Introducing The Photographer’s Oil Collective

For almost ten years now, Strobist has embraced the idea that by freely sharing knowledge we can all learn to make better photos. And because photography is now digital, with low barriers to entry and instant visual feedback, that learning process is simpler than ever.

As photographers, we owe much to the ease of the digital process. But digital has also stripped much of the value from our work. Ones and zeroes want to be free.

Starting today, the Photographer’s Oil Collective is a strong push back against that trend. Rather than just creating painterly light, a photographer can now create a high-quality oil painting. And it can be done at a surprisingly accessible cost.

The portrait above is a painting, done by POC artist Zhixing Zhang from a photo by Moscow-based photographer Alex Mazurov. As a photo, it was one of many. As a painting, it is a one-of-a-kind object, designed and destined to last.

I first ventured into the rabbit hole of oil reproduction in 2012. It started as an idea — a lark, really — to translate a photo that had great sentimental value into something that would exist in our family for many generations.

Having shot the photo of my kids in 2008, I was long familiar with it. But when the painting (seen above) arrived I was overwhelmed by how strongly I was drawn to it. It somehow felt much more significant than the photo. A collaboration between subject, photographer and a skilled artist 10,000 miles away.

A painting is just different. It is a time-consuming and organic process, with half a dozen layers of semi-transparent oil. Skin tones look luminous.

My first experience with this was that of an enthusiast photographer. Literally, a dad with a camera. As I spent more time with the painting, and thinking about the personal value that it unlocked for me, I starting thinking of it in the context of professional photographers. With the right painters and the right training (on both sides of the image creation process) this could unlock great value and entirely new business models for us.

With prints, we quietly acknowledge that we are competing on price with the neighborhood Costco. With paintings, we are competing with artists who routinely charge thousands of dollars for a simple portrait. And much more for larger/more complex work.

But in theory, we could produce better work —a nd at a cost that would create a new business model for photographers. There was so much potential.

So I traveled to Xiamen, China, where Zhixing Zhang lives and paints. Xiamen is a world center for commercial oil painting, and Mr. Zhang is a leader in the community of artists who live there. With the help of a team of local art directors and translators, we searched among the over 5,000 oil painters in the city to create a small group of hand-picked artists. As a result, we were now partnered with four exceptional reproduction oil painters.

A good start.

But they would need to learn to think like photographers; to develop a better understanding for our needs. They’d have to more closely align their palette with the more muted colors in what the West sees as classic paintings. So we commissioned multiple rounds of paintings from each of our painters, fine-tuning them to be able to better work with us.

(And to the photographers who graciously agreed to be involved in the testing/education process with us: Thank you.)

And the education would not end there. Photographers would also need to learn how to create photos that could be best reproduced as oil paintings. For both sides, education would be the key to bridging that knowledge gap. But that sort of thing is our bread and butter at Strobist.

The information photographers need to know (to meet the painters halfway) is now in place. And we are adding to that knowledge base continually. Our growing list of white papers will include education on technical considerations, shooting/lighting methods, business models and more. In short, it will contain everything you will need to know to become capable of producing a beautiful painting — for your clients, or for yourself.

I have spent the last ten years learning to think outside of the box as a photographer; to challenge assumptions and to unlock possibilities. Strobist is one of the results of that line of thinking.

Today, I am equally proud to introduce the Photographer’s Oil Collective. With studios in Xiamen, and administrative offices in Dubai, photographers anywhere in the world can now offer museum-quality oil portraiture for their clients.

Credits, from top:
POC Painting by Zhixing Zhang from a Photo by Alex Mazurov
POC Painting by Zhixing Zhang from a Photo by David Hobby
POC Painting by Zhixing Zhang from a Photo by R.J. Kern

From front page, L to R:
POC Painting by Zhixing Zhang from a Photo by Brian Rickey
POC Painting by Ivy Lin from a Photo by Ivan Kosmynin
POC Painting by Zhixing Zhang from a Photo by Alex Mazurov
POC Painting by Thomas Linn from a Photo by David Hobby
POC Painting by Ivy Lin from a Photo by Bill Gekas


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