am taking that image. I don’t want the story to be an afterthought but rather the driving focus of my work. I want to be conscious of this question: What do I want users to take away from viewing my image?

4. Learn the Color Wheel.

Color is all around us, and as photographers, understanding how colors work together can be the key to making a composition succeed. I am embarrassed to admit that prior to taking my color theory class, I didn’t have a strong grasp of how colors interact and work with or against each other. Just ask my wife. When getting dressed, virtually every time I ask, “Do these colors work together?” the answer is usually the same: “Um, no!”

My trusty color wheel

Almost as soon as my Color Theory class began, I started seeing how color worked in the world around me. Here in the panhandle of Florida, we are lucky to have a winter garden where we grow collard greens, arugula, and kale. After picking some collards one day, I noticed the purple veins standing out against the deep green leaves. This color combination was so compelling that I wondered how common it was. I went outside to look at the spring colors just coming to their peak; all around me, I noticed shades of pink and purple paired with green leaves of varying hues.

Hues of purple paired with green can be found everywhere in my yard

Heading to my desk, I grabbed my color wheel, and sure enough, red-violet was a complementary color to green-yellow. It was an aha moment for me. I realized whether a color scheme worked was totally predictable and controllable. My subsequent classes have helped me understand hue, Intensity, and value (shade, tint, and tone) and how to build color palettes that are pleasing to the eye using complementary and split complimentary color schemes as well as monochromatic, analogous, enhanced, and reduced color schemes.

A class assignment using a reduced (darkened) color scheme

Moving forward, I now have all the tools needed to master how color is used in my photographs rather than the hit-or-miss approach I have used in the past.

Want a quick overview of how the color wheel and color schemes work? This seven-minute video spells it out in an easy-to-digest form.

Wrapping Up

I did not expect to love painting; it took me by surprise. All the aspects of painting that I discuss in this article, the mark-making, the slowness, the storytelling, and the use of color, relate directly to the work I am making as a photographer. For me, painting is driven by thoughtfulness and intentionality. On the other hand, my photographic process has been driven by location and camera models. Whether or not I continue a painting practice, I intend to make my photographic work more thoughtful and intentional. Only time will tell if I get there.

All photographs copyright Lawrence Lazare.

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Lawrence Lazare
Live View

Legally blind photographer and former e-commerce product management lead. Now working on a BFA in Studio Art at the University of West Florida. IG:@llazare